Jeffrey O’Brien in a JD candidate at the University of Alberta.
Last month, Setanta Sports, a Dublin-based pay-per-view sports provider, was awarded summary judgement against an Alberta sports bar, The Brew’in Taphouse, and two of its principals by the Federal Court of Canada. Damages were awarded, but the most interesting order was the permanent injunction which restrained the defendants from broadcasting all Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view events in Canada. The UFC’s sister program The Ultimate Fighter is still available on basic cable, but that is a reality TV show and gets nowhere near the ratings of actual UFC fights.
Setanta went on the air in 1990. According to its official website, in the early days of Setanta broadcasts, its main audience was Irish expatriates who were unable to see their favourite sports on cable in their new homes. That is why even today Setanta is known in Canada as a broadcaster of sports that do not typically draw a large local audience, such as cricket, rugby, and European professional soccer.
Ten years ago, the UFC belonged in this category of sports that are not very popular with Canadian spectators. The UFC numbers its events; the inaugural event was UFC 1 and UFC 133 will occur on August 6, 2011. UFC 40 was November 22, 2002 and had a worldwide pay-per-view audience of approximately 150,000 spectators. It is not surprising then that other providers were content to let Setanta have the UFC. In recent years, however, the UFC’s popularity has grown exponentially. UFC 131 on June 11, 2011 had a pay-per-view draw of 1.6 million viewers.
A case like this would not have made it to court when Mixed Martial Arts was still an underground sport. There simply would not be enough interest in such a small audience. But today the UFC is one of the most lucrative sporting events for television broadcasters. The UFC’s president, Dana White, has noted that the sport is particularly popular in Canada. Setanta has won this round, but it is doubtful that the Irish broadcaster’s monopoly will last. With such a large audience and so much money to be made, other sport broadcasters are going to be gunning for the right to air UFC matches in Canada.