With one big right-hand counter, Sean O’Malley became a true MMA superstar — let’s talk about how the Suga Show is already impacting the way the UFC does business.
Aljamain Sterling couldn’t resist.
Riding a nine-fight winning streak longer than the division had ever seen, the UFC bantamweight champion was already ahead with one round in the books against ascendant 28-year-old challenger “Suga” Sean O’Malley, he of the pink braids and brash soundbites, in Saturday’s UFC 292 main event at Boston’s TD Garden. But known primarily for his jiu-jitsu game on the ground, Aljo was probing for a moment to shoot for the first takedown of the match.
A speculative O’Malley front-kick attempt was enough for the veteran to respond with an aggressive left hand that took him uncharacteristically off-balance. Then, the Suga Show went to 11:
It was a stunning end not just to Sterling’s championship reign in the 135-pound division — he closed as a -270 betting favorite at FanDuel Sportsbook and hadn’t lost since 2017 — but the era in which the unmistakable Sean O’Malley could be considered anything other than one of the foremost, ultra-marketable stars in all the UFC.
And if you were to take a closer look at how the UFC and parent company Endeavor have done business over the last few years, the Suga Show getting over and going mainstream with such demonstrable thunder feels as natural as can be.
In a different respect, meanwhile, it’s an example of the world’s biggest MMA promotion breaking a few of its own rules in search of a new and lucrative path forward.
Perhaps UFC President Dana White put it best: “O’Malley isn’t gonna be a star. He is a star.”
Folks, let’s strap on the four-ounce gloves and discuss what this Sean O’Malley masterstroke means (and doesn’t mean!) for the business of the fight game, and why it’s happening now.
Explaining Sean O’Malley and the Business of the UFC
The Suga Show does big numbers. Even more impressively, he’s doing it in a small weight class.
In the buzzing afterglow of Saturday’s main event, White was indeed effusive in his praise. In his first headlining bout as a UFC fighter, O’Malley’s championship moment came on a night in which the TD Garden generated just under $7.25 million in gate revenue, which White claimed was a record-breaking figure for the home of the NBA’s Celtics and NHL’s Bruins.
Sure, Uncle Dana is not exactly immune to the kind of fabulism that borders on carnival barking, but that number at the gate is noticeably higher than most such events held outside of Las Vegas — and when taken alongside the pay-per-view buzz, it’s clear that O’Malley managed to deliver a bump.
“This is also the biggest bantamweight championship fight ever on pay-per-view, globally. It broke the record,” White said in his post-UFC 292 press conference.
Don’t discount that part of the equation. Especially in America, whether it’s mixed martial arts or boxing, we love ourselves some heavyweights. Larger-than-life comic book superheroes. That’s what makes a 135-pound Gervonta Davis penetrating the zeitgeist and delivering explosive boxing highlights (and viewership numbers to match) so impressive. Now, MMA has its own authentically marketable power-hitter in the lower weight divisions — arguably for the first time ever.
(Naturally, O’Malley also called out Tank Davis for a boxing match. Vaya con dios!)
The UFC doesn’t need stars in order to make billions. They happily anointed O’Malley anyway.
John S. Nash of Bloody Elbow previously reported that in 2022, the UFC generated $1.14 billion in profits. Not revenue; profits. As noted by several outlets, that number is greater than the profits of every other global combat sports promotion combined.
So, how many times did Conor McGregor, the biggest star in the sport to the point that no one else is even close, fight in 2022 in order to deliver such a financial coup?
How is this possible? Look no further than a UFC business model that:
- Reaps a head-turning windfall from its ongoing media rights deal with ESPN
- Pays out less than 20% of revenues to fighters. Nash noted that the latter figure decreased to just 13.5% in 2022; leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB typically enjoy an approximate 50-50 split.
In other words, to maximize their bottom line, the UFC and parent company Endeavor do not need to build up new stars who would then inevitably demand bigger paydays. In context, the fact that they now choose to push Sean O’Malley after passing on the opportunity to do so with countless current and former champions with cachet, including former heavyweight king Francis Ngannou, is intriguing.
A sneakily telling detail therein: The UFC considers it a matter of policy not to make highlight videos from pay-per-view events freely available immediately after they occur. In the case of the decisive second round that saw Suga Sean stop Sterling, they made a rare exception:
Let’s talk about why that might be.
Spoiler alert: the timing is anything but an accident.
The UFC and its business model are approaching a crossroads.
Here are several things that are true:
- That blockbuster ESPN deal expires after 2025, at which point O’Malley — currently the only UFC champion under 30 — would still be just 31 years old.
- Since the ESPN partnership began in 2019, Endeavor also purchased WWE, which has its own media rights negotiation coming up. The wrestling giant’s current pact with NBCUniversal streamer Peacock ends in 2026.
- It has been reported that Endeavor could consider packaging UFC and WWE media rights together
- Let’s also appreciate that we’re squarely in the direct-to-consumer streaming era. If the UFC did choose to divest from the Disney/ESPN apparatus and all the casual visibility it brings, it would do well to pivot back towards being in the star-making business — and Sean O’Malley has the most long-term bankability there.
Endeavor will have zero interest in the profit train slowing down, so it’s conceivable that the path toward having the greatest number of good options going forward regarding its television and streaming future includes swinging the pendulum back toward boasting an elite stable of marketable stars to serve as its faces. Whether the Mystic Mac fanboys like it or not, Conor McGregor may never fight in an MMA cage again; plans for the future of the UFC brand need to be laid now and not left up to chance.
Oh, and we also need to mention the lawsuit!
An antitrust lawsuit against the UFC fundamentally threatens the way the promotion does business.
Yep, the media rights front isn’t the only one that could be transformative regarding how money flows through MMA in the years to come. Behold, the single most under-discussed topic in global combat sports: An antitrust lawsuit by several current and former MMA fighters against the UFC received class action certification earlier this month, a landmark moment whose implications could easily be worth billions, either through a settlement or a formal ruling that would force the UFC to reboot itself.
Here’s the short version: plaintiffs allege that the UFC constitutes an illegal monopoly or monopsony due to business practices — especially the structure of its athlete contracts — that effectively prevent free agency for the vast majority of fighters.
And it sure sounds like the judge who granted the class action status, Richard Boulware of the US District Court for Nevada, is amenable to the plaintiffs’ concerns on anti-competitive grounds.
All told, the UFC has done handsomely well for itself over these last few years by staying out of the star-making business, which has prevented several fighters from maximizing their own earning potential. By additionally minimizing access to free agency, they have been able to opt out of a competitive landscape for talent through which rival promotions could stand a reasonable chance of picking off athletes with competitive offers outside of truly unusual circumstances.
Now, even if they face no true comeuppance for their approach to doing business, they do see writing on the wall. So, as they advance towards a potentially explosive future, they’re making a point to pump up the volume on the Suga Show today knowing that the golden vein they’ve mined so successfully for the last several years is suddenly at a heightened risk of running dry.
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