Sports Finance Report: ESPN to Pay $1.5 Billion for UFC Broadcast Rights

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10: UFC president Dana White answers a question during the UFC 205 press conference at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 10, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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ESPN to Pay $1.5 Billion for UFC Broadcast Rights

Just two weeks after ESPN agreed to purchase the rights to broadcast 15 UFC events annually for $750 million, the company acquired exclusive linear broadcast rights to the MMA promotion’s cable television package. The newly signed deal, worth $150 million annually, will give fans 27 additional fight cards each year (consisting of 10 new linear cards, 12 PPV prelims on linear, and five new OTT cards); meaning ESPN will pay a staggering $1.5 billion to carry 210 UFC events over the next five years. Earlier this week, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro called the UFC an “ascendant property”, while touting its young and diverse fan base. It must be noted that despite the $300 million ESPN will pay UFC annually, UFC will retain the rights to its 12 annual PPV events (i.e. their best content).

Howie Long-ShortWe told you that once the WWE SmackDown Live deal with FOX was completed, UFC’s linear broadcast offering would be the next set of sports rights to fall. What we didn’t project was ESPN (DIS) acquiring them after spending $150 million per year on digital rights for ESPN+ and hearing that Fox Sports had increased its bid to $175 million/year for the package (up from $165 million). UFC may have left some money on the table to do this deal. Experts projected the linear package to draw $200 million and several networks (i.e. Turner, NBC, Fox Sports) reportedly had interest.

$1.5 billion for UFC cards between fighters no one has ever heard of (yes, that’s a bit of hyperbole) does not sound like a great investment. The UFC lacks mainstream star power to begin with and naturally the promotion places its biggest stars on PPV cards (which they’ll retain); meaning the cards appearing on ESPN & ESPN+ won’t include Connor McGregor (or any other mega star) anytime soon. Did I mention Fox Sports’ ratings for UFC events declined double digits in 2017?

Need reasons to believe ESPN made a wise investment? UFC has the youngest fan base in sports (median age 40). Males aged 18 to 34 are particularly valuable to advertisers and at $150 million annually the package is still cheaper than what NBCUniversal and FOX will pay for RAW and SmackDown Live.

Fan Marino: I’m certainly not surprised that WWE content is valued more than UFC content, as WWE has a far better business model. WWE stars headline tentpole events (like WrestleMania) and more than 500 other shows each year, so fans get to see their favorite Superstars on a weekly basis. UFC’s biggest names might fight twice a year and are always one fight away from never headlining another event, either because they’ve lost their sense of invincibility (see: Rousey) or because they’ve made so much money that getting punched in the face for a living no longer makes sense (see: McGregor). UFC promotion can also be limited by the outcome of fights, as the best fighters aren’t always marketable (see: Stipe Miocic). You’ll never find WWE in that situation, as career arcs are decided before the Superstars get to the ring.

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Paddy Power Betfair Acquires FanDuel, DraftKings Launches Sports Betting Marketing Campaign

Paddy Power Betfair (PPB) has acquired FanDuel (pending final regulatory approval) with the intention of competing in the legalized U.S. sports betting market. The Dublin-based betting operator will bring its modest U.S. assets (worth $612 million) to the table, as well as $158 million in cash; money that will be used to pay down existing FanDuel debt ($76 million) and to fund operations of the new joint business. PPB will merge its U.S. operations with FanDuel’s immediately and will own of 61% of the combined entity; that percentage will increase to 80% after three years and PPB will assume complete control of the company after five years (via call/put options at market price). The newly combined entity now represents “the industry’s largest online business in the U.S.”

Howie Long-Short: This deal came together quickly once legalized sports betting became reality, with news of the deal first reported just a week ago. It’s a good thing that it did, with competitor DraftKings having launched its sports betting marketing campaign (see Fan below). Paddy Power Betfair isn’t collecting DFS companies for sport (they bought DRAFT in ‘17), they’re using M&A to take market share in a sports betting arms race. FanDuel controls 40% of the U.S. DFS market (1.3 million active users) and PPB believes they’ll be able to convert many of those individuals into true sports bettors. The FanDuel brand also brings PPB some value, as the popular gaming operator (in Ireland and U.K.) lacks U.S. name recognition; despite owning the California based horseracing betting business and digital broadcaster TVG and the New Jersey online gaming site Betfair Casino.

It should be noted that PPB’s U.S. operations and FanDuel both lost money in 2017. Together (including expected synergies) it’s expected that they’ll operate at broadly EBITDA breakeven, before investment in sports betting. Paddy Power Betfair trades OTC under the symbol PDYPY. Shares rose 5% (to $61.75) following Wednesday’s announcement and they’re up 17.5% since word of the deal first broke on 5.16.

Fan Marino: As Howie mentioned, DraftKings introduced its sports betting marketing campaign (billboards etc.) to New Jersey residents this week; noteworthy, if only because they’re yet to announce a land based casino operator as partner (as required by state) and don’t have a proprietary sports betting application ready for use (though, they could operate 3rd party software). We’ve known for a while now that DraftKings intends on pivoting from DFS to sports betting. The company hired a Head of Sportsbook, added +/-300 new employees and opened a new office in Hoboken, N.J. (anticipating they’ll be the first state to legalize) all within the last couple months.

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What is JohnWallStreet?

JohnWallStreet, located at the intersection of sports and finance, is a destination for the educated sports fan.

While we won’t be publishing “hot takes” on LeBron’s relative greatness to Jordan, we will be offering up the most relevant sports related business news, in easily digestible bites, with commentary from both the sports money and sports fanatic perspectives.

We’ll cover publicly traded professional teams & stadiums (MSG, RCI, BATRA, MANU), television networks (DIS, FOXA, CMCSA, CBS, TWX, MSGN), apparel & footwear companies (NKE, UAA, ADDYY, FL, LULU), equipment companies (GOLFELY, FIT), ticketing companies (EBAY, LYV) content and facilities providers (CHDN, DVD, ISCA,TRK, LMCA).  If it trades on Wall Street, and has a sports angle, it’s in our wheel house.

Howie Long-Short and Fan Marino will be providing their expert opinions on each story. They have slightly different areas of expertise. Fan Marino is a firm believer that the SEC is the premier football conference. Howie Long-Short knows it as the Securities & Exchange Commission. Fan Marino lives and dies with the college selection of 5 star, blue chip recruits. Howie Long-Short spends his days analyzing blue chip stocks. Howie Long-Short knows that Black Monday occurred on October 19th, 1987. Fan Marino swears it happens every January after Week 17. You get the point.

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