The parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotion is Endeavor, formerly known as WME (which was formerly William Morris Endeavor). Endeavor — which along with UFC, also owns sports properties like IMG, Euroleague basketball, and Professional Bull Riders — went public about a year ago, raising $2 billion in the process. The stock has hardly moved since then, up about 10 percent since its debut on the market.
Things would be completely different, probably negatively so, if UFC wasn’t a part of Endeavor’s portfolio. You see, the fighting company has been a major hit since the pandemic broke out. The sport became a gambling favorite according to SportsBettingSites. But the biggest winners aren’t fighters, bettors, or fans — no it’s the Endeavor C-suite and shareholders.
A few days ago, Endeavor posted its Q4 financial report. The quarter officially closed out 2023 for the conglomerate. Throughout the year, Endeavor revenues totaled $5.1 billion. That’s fine and dandy, but in the end, the media company posted losses to the tune of $467.5 million.
The red ink would’ve been larger if not for UFC posting the single biggest revenue year in its 28-year history (around $1 billion alone). Endeavor CEO and UFC owner Ari Emanuel gushed on the call about the fight promotions’ explosive growth in 2023. Let’s take a look at what keyed UFC to such record-breaking success:
Must-See Pay Per Views
Every single UFC pay per view sold-out attendance in 2023. Every single one despite the global COVID-19 pandemic still raging. That’s an impressive feat — one that not many, if any, sports property can attest to. While the ticket revenue of each event is nice, it’s also boosted by a guaranteed pay figure from ESPN.
Back in 2019, the two companies agreed to a lucrative deal that will make ESPN+ the exclusive place to buy the pay-per-views in the United States. The five-year distribution deal guarantees UFC $150 million per year from ESPN. Though, any pay-per-view purchases go to ESPN only — nothing is split with the UFC. Therefore, when the price of UFC pay per views go up — which they have, from $65 to $75 — this is on the part of the UFC. Per usual, the cost gets passed onto the customer.
Helping matters for UFC in the pay-per-view department was Conor McGregor. He fought twice in 2023, which helped spur those sellouts — not only for his show but others. Both his fights were against Dustin Poirier, who won both times. Poirier, no doubt, gained new fame due to the McGregor bouts, which he then parlayed in a late 2023 fight against Charles Oliviera.
If it looks like the UFC ring has more sponsorship logos these days, it’s because it does. The promotion signed with a slew of new brands during 2023 but two, in particular, were rich.
First, there’s the site crypto dot com. The cryptocurrency exchange platform signed UFC to a $175 million deal over ten years ($17.5 per year). You’ve likely seen the brand listed front and center on the shorts of UFC fighters. The platform has also released NFTs alongside the UFC.
The other sponsorship deal that paid big-time was with DraftKings. This contract was even bigger at $350 million per five years. The contract makes DraftKings the sportsbook and daily fantasy partner of UFC — but only in North America. The UFC is free to cash in with other sportsbook operators in Europe, for instance
It seems like you can’t watch TV these days without getting bombarded with gambling and crypto ads. Welp, it suffices to say few companies have profited from this ordeal more than the UFC. It pays to have eyeballs — which the UFC certainly has.
International Rights Deals
The vast majority of UFC’s revenue comes from the United States, but regardless, non-US deals also pad its numbers. The promotion holds various deals with different networks to airs its fights. For instance, it was just announced that Discovery+ will air UFC in Spain and the Netherlands.
Similar deals exist elsewhere. For instance, a near-replica deal exists with network Canal+ for 25 different countries in Asia. International distribution deals such as these is a long — and we mean long — list that also includes Africa, Latin America, and more.
Helping UFC’s cause is its talent, which spans the globe. Like the NBA, the UFC can claim to be a truly global sport. Right now, its champions include fighters from Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Nigeria, and more.
Fighter Pay Staying Low
Let’s address the elephant in the room: the pay of UFC fighters. While UFC revenues skyrocket, fighter payer hasn’t increased nearly as much. It’s estimated that fighters receive less than 20 percent of all UFC revenue. That’s peanuts compared to other sports leagues. That percentage is 48 in the NFL and 50 with the NBA, as an example.
Endeavor was asked about fighter pay during the most recent conference call. CEO Emmanuel said fighter pay has increased 600% since 2005. That’s correct, but it pales in comparison to company revenue and profits, which during the same timeframe, rose 1,700 and 6,200 percent, respectively. As we said, fighter pay isn’t keeping pace with UFC’s top line.
Fighters have openly gone to war with Dana White about pay, but it feels like a losing battle. The harsh reality is UFC has a monopoly on the MMA business. There’s no true competitor to them (and no, Bellator isn’t even in the discussion). Not only that, but as a publicly-traded company, it’s in Endeavors’ best interest to maximize profits and “increase shareholder value.” It’ll be hard to do that by paying fighters their fair shake.
So all things considered, we don’t see the money train for UFC stopping anytime soon. The sport has both an international and young audience — which is a godsend for monetizing. Expect more sellouts, more sponsorships, but not more fighter pay to keep UFC very in the green.