If I’m putting my cards on the table here, I planned to tune into UFC 259 this past weekend and then expected to write a snarky take afterward on the new UFC and DraftKings partnership.
Saturday’s event featured three title fights and one of the deepest overall cards in MMA history. It was also the first event since officials announced a new UFC and DraftKings partnership that will run over the next five years.
So, when I tuned in for the big pay-per-view event, I anticipated the inevitable onslaught of ads. After all, DraftKings had given the UFC, the world’s most prominent mixed martial arts promotion, 350 million reasons to bombard us with one DraftKings spot after another.
After all, if there’s one thing the UFC is good at, it’s the ability to cash in on every square inch of the sport. It’s ruthlessly efficient when it comes to monetization. And UFC 259, with its 15 fights and a grueling eight-hour run time, provided ample opportunity to plug the UFC’s new “official sportsbook and daily fantasy partner.”
And yet, on Saturday night? All that my in-laws initially seemed to notice were the BetMGM ads.
Examining UFC-DraftKings with the in-laws
“That one guy is back on the TV!” my mother-in-law bellowed from the living room.
No, she was not referring to reigning light-heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz, who upset Israel Adesanya in UFC 259’s main event. Not co-headliner and female champ “The Lioness” Amanda Nunes, who grounded overmatched challenger Megan Anderson like she was a defenseless giraffe. Not even new champ Aljamain Sterling, who dubiously won the bantamweight title after taking an illegal knee to the choppers:
No, “that one guy” my mother-in-law meant was Jamie Foxx, the inexplicable star of BetMGM’s never-ending TV commercials. (If you live in a market with legal sports betting, you’ve no doubt seen this spot more times than you care to remember.)
In our post-vaccination reunification, the in-laws ventured from Florida to Virginia to pay my wife and me a visit. They probably didn’t expect a night of MMA to await. But I busted out the pizza oven and bribed them with delicious pies as they logged UFC 259’s commercial spots for me. (Lou and Linda are troopers, for sure.)
Before UFC 259’s main card kicked off on PPV (10 p.m. ET), prelims streamed on ESPN+ (5:15 p.m.) and then aired on ESPN (8 p.m.). Yet, by the time we got to those 8 p.m. prelims, the in-laws had already counted three BetMGM spots and little in the way of DraftKings.
However, about an hour into the broadcast, I finally spotted the real star of the UFC-DraftKings deal: a clock.
The DraftKings clock arrives cageside
Keeping track of the latest partnerships between sportsbooks and sports franchises can be tiresome. Nearly every day a team or league is inking a new deal that seemingly does little but designate one company “an official” something of the other.
Yet, by delivering an actual useful feature to UFC fight nights, DraftKings officials bucked the trend. They didn’t necessarily earn attention for the $350 million they’re paying to the UFC. Not during UFC 259, anyway. Instead, it was the result of something as simple as the “DraftKings clock,” as Twitter users were quick to dub it.
While gaming-industry folks examined the financial and branding particulars of the UFC-DraftKings deal when it was announced last week, fight fans were instead focused on this tidbit:
The “UFC Fight Clock” wasn’t always visible to TV viewers during the UFC 259 broadcast (though the usual on-air graphic with the digital clock sufficed). Instead, the DraftKings-branded clock is really geared toward fighters, specifically those in the cage on fight night.
As the official release stated:
“DraftKings will also become the presenting partner of the UFC Fight Clock, UFC’s new, proprietary, and innovative time-keeping system. The UFC Fight Clock utilizes state-of-the-art technology, including the most flexible high-definition screens in the world, to provide fighters and fans with the most accurate time-keeping system in combat sports. The UFC Fight Clock is integrated directly into UFC’s production technology, allowing athletes, fans, and officials in the arena to see the same countdown clock per round as viewers watching the broadcast.”
Signing a deal, changing the game
If you’ve ever watched MMA fights, you’ve probably seen a familiar scenario. It’s usually when a fighter is scrambling to see how much time is left in a round of a fight.
Got plenty of time left? Well, then you can probably spend a little more time trying to improve your position and secure that rear-naked choke. But are the seconds dwindling? Then maybe you’re better off trying to unload a quick barrage of ground-and-pound to force a referee’s stoppage before the round ends.
Fighters should be able to easily determine how much time is left in a round or a fight to make these decisions. Yet for years, they’d be pinned against the cage, scrambling on the canvas, or trying to sidestep a head kick – all while trying to find anything that would display how much time was remaining. Often it was from an in-arena video screen way up in the rafters.
But at UFC 259, the official time was always a quick glance away for the fighters. The clocks were strategically placed around the perimeter of the octagon and visible, no matter the position fighters were in.
Hardcore MMA fans lauded the new feature. Fighters did too.
For whatever reason, it took a $350 million deal with DraftKings for the UFC to finally implement a simple but effective solution.
A seamless UFC sponsor
Fight fans have seen the UFC and other top MMA promotions parade out some questionable sponsors over the years.
The sport is a bastion for bastard brands. If it can fatten you, inebriate you, energize you, groom you, or deliver you prophylactics by mail, UFC broadcasts have probably pitched it to viewers at some point in time.
Oftentimes, these commercials are annoying. And relentless. Sometimes they’re ironically hilarious. Other times they’re simply UFC legend Chuck Liddell headbutting a wrecking ball as a way to sling Duralast batteries.
More often than not, though, the UFC commercials are simply cringeworthy and forgettable:
However, during UFC 259, the UFC-DraftKings spots were downright seamless. I wasn’t inundated. I wasn’t even annoyed. The execution was logical, effective, yet still largely unobtrusive.
There were a few live reads for DraftKings on the broadcast. Producers also tastefully sprinkled some graphics throughout the broadcast. A split-screen brought us DraftKings messaging as UFC announcer Bruce Buffer read some of the official fight results. There were even a few sports-betting tutorials of sorts to help the uninitiated place a wager or join a free-to-play DraftKings game.
In fact, it wasn’t until the ESPN prelims that I saw some of the usual 30-second TV spots for DraftKings. By then, Jamie Foxx and those BetMGM spots were old news.
Choosing innovation over stale advertising
As more and more US states turn to legal sports betting to help fill the state’s coffers, sportsbooks will likely be more aggressive with their advertising. Billboards, TVs, newspapers, digital ads, stadium signage, direct mail. Get ready for all of it, if you’re not already engulfed by it.
But as we saw at UFC 259, some careful consideration can pay dividends. Complement the viewing experience, don’t whore it out. Innovate a bit. Or better yet, as we saw with something as simple as a cageside clock, solve a problem.
After all, with a five-year deal, the UFC and DraftKings are in this thing for the long haul. And for good reason.
“This is the most important deal we’ve ever done to increase engagement with our fans and reach new ones,” UFC President Dana White said when the deal was announced.
Legal sports betting could be a gateway to reach new fight fans. White knows this. The UFC is banking on it. So, too, is DraftKings, which is paying millions in hopes its hunch is correct.
But as we saw with UFC 259, sometimes a simple cageside clock is the real star of the show.