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Boxing & MMA

How ESPN’s $1.5 billion broadcast deal with UFC, Dana White was fueled by John Skipper’s cocaine scandal

The UFC is among the fastest-growing brands in all of sports. The premier MMA competition reeled in upwards of $1 billion in revenue in 2021. Given the number of high-profile cards that took place in 2022, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that number eclipsed.

Much of that success stems from the broadcast rights deal the UFC signed with ESPN in 2019.

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According to UFC president Dana White, the deal wasn’t supposed to be made, at least not until a cocaine scandal swept through the Worldwide Leader’s offices and created an opening for the UFC.

How did the UFC secure its rights deal from ESPN? 

“This is a true story,” White said in an interview with Grant Cardone.

Here’s how the story goes, in White’s telling of it: 

The competition was at a crossroads; its multiyear rights deal with Fox was ending and White and his investors were seeking big bucks. What better network to negotiate with than ESPN?

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There was just one problem: ESPN had little interest in broadcasting the promotion.

White credited that hesitancy to then-ESPN president John Skipper, who, according to White, “hates UFC.”

But then Skipper suddenly announced his resignation from ESPN. Skipper initially cited a struggle with “a substance addiction” as the reason. In a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Skipper disclosed the substance — and just how dire his situation had gotten.

How did John Skipper’s addiction change the UFC-ESPN negotiations?

Skipper told THR that he had used cocaine throughout his career. Around the time the UFC deal was up, someone from whom Skipper had bought cocaine “attempted to extort” him.

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“They threatened me, and I understood immediately that threat put me and my family at risk, and this exposure would put my professional life at risk as well,” Skipper said.

After disclosing the situation to his family and Disney CEO Robert Iger, Skipper announced his resignation on Dec. 18, 2017. On March 5, 2018, ESPN hired his replacement: James Pitaro, formerly of Yahoo Sports. It was music to White’s ears.

“I’ve known (Pitaro) a long time. He’s a great dude, and he loves the UFC. Now you got him, you got a guy named Kevin Mayer, who is really close to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel], and we ended up doing the ESPN deal when our deal was up,” White told Cardone.

How much did ESPN pay the UFC for broadcast rights?

The UFC reached a five-year, $1.5 billion agreement with Pitaro and the Worldwide Leader upon expiry of the Fox contract. Bolstered by ESPN’s packaging, the UFC has become one of the most entertaining organizations in sports.

Skipper is still involved in sports broadcasting. He is executive chairman of DAZN Group, which hired him in May 2018. In 2021, he launched Meadowlark Media alongside former ESPN personality Dan Le Betard.

But history could have been so much different for him, ESPN and UFC. Just ask Dana White.


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