According to UFC officials, some of that has to do with the sheer volume of content we’re dealing with here. There are a ton of fights that Zuffa owns the rights to after its years of operations and many acquisitions, and those could take months to upload. There’s also no guarantee that the UFC will make all its fights available at any one time, possibly because the UFC is concerned that complete, unfettered access to the full fight library would result in a bunch of early subscriptions, only to have people cancel once they’ve seen their favorites.
The fact that that’s even a concern should tell us something about the true appeal of Fight Pass, at least for right now. For most users, it’s about access and control. The chance to watch some live fights, that’s just an added bonus – until, that is, the live fights see a jump in quality, which should happen with Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jimi Manuwa on March 8, right after the free trial has ended. Then the appeal starts to shift. Those fights that are scheduled to air live on Fight Pass? They won’t be rebroadcast, ever, on FOX Sports 1 or FOX Sports 2 or anywhere else, according to the UFC.
That marks a distinct change in strategy from the UFC, which has historically been very good about making sure that its best stuff gets seen by as many people as possible on whatever platform necessary. Now it would have us believe that, even if Gustafsson-Manuwa turns out to be fight of the century, the only way to see it will be to pony up the 10 bucks for Fight Pass.
You could argue that it’s just the newest scheme to squeeze money out of fight fans. Or, to take a more generous view, maybe the UFC is just ahead of the curve here. The FOX deal will be over in a few years, and who’s to say the network will want to re-up with a number that the UFC likes?
With UFC pay-per-view buys trending downward and broader trends suggesting a mass shift away from traditional TV viewing habits and toward streaming services, maybe the UFC is thinking ahead to the post-cable world of the not-so distant future. Face it, people don’t watch TV the same way they did a decade ago. And now that viewers know what it’s like to have unfettered access to the stuff they choose, it can’t be long before paying for cable bundles full of channels they never watch is a thing of the past.
From that perspective, this is a smart, forward-thinking move by the UFC. It’s also one that, at least right now, could stand to do a little better in terms of execution. According to UFC executive Marshall Zelaznik, the company is “in discussions” with Apple TV and Roku, and “there will be a very thorough discussion and negotiation that comes along with the Fight Pass service that gets us into those places. We think it’s a premier product that needs to be treated premier.”
It also absolutely needs to be available on TV and on an array of mobile devices rather than solely in its current form, which, Zelaznik admitted, is strictly “URL-based.” You can’t call it Netflix for the fight fan if we have to crack open our laptops to watch. And, unless we’re talking about porn, it’s tough to get North American audiences to pay for content that’s only available on their computers.
At least the UFC seems aware of these potential obstacles, even if for right now the answer to almost every problem is a promise of a fix at some vague point in the future. Meanwhile, the point when you’ll need to pay for access to this work in progress? That’s the one date that’s firmly set.