‘Fight Pass’, the UFC’s digital subscription network: An explosive start or a mundane fizzle?

UFC Fight Pass, the company’s new digital platform, has officially launched into the hands of consumers.

UFC Fight Pass, the company’s new digital platform, has officially launched into the hands of consumers.

The value of UFC’s subscription-based digital network, Fight Pass, has polarized the subjective MMA community.

To some, Fight Pass is heralded as the golden ticket to the archives of elite MMA competition, a steal at only $9.99 a month.

To others, it is condemned as a move of pure business interest, slapping a fee on previously free fight cards that are now slowly over-saturating the market with their frequency.

Come Jan. 4, speculation and debate will cease momentarily as the first network-exclusive event, UFC Fight Night: Saffiedine vs. Lim, provides the litmus test for the UFC’s latest media platform. Void of the big names that have packed UFC events throughout the last quarter of 2013, the event’s viewership will help determine if mixed martial arts competition is truly a draw by itself, without familiar faces or the UFC’s marketing machine.

Several elements might affect the size of UFC Fight Night 34’s audience. By considering them in unison, we can deduce if fans will flock to the new network, or if they will pass on Fight Pass for now.

The Fight Card’s Narrative – Strength in Storylines

The strength of the card is relative to the consumer’s interests. Does the typical fan watch for the action, or are they attracted by the individuals that fight? While the most tame events on paper can quickly become card-of-the-year candidates, MMA is a personality-centric universe. With a host of names unfamiliar to most UFC fans debuting on this card, a lack of previous exposure may inhibit the casual fan’s ability to emotionally invest themselves in each bout.

Both Tarec Saffiedine and Hyun Gyu Lim are riding impressive winning streaks into Singapore’s Marina Bay. The outcome of their bout won’t decide the next welterweight title contender, but a decisive victory could catapult either athlete into the upper echelons of the UFC’s rankings at 170 pounds.

For Lim, a third stoppage victory in the Octagon, over a former Strikeforce champion, would raise his stock immensely. Saffiedine, meanwhile, makes his UFC debut amid questions of his credibility as a world champion outside of the UFC. Will he make a Jose Aldo-esque impression on the organization or follow the mediocre path of Jorge Santiago and Hector Lombard at middleweight?

Although that fight is intriguing, it is the only bout on the card with a strong storyline. Fans of Dream and ONE FC might watch Tatsuya Kawajiri’s co-main event bout with heightened interest, but it does not hold the same weight of other co-mains we have seen this year.

Without this appeal, viewers outside of the most loyal fan circles might skip the card if it aired on free television, let alone on a digital subscription network. To consider the incentives for paying to watch UFC Fight Night 34 for the casual spectator, we have to look elsewhere.

The Liberties of a Mobile Platform

With network subscribers able to view events a month after their live broadcast on mobile platforms, including smartphones and tablet devices, Fight Pass affords its users more freedom than network television or pay-per-view ever could.

This unprecedented availability, on delay and across multiple devices, helps counteract the “weak lineup” of UFC Fight Night 34. UFC viewers are no longer tied to the couch or a sports bar stool on evenings where they might prefer to do other things. The potential to watch UFC fights on the fan’s own schedule—while commuting, at work or in the gym—removes any compulsory commitment to a timeslot that alienated potential UFC viewers in the past.

As of this writing, the only word from the UFC on the digital network’s availability on console systems is that the promotion hopes to have a deal in place soon. The UFC.TV app’s presence on these platforms suggests that Fight Pass access on a PS4 or Xbox One is inevitable. A promotional trailer for Fight Pass found on the UFC.TV section of the company’s website also fuels theories that the two will combine.

Content is King – Value Comparison to PPV and Network Television

Another relative value of the Fight Pass network is its price comparison to existing UFC media outlets.

The $9.99 per month fee for Fight Pass is a fraction of the $40 average for cable access to Fox Sports 1 and the $59.95 the UFC has charged for its last two pay-per-views. Third-party agreements the UFC has with Fox and pay-per-view companies to carry its programming inflates these prices.

As a Zuffa-owned service, Fight Pass is offered at a more reasonable price. With exclusive live events, replays, fight libraries from various MMA organizations, shows like The Ultimate Fighter and other original content, including in-depth interviews, the UFC has made a conscious effort to make the service attractive to as wide an audience as possible.

The price plan must also appease the inevitable backlash from some MMA viewers who must now pay for live fights that they previously could watch on Facebook for free. The gratification of no streaming obstacles, assuming this is actually the case, may not pacify the gripe of paying another $120 a year on top of other UFC shows.

What could help, however, is the two-month free trial of Fight Pass offered to MMA fans. There are still many questions about the variety of UFC content that will be immediately available on the network versus what content will be gradually introduced. More content will naturally boost service satisfaction. A free trial helps bridge this gap, allowing users to integrate the service into their lives and daily routines before eventually paying for the service once its value is ascertained through firsthand experience.

With so many variables, ranging from the commitment of the average MMA fan to the pace that archived content becomes available on Fight Pass, there is no concrete way to predict its success. The less-than-stellar card for UFC Fight Night 34 is no indication of Fight Pass’s array of services beyond live fights. The diversity of content promised by the UFC in promotional material for the network suggests the devoted MMA fan would happily part with 10 dollars a month for this access.

Final Thought – Navigating Teething Problems

Once the digital subscription network has gained some traction, worked out any technical problems and received positive feedback, it is feasible that the more casual MMA viewer would be willing to invest in Fight Pass. Until then, the UFC might have chosen a lower-profile event in UFC Fight Night: Saffiedine vs. Lim to launch the digital network for this very reason.
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