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ESPN Pays $1.5 Billion for UFC Rights After Fox Turns Its Attention to WWE

Pugilism, both real and scripted, is the new cash crop, as both UFC and WWE have signed five-year deals that will add $1 billion or more to their coffers.

ESPN has reportedly struck a second deal with UFC that will result in it airing and streaming 30 fights per year starting in 2019. The secondary contract, when added to a rights deal signed in April, is worth $1.5 billion.

ESPN picks up the UFC rights as Fox turns its attentions to WWE instead. The network reportedly reached a deal with the wrestling behemoth to move its “SmackDown” program over to Fox starting in Dec. 2019 for $1 billion. (WWE’s current flagship “Raw” is expected to continue airing on USA Network.)

For WWE, at least, the agreement is a huge reversal from its last television contract, which was so poorly received the company’s stock fell 43% on news of its signing.

Both UFC and WWE have something that’s increasingly rare to offer these days: Live programming. The immediacy of that draws viewers in real time, something that’s increasingly rare as DVR and On-Demand options make appointment TV unnecessary and other electronic devices distract viewers.

SmackDown Live has averaged 2.59 million viewers per week in 2018. UFC, which won a bigger payday, averaged about 2 million viewers per fight last year, but ratings have been slipping.