The UFC’s jump over to ESPN from FOX has been nothing short of a dream pairing for the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization. Despite years of flagging ratings across the various FOX networks, the UFC was able to score a massively lucrative deal to be a cornerstone of ESPN’s new ESPN+ streaming service. In the years since that move, it looks like the promotion has only delivered above and beyond 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 is always competition and we want to provide consumers the most choice and we want to serve as broad and diverse an audience as possible. The UFC is obviously a big part of that. We’re proud of how it’s performed and continues to perform throughout this pandemic.”
So what made this seemingly perfect marriage possible? In a recent interview with Grant Cardone, Dana White revealed that the key to getting the Endeavor owned promotion’s deal done was a shocking scandal that rocked the ESPN back in late 2017.
“I’ve always had good relationships with the guys we did business with,” White told Cordone, when asked how he chooses the people & companies the UFC works with. “Started with Spike, then we went to FOX; Eric Shanks, one of the greatest dudes in sports, who was at DirecTV at one time. That’s where we met. And then, now at ESPN, it’s just always worked out that way, man. Timing and—I’ll tell you a crazy story.
“You ever hear of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN—now I think he runs DAZN, okay—ran ESPN, beloved. Looks like the squarest dude on the planet, older guy, you know? Hates UFC. Hates it. Hates UFC, big soccer guy—for whatever reason. Different people like different things. And I’m not shitting on John Skipper, but this is a fact. This happened and this is a true story.
“John Skipper, beloved at ESPN. ESPN’s at the top of their game, these guys are killing it in revenue. They’re making, like, $5 per subscriber—when cable was the biggest it’s ever been—to have ESPN and all this stuff, right?
“So, our FOX deal is up, and we’re probably not going to end up doing another deal with FOX. They’re selling off cable networks and restructuring. So, they’re not the same company that they were when we started with them. John Skipper’s never, ever gonna take the UFC. So, we’re in a real tough place.”
If it seemed as though all hope was lost, it turned out that Skipper had a serious secret that was about to go public.
“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is gonna rat him out. WHAT!?” White exclaimed, recounting Skipper’s exit from ESPN. “So he has to tell Disney, ‘Yeah, my cocaine dealer is probably gonna go public,’ and whatever. So, he has to step down from ESPN. Right at the time that we’re trying to make our TV deal.
“Who do they put in as the new president? Jimmy Pitaro, who ran Yahoo! Sports for years. And I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a great dude. He loves the UFC… You’ve got him, a guy named Kevin Mayer—who is really close to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel]—and we end up doing the ESPN deal when our deal is up.
“So, you wanna talk about timing and, you know, like, WHAT!? John Skipper does coke?
“John Skipper was very nice to us, always treated us with respect. But, while John Skipper was there, there was no way in hell the UFC was gonna be on ESPN.”
In 2018, Skipper sat down with the Hollywood Reporter, to tell his side of the tale.
“I had a substance abuse 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 had a point of view that recreational drugs were recreational, that they weren’t dangerous. That they could be used without repercussions.”
Unfortunately for him, it seems repercussions did come around. Not from the substances themselves, but from a dealer who threatened to extort him.
“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 explained of his decision to resign from ESPN. “I foreclosed that possibility by disclosing the details to my family, and then when I discussed it with [Disney CEO] Bob [Iger]. He and I agreed that I had placed the company in an untenable position and as a result, I should resign.”
After several years of working with DAZN, Skipper left the Sports Entertainment streaming platform to start his own production studio, Meadowlark Media.