ESPN and boxing promotion company Top Rank Boxing agreed on a seven-year rights deal that will greatly expand the Disney-owned company’s combat sports offering, which includes boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA), from 2018 to 2025.
Under the deal, ESPN platforms will air 54 boxing events each year, with 18 fights airing on ESPN and 12 primetime events exclusively appearing on ESPN+, Disney’s recently launched sports streaming service. ESPN+ will also offer coverage of weigh-ins and past fights under the deal. This deal is another indicator that combat sports are of growing interest to ESPN — it signed a five-year $1.5 billion rights broadcasting deal with the UFC in May, for example.
ESPN is one of several media companies hoping to tap into the fanbases of combat sports:
- UK based Perform Group is expanding DAZN, a combat sports-focused subscription video on demand (SVOD) service into the US in September, according to Variety. The initiative will be spearheaded by former president of ESPN, John Skipper.
- HBO signed a multi-fight contract with Matchroom Boxing, a top UK boxing promotion company, in September 2017, per ESPN.
Combat sports are being sought out by media companies for several key reasons:
- Boxing viewers tend to be slightly younger than viewers of other mainstream sports like baseball and American football. The median age of boxing viewers was 49 in 2016, slightly younger than that of tennis (54), Major League Baseball (57), and American football (50), per SportsBusiness Journal. Boxing events could give companies a better shot at luring young viewers that other mainstream sports might not appeal to.
- Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a relatively niche sport, but still appeals to a quarter of Americans. One in four US consumers are fans of MMA, according to an August 2017 poll conducted by The Washington Post and UMass Lowell. Moreover, MMA has about260 million fans globally, and is gaining fans at a faster clip than traditional sports like the NFL and MLB, per Forbes. The fans that MMA content might attract could help companies supplement viewership growth from other more mainstream sports.
And the boxing content can ultimately help Disney’s sports streaming service, ESPN+, gain a larger share of combat sports fans. Earlier this year, Top Rank announced that ESPN+ would include six exclusive international live fights, but the latest deal between the boxing company and ESPN provides further incentive for boxing enthusiasts to give ESPN+ a go.
Getting ESPN+ off the ground is a top focus for Disney, as ESPN’s subscribers fell to 88 million in December 2016 from more than 100 million in February 2011. As ESPN+ vies for growth, its $5 per month price may help entice potential subscribers, since most other streaming services on the market cost around $10 per month.