April 16, 2020

Rethinking Live Sports in the Age of COVID-19

President Trump recently spoke with leaders of professional sports leagues, urging a return to normalcy through live sports. He made it no secret that he’d like to see professional sports resume in September in time for the NFL season.

No on-air entity has been harder hit with the coronavirus-induced sports void than ESPN, which has been feeling the brunt of season postponements beginning with the suspension of the NBA season, followed by the cancelation of March Madness and the delay of MLB’s Opening Day. The network is scrambling to find creative ways to fill airtime, including airing a selection of Disney sports films (e.g., The Rookie, Glory Road, and Secretariat) during its Friday night programming.

For “stick and ball” sports, season cancellations are having a dramatic economic impact. For example, the NBA is itself responsible for the creation of some 55,000 jobs. The economic web of professional sports reaches far beyond the organization and into ancillary industries heavily dependent on live events (e.g., advertising, hospitality, and transportation among other verticals).

Still, the one thing that traditional sports have going for them is their seasonality: months of gameplay followed by a months-long off-season as each major sports league takes its turn in the spotlight. If there is a consolation for sports leagues, seasonality is it. Not so for sports promotions like UFC.

NBA Goes Virtual
During the conference call, President Trump talked about how much he missed watching live sports on television, and that he had been watching replays of classic games instead. With the strategy mentioned above, you breathe life into those replays.

After the call, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that an early return may not be in the cards for pro basketball. This pandemic, however, has given him an opportunity to think about different ways the fan experience could be altered and improved as a result of the league being forced to spend time away from the game. For example, the NBA has been staging a live esports tournament via its NBA video game.

The UFC Should Go Old-School
The UFC is a season-less sport defined by its series of Pay-Per-View (PPV) events, live “fight-nights” on ESPN and ESPN+, and other live events on the UFC FIGHT PASS digital streaming service. To date, three UFC events have been cancelled, with the highly anticipated UFC 249 hanging by a thread. Until recently, the headliner for the April 18th event was the title bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, a match that was gearing up to be one of the biggest UFC PPV contests in years. The undefeated Nurmagomedov is a huge draw both in-venue and on PPV.

Originally set for Barclay’s Center in New York, the New York State Athletic Commission said “no-go” to the UFC after Gov. Andrew Cuomo restricted mass gatherings in the state. So began the worldwide search for a new venue, with UFC President Dana White eventually tweeting that the event was “100% ON LIVE on ESPN somewhere on EARTH!!!!” At one point, White said the event would take place on an island he secured just for that purpose. The event suffered further setbacks when Nurmagomedov returned to Dagestan and dropped off the card, causing Dana and team to reset the fight with a new challenger. The event was even rumored to take place on tribal land at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Northern California. However, as of this week, UFC 249’s April 18th event has been put on hold.

But in the age of social distancing, some question whether close-contact sports like UFC should even be allowed to continue at all. Of course, the fights are strictly regulated with testing both before the events and after. Still, having a live fight without an audience removes a defining component of the experience—that is, the fuel of fan energy and testosterone. Imagine having a rock concert in an empty arena. Not so cool.

As more live events are canceled, the pandemic is raising a slew of questions. What does all of this mean for ESPN, which paid a whopping $1.5 billion for rights to both televised and PPV events? The current deal calls for the UFC to deliver 42 events in 2020. So far, it has only supplied seven. And what about cord-cutters who no longer need cable to access ESPN and may never come back once they discover digital platforms? What does this mean for rights fees from cable operators?

One possible solution could be for the UFC to return to its original roots before its record-breaking FOX deal—that is, growing audiences organically. The UFC smartly “went digital” as a way to reach younger audiences and recruit new demographics, including women, to the sport.

Back in those days, the UFC created digital content, particularly the “behind the scenes” footage that audiences craved, by sending Flipcams to fighters and having them record their daily lives, workouts, and even self-interviews. This lo-fi approach, ironically, is making a comeback in other areas, as creative types take to Zoom to produce content and connect with fans. No one did this better than the UFC, with its innovative and authentic “peek behind the curtain” that helped grow the fan base for emerging UFC stars like Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for the UFC to revisit its lo-fi approach. There are also a number of other low-hanging-fruit options for the UFC which could help fill the void on both linear and digital channels, keep fighters on the payroll, and feed the needs of a fanbase starved for live bouts.

Unlike other traditional sports, UFC fans have a huge affinity for archival fights. Former UFC boss, Lorenzo Fertitta, was uniquely aware of this, and used it to monetize old fights via UFC FIGHT PASS. In fact, digital strategies that emerged in the mid 2010s saw the resurfacing of previous full-length replays branded as “Free Fights” on its YouTube channel, which garnered millions of views per fight, a steady monetization source, and an easy promotion lever.

The UFC can help fill the content void by adapting this strategy to television and filling Saturday nights on ESPN with “live” event replays accompanied by real-time fighter commentary via Zoom and behind-the-scenes coverage as they relive each round. Think of it as a live director’s cut from the fighters in the Octagon. Now you’ll know exactly what Nick Diaz was thinking when he decided to lie down on the canvas and pose mid-fight against Anderson Silva at UFC 183.

These nuggets are appointment-television, worthy of headlines in a business craving any sports news at all, and would provide ESPN with fresh “must see” tune-in television. For its digital platforms, that means virtual fight parties where fans could join with friends via Zoom to enjoy the live stream, providing a degree of community so vital to UFC events. Suddenly those annoying Watch Party alerts could be worth clicking.

The NBA has been staging a live esports tournament using its NBA video game. This tactic can be easily duplicated by leagues that may not enjoy the benefits of the aforementioned seasonality but do have branded video games in market; organically bringing sponsorship dollars back into the mix during a time when advertising revenues are drying up.

It is time for UFC and other leagues to follow the NBA’s lead and virtualize via gaming—for the sake of ESPN and, more importantly, for the sake of the fans.


Patrick Perez is a digital professional and multi-platform specialist with a stellar track record generating multi-million dollar returns within the digital ecosystem: SVOD, OTT, mobile, authentication, digital Pay-Per-View, and other digital platforms. He is the author of the TDG report “The Ascent of Battle Royale and the Future of eSports.” He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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