Dana White explains how cocaine led to UFC’s ESPN deal
When you hear the words UFC and cocaine in the same sentence you probably immediately think of Jon Jones. Thankfully, Jones is not involved in this cocaine-fueled story. Instead, in an interview with Grant Cardone, UFC President Dana White explained how a cocaine scandal involving former ESPN President John Skipper led to the UFC’s $1.5 billion broadcast deal with the network in 2018.
This story starts with the former ESPN executive, Skipper. According to White, Skipper was not interested in having the UFC on ESPN. As long as Skipper was running ESPN, the UFC would not be able to land a broadcast deal.
“I’ll tell you a crazy story,” UFC President, Dana White, said during a one hour interview with Grant Cardone. “You ever hear of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN. Now, I think he runs DAZN. Runs ESPN, beloved, looks like the squarest dude on the planet. Older guy. Hates UFC. Hates it. Hates UFC. Big soccer guy. For whatever reason, people like different things. And I’m not s—ing on John Skipper. But this is a fact, this happened, and this is a true story.Quote via MMA Mania
At one point, the UFC had a broadcast deal with FOX. This deal expired in 2018 and it looked unlikely that the UFC would extend the partnership. Without the possibility of heading to ESPN, the UFC was searching for a new broadcast partner.
“John Skipper, beloved at ESPN, ESPN’s at the top of their game,” White continued. “These guys are killing it in revenue, they’re getting $5 per subscriber when cable was the biggest it’s ever been. So, our FOX deal is up and we’re probably not gonna do another deal with FOX. They’re selling off cable networks and re-structuring. So they’re not the same company when we signed with them. And John Skipper’s never, ever gonna take the UFC. So, we’re in a real tough place.Quote via MMA Mania
This situation received a massive shake-up as Skipper resigned from ESPN citing substance addiction as the reason. That is only partially true, though. In reality, a cocaine dealer forced Skipper to resign in an extortion scheme. If Skipper refused the dealer was going to go public with the news.
“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is gonna rat him out,” White continued. “So, he has to tell Disney ‘My cocaine dealer is gonna go public’ or whatever, so he has to step down from ESPN, right at the time we’re trying to make a new TV deal. Who do they make president? Jimmy Pitaro, who ran Yahoo! Sports for years. I’ve known him 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 closed to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel], and we ended up doing the ESPN deal when our deal was up.”Quote via MMA Mania
This was certainly bad news for Skipper and ESPN; however, it ended up changing UFC history. Skipper, the UFC’s roadblock at ESPN, was gone and he was replaced by Jimmy Pitaro. With Pitaro at the helm, the UFC ended up landing its $1.5 billion dollar broadcast deal.
Skipper has since bounced back. The former ESPN executive spent time with DAZN before eventually founding Meadowlark Media alongside former ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard.
The UFC’s deal with ESPN has played an instrumental role in the advancement of the promotion from 2019-22. ESPN has filled the pocketbook of the UFC while promoting the sport of MMA to ESPN consumers. Plus, ESPN now airs the Professional Fighters League alongside the UFC.
If the origins of the UFC and MMA were not already crazy enough, add this story to the long list of wild events that helped change the sport. Who would have imagined that a cocaine extortion scandal would have indirectly led to one of the biggest advancements in MMA history?