The UFC’s jump from FOX to ESPN was nothing short of a dream pairing for the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization. Despite years of ratings on the various FOX networks, the UFC was able to strike a hugely lucrative deal to become a cornerstone of ESPN’s new ESPN+ streaming service. In the years since that move, it looks like the promotion has only exceeded expectations.
“What we’re finding is that the UFC continues to grow on our platforms,” ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions said in a 2020 interview. “There’s always competition and we want to give consumers the widest possible choice and one possible.” serve a wide and diverse audience. The UFC obviously has a big part in it. We’re proud of how it’s performing and continuing to perform during this pandemic.”
What made this seemingly perfect marriage possible? In a recent interview with Grant Cardone, Dana White revealed that the key to closing the Endeavor-owned promotion deal was a shocking scandal that rocked ESPN in late 2017.
“I’ve always had good relationships with the people that we did business with,” White told Cordone when asked how he chooses the people and companies that the UFC works with. “Started with Spike, then we went to FOX; Eric Shanks, one of the greatest guys in sports who was once on DirecTV. That’s where we met. And then, now on ESPN, it just always worked out that way, man. Timing and – I’ll tell you a crazy story.
“Have you ever heard of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN – now I think he runs DAZN, okay – ran ESPN, lovelies. Looks like the edgiest dude on the planet, older dude you know? Hates UFC. hates it Hates UFC, big soccer dude – for whatever reason. Different people like different things. And I don’t give a shit about John Skipper, but that’s a fact. This happened and this is a true story.
“John Skipper, loved up on ESPN. ESPN is at the top of their game, these guys are killing it with revenue. You make about $5 a subscriber — when cable was the biggest thing ever — to have ESPN and all that stuff, right?
“So, our FOX deal is done and we probably won’t do another deal with FOX. They sell cable networks and restructure. So they’re not the same company they were when we started them. John Skipper will never take over the UFC. So we are in a really difficult situation.”
Even though it seemed like all hope was lost, it turned out that Skipper had a serious secret that was about to be released.
“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is going to turn him in. WHAT!?” White exclaimed, recounting Skipper’s exit from ESPN. “So he has to tell Disney, ‘Yeah, my cocaine dealer is probably going to go public’ and whatever. So he has to resign from ESPN. Right around the time, as we try to close our TV deal.
“Who are they putting in as the new President? Jimmy Pitaro, the Yahoo! sports for years. And I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a great guy. He loves the UFC… They have him, a guy named Kevin Mayer – who’s very close to him [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel]— and we end up making the ESPN deal when our deal is finalized.
“So you want to talk about timing and you know WHAT!? John Skipper drinks coke?
“John Skipper was very nice to us, always treated us with respect. But while John Skipper was there, there was no way the UFC would be on ESPN.”
In 2018, Skipper sat down with him Hollywood reporterto tell his side of the story.
“I had a drug problem,” Skipper said of his cocaine use. “I grew up wanting to be countercultural. I worked at Rolling Stone for the first 10 years of my professional life. I believed that recreational drugs were recreational drugs, that they weren’t dangerous. That they could be used without repercussions.”
Unfortunately for him, there seems to have been an impact. Not from the substances themselves, but from a dealer who threatened him with blackmail.
“They threatened me and I immediately understood that this threat put me and my family in danger and this disclosure would also jeopardize my professional life,” Skipper explained his decision to leave ESPN. “I ruled out that possibility by telling my family the details and then talking to them about it [Disney CEO] bob [Iger]. He and I agreed that I had put the company in an untenable position and that I should resign.”
After several years working with DAZN, Skipper left the streaming platform Sports Entertainment to start his own production studio, Meadowlark Media.
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