How a UFC-dominated environment will change the media game
By Zack Arnold Fight Opinion
While UFC doesn’t control their fighters in regards to what they say in the press, the fact remains that the organization will react to fighters (like Roger Huerta) who spout off against the company in media channels. Because UFC is the only game in town, it becomes much easier for fear to play a role in what fighters will say and will not say on-the-record. Lest you think that fighters are the only ones changing their attitudes towards UFC, keep your eyes out on various MMA sites over the course of the next 12 months. Despite promises of independent voices in what is called the ‘MMA media’, there will be plenty of writers who will sway with the winds based on what they think will draw the most money as opposed to what telling the truth might mean for a story.
We’ve already been down the road before in regards to various MMA sites losing their media credentials with UFC. Dave Meltzer has often pointed out that the MMA sites who complain and moan about losing their credentials have no point in bitching, given that Meltzer covered WWE and other pro-wrestling promoters since the 1980s and they weren’t exactly thrilled with doing business with honest writers. Ah ha, but I thought UFC was a ‘real’ sport that behaved the same way the NFL, NBA, and MLB do in regards to the way they treat writers. You know, as in allowing writers to say whatever they want good, bad, or ugly about the sport they are covering.
On the bigger MMA web sites, there seems to be a growing and justifiable tension that is growing underneath the surface in regards to how editors, writers, and bloggers view UFC as the only game-in-town. Case in point: the Jon Fitch/video game contract saga a couple of weeks ago. As more and more MMA web sites come to realize that UFC-only coverage is the only solid way to attract traffic to their sites, there was a big backlash from fans, writers, and people inside the business (hiding under anonymous names online) in regards to the debate about whether or not UFC’s video game contract, which calls for a fighter to sign away the rights to their image & likeness for life, is fair. There was a torrent of activity online, with the majority of the support in favor of Fitch. However, Fitch deflated the media blowback within 24 hours by signing the video game agreement that he initially balked at.
The Jon Fitch/Dana White situation was valuable in one sense — it gave us a good look into what the MMA media mindset will be from this point forward in the MMA industry until UFC gets a serious rival (Affliction is not a serious long-term player). There is a philosophical concept that best describes the current tension between UFC and the MMA media that claims to be independent — it’s call the concept of ‘loyal opposition’, an old political strategy in which the opposing party (in this case, the MMA media) does not deny that UFC is the only game in town. However, in exchange for this concept, the ‘loyal opposition’ is going to thoroughly scrutinize any big mistakes or blunders that UFC makes.
There is a problem with being the ‘loyal opposition’, however, for various media writers. They need the UFC to make a living or make a name for themselves, the UFC doesn’t need them. So, the fault lines will clearly be established in the next couple of months — which big-name MMA sites are going to be 100% sychophantic to UFC in order to get more traffic and which big-name MMA sites are going to remain politically honest with their readers?
In addition to the development of the ‘loyal opposition’ in the MMA media, there’s also going to be further debate in regards to what kind of structure editors will need to employ in order to even try to make a living covering a UFC-only MMA world. We know that there are a couple of MMA sites that have corporate backing (Sherdog with Crave Online, Cage Potato with Break Media). These sites will be able to survive the current MMA environment, which means other true independent media sites will be scratching and clawing to keep their operations outside of being a glorified hobby.
Unfortunately, however, there may be a more disturbing media threat besides UFC politics that will threaten independent members of the MMA media. What is the threat? A new type of media structure in which agents, managers, or even fighters start bankrolling their own media operations while financing the projects in the background. In other words, recruiting already-established MMA writers or faces to essentially become bought-and-paid-for shills of certain fighters. Access is everything and if you have access to certain fighters before other sites, then you’ll get linked on Yahoo’s MMA blog or AOL Fanhouse or other big sports sites. The insidiuous nature of this type of media structure is that it allows for easy media manipulation in regards to how agents or managers can control the image of fighters they represent while using a front man (in this case, a bought-and-paid-for writer) with a little bit of respectability to try to put over a carefully-crafted marketing storyline. The danger in this media model is that it all but eliminates any need for fighters or agents to talk to independent, honest voices in the MMA media.
The next 12 months will prove to be a tumultuous time for those in the media covering MMA who actually know the business and are trying to make a living off of it. Expect tensions to continue to rise between UFC and online media writers, and expect some internecine battles to break out amongst the ‘MMA media’ as agents and fighters start to come up with new ways to control and get their message out to the masses online.