SPECIAL REPORT: SPORTS BEYOND THE MAINSTREAM
“UFC Fight Pass,” the global online content service from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, will look to offer subscribers more live, original and unique mixed-martial-arts events under the purview of its new general manager, Eric Winter. Winter is a former DirecTV pay-per-view executive who most recently co-headed Yahoo! Sports. The $9.99-per-month online subscription service complements UFC’s monthly PPV events and live fights on Fox Sports 1. Winter and UFC chief content officer Marshall Zelaznik recently spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about their plans to expand the service globally and technologically.
MCN: How would you describe and define the Fight Pass service?
Eric Winter: Our vision may sound grandiose, but it's to take our content and to deliver it to users anywhere they are going to be on any device at any time. And I believe the foundation of our product is live streaming, complemented with the historical database of fights that we have — first and foremost the historical footage from the UFC's library, and then all the derivative fight organizations that either [UFC parent] Zuffa owns or Zuffa partners with.
MCN: You mentioned live streaming. Are we talking about streaming exclusive fight cards or more the undercard fights of events that are aired live on PPV or broadcast TV?
EW: Do you remember the Facebook fights that would go on before the live Fox broadcast or the live TV broadcast? Well those have now morphed into Fight Pass. And we've toggled between two live fights or three live fights, but the more fights the merrier.
And then we will have Fight Pass-only cards later this year from Dublin and South Korea, where it's going to be exclusively for the Fight Pass community. That's in addition to partnering with the all-women's fight organization Invicta [Fighting Championships], Shooto in Brazil and Pride [Fighting Championships] out of Japan. So we want to bring live fights to our audience and our growing audience around the world, not just domestic fight organizations.
Marshall Zelaznik: The one thing I'd add, Tom, is that with some of these promotions that Eric has mentioned, like the promotion in Brazil and in Japan, I'm sure you saw recently that we announced all the library and promotional partnership deals that we are adding to Fight Pass. But we're adding more and more promotions every month and soon we'll be announcing another promotion out of Russia.
And if you think about Fight Pass, it's truly a global product. We now have subscribers from over 160 countries, and the content that Eric is mentioning, this live content, we think gives us not only local relevance, but it gives us global relevance.
MCN: On what distribution platforms can UFC fight fans access Fight Pass?
MZ: We're pretty ubiquitous now. We're on Apple TV, Chromecast, Android, Samsung, LG, Xbox 1, Xbox 360, and we're still in negotiations with Sony on launching Fight Pass. We're really, really happy with our distribution currently but we are always endeavoring to do more. We definitely want to be ubiquitous with this.
MCN: How many subscribers do you currently have?
MZ: I knew you'd ask. [Laughs.] We don't tell the numbers but the one thing we say pretty consistently is that all of our expectations with planning and budgeting and modeling are continually exceeded month after month. We see huge subscriber growth around our live streaming content. We have very high — industry-leading we believe, based on the information we can find — churn rates and conversion. So we are very, very happy. And we have no doubt with Eric getting involved with the content mix, with the distribution, with the marketing and promotion, that we'll see churn and conversion continue to improve. We are very, very bullish.
MCN: At some point do you see Fight Pass evolving into an OTT service, which we have seen with WWE Network, where you're moving bigger and more popular content to the service?
MZ: When we launched this product we wanted to complement all of our current businesses and our partners. Because this is a global product we always want to be sensitive to our primary business, which is the broader platform of traditional television.
The world is changing so fast, as you know — just look at what's happening in the world of media and the stock market. There's definitely a change happening, so we feel like we're ahead of the curve with this product.
In terms of the product mix and what will happen with it, we don't currently have any plans to create a linear network the way the WWE Network has. We will always be looking to bring bigger and bigger events onto Fight Pass but we are committed to our pay per view business now. The good news is with all the weight classes we have and all the great fighters we have and the desire for more events throughout the world, we have the flexibility in all of our deals to bring very big events to Fight Pass.
And that will be something I know Eric will be considering as he builds out his entrepreneurial model and plan for Fight Pass to take it to the next level when the time is right to start bringing even bigger events. We are proud of the size and caliber of events but we know there is room to put even bigger fights.
EW: We're just at the nascent stages of building out Fight Pass. I think to answer your original question about OTT, we have to be realistic here. We have tremendous partners from the cable and satellite side and we can't forget that. But we also have to recognize where the consumer is going, including the cord-cutters and the cord-nevers. And so we want to make sure that we deliver the right content to the right audience at the right time. We are going to continually do research every single day to find out what type of content — live or original programming — to offer. We’re going to cater to the needs of our audience country by country and it's going to vary country by country.
MCN: Eric, do you see yourself creating original series or maybe interview shows for Fight Pass at some point?
EW: The answer is yes. I love things that are being done by some of the dot-coms out there. There is a really rabid dot-com following and I think they produce really good content for the minimal support that they have. And I think with the power of the UFC we can produce some really compelling content. I also want to think beyond just original programming.
Virtual reality is something we really need to take a close look at both from a live consumer experience in arena and what we can deliver on Fight Pass. I think that’s way down the road but I am really intrigued and very bullish on virtual reality and what we can do in that area.
MCN: What can you do? Define virtual reality in your mind.
EW: I think we’re talking 4D, maybe 5D here. I want to think creatively and I want to think beyond the octagon.
MZ: And I think to echo that, we have done some virtual reality testing in terms of shooting UFC. We’ve been playing with Google Cardboard, and we’ve been meeting and having meetings with all of the manufacturers out there that are making VR (virtual reality) headsets and we actually like what we’re seeing.