What Do Pay Walls in MMA Mean for (Women In) the Sport?
Sitting in Bellator media scrum at the Viacom headquarters in Time Square, I knew that they were announcing some kind of streaming service change for the promotion. With the changing business landscape of MMA promotion, the stakes of whatever this offer was felt very, very high.
Turns out I was right- Bellator announced a streaming deal with DAZN (pronounced “da zone,”) that will start in September with a stacked card being broadcast from San Jose, that features a champion vs champion main event with welterweight champ Rory MacDonald taking on Gegard Mousasi for the middleweight strap. The card will air exclusively on DAZN and will be one of seven events of Bellator's that will only be aired on DAZN and not Paramount networks each year. However, Bellator the other 15 MMA fight cards of the year will still be shown on the Paramount network (15 events a year), although all of these bouts will be available to stream on DAZN (no exclusivity for Paramount).
As for the price of this service? Mum’s the word. They’re not going to announce a price for the service yet, although Bellator President Scott Coker noted that all new subscribers are eligible for a 30-day free trial of DAZN.
On the heels of the UFC closing a $1.5 billion deal with ESPN, it seems that paywalls are about to become the new normal in MMA. Currently, non-pay-per-view UFC fight cards (as well as prelims to PPV cards) are available to watch on either UFC Fight Pass or Fox, with the vast majority of cards happening on Fox. However, that’s about to change 20 of the 30 UFC Fight Nights broadcast per year will now air exclusively on ESPN+, which is a streaming service unique to the sport’s channel that requires a separate subscription separate from any TV or cable service provider.
For fans who currently only watch Bellator and UFC as a part of their cable bundle, they are soon going to have to also purchase subscription service to ESPN+ and DAZN in order to catch the vast majority of bouts, as well as some of the biggest cards of the year. No longer are the bottom of the barrel scraps being saved for online streaming, as streaming is about to take over a huge portion of coverage.
Price is not the only factor at play here, as exposure also needs to be given consideration. With many casual fans either finding the fights by flipping through channels, watching fight cards if they’re on, or specifically looking to catch their favorite popular fighter headlining a card, MMA is discoverable. The barrier to access is fairly low, as you need some kind of TV service or internet connection at most to find bouts you can watch from organizations like Bellator and the UFC.
Now, however, these additional paywalls mean additional time, technicality, and inevitable aggravation for fans to have access to most cards. More barriers to entry means that not as many people are going to tune-in. Can you really see most casual fans paying for an ESPN+ subscription, must less finding out how to get one, to see a UFC Fight Night? Especially considering that it’s not a unified MMA platform, as those who want to watch both Bellator and UFC fight cards will now have to purchase subscriptions to both DAZN and ESPN+ streaming services?
As MMA journalist Luke Thomas pointed out, we are entering a new era in MMA promotion. Instead of exposure being the pinnacle of the fight business, monetization is becoming the new number one priority. Viewership be damned, if it doesn't have a dollar sign attached to it, the value behind your view is decreasing rapidly.
This makes sense, as cable is a quickly dying breed. Thanks to, ironically, streaming services like Netflix and online platforms like YouTube, the cable business is losing millions each year, with a projected loss of $2.7 billion over the next decade. Of course, television viewership means less, because ad revenue on TV means less, which means that it’s losing value as a commodity. We can’t forget that everyone is in this to make money and if promoters aren’t getting fat pockets from TV promoters to broadcast their fights, they’re going to pivot.
They aren’t thinking about the average consumer- but that could be a problem in the long run. As aforementioned, paywalls mean barriers, and barriers mean fewer viewers.
How does all of this shape women fighters? ill women fighters have less new fans tuning in to watch them perform? Will they get less overall exposure, as they are going to lose TV time? Will they have to claw tooth and nail to get sponsors? How can they possibly generate star or negotiating power when all of the content is being herded onto little-known apps?
Prior to this press conference, I’d never heard of DAZN. Had no idea what it was and admittedly still haven’t as much as glanced at the platform. Because the mainstream public (myself included) isn’t going to be buying subscriptions to random apps left and right. We’re not that stupid. We’re also not that rich. If I’m going to purchase a subscription, it’d better be for some damn good content.
If these providers were to say house content on Netflix or Hulu, it might be a different story. Imagine what a mainstream platform like that could do for MMA- it’d be MORE exposure than TV! It’d offer opportunities for potential new fans to tune into the sport. It would create a lot of business opportunity as well, as these platforms become the new cable. But something like DAZN will never be that. ESPN+ will never be that. Those are niche platforms for a niche audience.
The implications of paywalls in MMA are a lot broader, more complex, and frankly, more dire for the sport than most realize. Promoters are being short-sighted in order to gain short-term paydays for themselves. I don’t have a good feeling about the direction MMA is going in and hope you’ll join me in the fight to remove the barriers these guys are trying to erect around a sport that is about overcoming the perceived limitation.