UFC Inks Facebook Pact for Exclusive Content to Push Pay-Per-View Fights (EXCLUSIVE)

Todd Spangler

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UFC has upped its investment in original content for Facebook — where it has more than 26 million global followers — to try to convert more mixed martial arts fans into premium pay-per-view buyers.

Under the one-year deal between UFC and Facebook, the MMA promoter is producing three original shows for Facebook Watch. All of the content will be tied to 20 UFC events (12 PPV and eight Fight Night events) over the next year and available for free at UFC’s Facebook page (facebook.com/ufc).

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The content started rolling out this week ahead of UFC 246 on Saturday, Jan. 18, featuring the headline Conor McGregor vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone bout.

The UFC Fight Week exclusive original shows on Facebook Watch are: “Quick Hits,” a live-streaming interview show hosted by Laura Sanko from the arena during the preliminary fights of UFC’s PPV and Fight Night events; “The Check-In Show,” an on-demand series with athletes or personalities about the upcoming weekend’s event or matchup; and “Fighter Commentary,” a show with UFC athletes providing commentary on their past fights while anticipating what might happen in their upcoming bout.

In the first episode of UFC’s “The Check-In Show” on Facebook, posted Thursday, Cerrone answers fan questions ahead of his meeting with McGregor at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. UFC also published an episode of “Fighter Commentary” with Holly Holm, who faces Raquel Pennington in the women bantamweight co-main fight.

“Our primary objective is to push viewership and transactions on Saturday nights,” said Dave Shaw, UFC’s senior VP of content and international. “We’re going to invest a little bit more heavily in this content [on Facebook] so it can have a bigger impact.”

In addition to the content exclusive to Facebook, UFC is distributing additional nonexclusive content on the social platform, including episodes of the “Inside the Octagon” hosted by commentators John Gooden and Dan Hardy.

In the U.S., UFC’s Facebook content is aimed at pushing fans to tune in to ESPN and purchase PPV access through ESPN Plus, which is the exclusive outlet for the MMA outfit’s pay-per-view events. Starting with UFC 246, ESPN Plus raised the price of the PPV events to $64.99 each (a $5 increase over its initial pricing last year) on top of the $4.99 monthly subscription fee.

UFC’s Shaw hopes the Facebook originals will produce a lift in PPV buys and tune-in worldwide. “The deal was constructed by teams in the U.S. but we’re distributing the content as far and wide as possible,” he said. “We have different targets and objectives in each market.”

There’s another upside for UFC: The company generated more than $1 million in advertising revenue in 2019 from Facebook content. Over the course of last year, UFC steadily increased its publishing of videos eligible for In-Stream Ads on Facebook (i.e. videos longer than 3 minutes) in countries including the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada, Brazil and Mexico. In January 2019, only 15% of the videos UFC uploaded in January were eligible for In-Stream Ads; by September, that had increased to 32% of videos UFC uploaded.

Historically, social media has been primarily a vehicle for marketing and publishing news. The growing ad revenue “allows us to invest more heavily in content for Facebook,” Shaw said. For example, this Saturday’s “Quick Hits” with Laura Sanko will have a crew of about a half-dozen people. “We want to give it a level of authenticity and provide a different content consumption experience to engage fans in the pay-per-view main card,” said Shaw.

UFC decided to double down on producing content for Facebook after seeing it produce measurable business results. For example, in 2019, 78 of the UFC’s top 100 videos on Facebook (as determined by one-minute views) were tied to UFC Fight Nights or its monthly PPV events.

For Facebook, the UFC deal is part of its strategy of populating Facebook Watch with content that drives communities and conversation, to increase overall user engagement.

UFC is “doing this strategically to drive interest in their tentpole events,” said Devi Mahadevia, Facebook’s director of emerging and digital sports partnerships. “They’re very savvy about using Facebook to build an audience for all of their live events.”

The deal comes as Facebook remains in experimentation mode on its original video strategy, more than two years after bowing Facebook Watch in the U.S. The company is pulling back on scripted entertainment: Facebook this week confirmed the cancelation of two high-profile dramas — “Sorry For Your Loss” starring Elizabeth Olsen and “Limetown” starring Jessica Biel. At the same time, it’s boosting unscripted fare, including through “Steve on Watch,” a revival of Steve Harvey’s daytime talk show after it was dropped by NBC that premiered earlier this month on Facebook Watch.

In the sports space specifically, Facebook has been investing more into “shoulder” and highlights content with multiple leagues. It has partnerships with the NFL, MLB and NBA for game recaps (3- to 5-minute segments) for each of those league’s games to Facebook Watch — content that Facebook says it highly social, as users talk about top moments from the day’s games and share those moments with friends. Facebook also has been striking sports-media deals for shoulder content, like recent partnerships with Fox Sports and ESPN that include talk-show-style programming.

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