FROM ADOLESCENCE TO TEENAGER TO ADULT, UFC’S MATURATION
In 2016 the UFC had to be a big boy. Both their media relations and business practices showed that at age 23, the UFC has now matured into a legitimate sports entity.
In a sense, the growth of the UFC can be compared to that of adolescence.
The SEG era (1993-2001) was the awkward teenage years, where fond memories of the good ol’ days are mixed with embarrassing moments. The Zuffa period (2001-2015) represented college days, where a true independent identity was formed, but the promotion was still protected from the outside world. After being purchased by WME-IMG, the UFC finds itself all grown up and ready to take on the challenges of adulthood.
The UFC no longer has the luxury of taking a Monday off, parting on a Thursday night, or finding free food in the student union building. They are now subject to the highs and lows that other mainstream sports have dealt with for many years.
The first sign of the UFC’s freshly-minted maturity actually occurred a month before the sale to WME-IMG. When respected MMA journalist Ariel Helwani was banned from covering the UFC at UFC 199, the promotion suddenly faced an unforeseen public relations blunder.
While the UFC might have been unhappy with Helwani for spoiling the official UFC announcement of Brock Lesnar returning to the Octagon at UFC 200, the punitive action of banning a journalist for reporting accurate news only further buried the lede of Lesnar’s return.
On the following Monday, Helwani was invited on CBS Sports Radio, The Dan Patrick Show, and ESPN to speak about his situation. Nobody in the mainstream sports media was interested in talking about UFC 200. All the subsequent pressure caused the UFC to rescind Helwani’s ban.
The UFC looked petty and foolish, but I was also a landmark moment in the UFC’s existence. The UFC had strong-armed journalists in the past, but in 2016 something had changed. Helwani was seen as a credible journalist who was unjustly targeted, while the UFC was judged by the same standards as all other mainstream sports. The Helwani fiasco is an example of the standards that the UFC is now expected to live up to.
The day after a turbulent UFC 200, the biggest MMA story of the year broke when it was announced that the UFC had been sold to WME-IMG for record profit.
The sale shot UFC into a different stratosphere. The UFC is now no longer the mom and pop company that took a struggling sport and turned it into a global phenomenon. With such great profit comes great responsibility. The UFC’s big gain has come with a price of its own.
Fighters have suddenly realized (and vocalized) their own worth. 2016 saw the announcement of multiple fighter associations, free agency defections, and even a fighter demanding equity stake in the company.
Being a cog in the corporate America wheel opens the UFC to scrutiny like never before. The UFC having their dirty laundry publicly aired is the price of doing such great business. Unlike other sports that have nearly a 100 years of history, MMA is growing up before our very eyes. Having the growth of the sport happen in the digital age gives the public a front row seat to the UFC coming of age.
As consumers, UFC fans are privileged to have seen such an eventful year as 2016. As a promotion, the UFC enters 2017 as a more mature young adult who will undoubtedly continue to make mistakes, but hopefully makes the correct decisions for their long term future.
A WORD ON THE NUNES-ROUSEY SITUATION
Back in November, this column explored the premise that Ronda Rousey’s media strategy was detrimental to her possible MMA future. With it now being made official that Rousey has negotiated that she will have no media responsibilities for the week leading up to UFC 207, promoting of the pay-per-view is completely out of her hands.
By being contractually exempt from speaking to the media, Rousey has done what so many other athletes in her position have always longed to do. While she may feel that this strategy will lead to a victory over Amanda Nunes, in the interim the noise about the fragility of Rousey’s psyche will continue to be amplified.
If Rousey truly feels like the media and public turned on her after UFC 193, she is now feeding that same fire to a much greater degree. Either Rousey is truly unable to deal with even minuscule scrutiny, or she is quite comfortable playing the villain.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S MEDIA & BUSINESS COLUMN: The case for UFC moving from Fox to ESPN next cycle, ESPN story on the the reclusive Rousey
(Robert Vallejos writes a new Specialist column for MMATorch titled “Media & Business” focused on, you guessed it, the media coverage of MMA and the business side of MMA. He is fascinated by the presentation, business decisions, media strategy, and press coverage of both UFC and MMA as a whole, and will bring that curiosity to explore and delve into that side of MMA to his weekly Specialist column here at MMATorch. He explains his approach: “As a sport in its relative infancy, MMA does not receive the same level of scrutiny and informed analysis from the sports media as other more established entities. This is why it is vital for independent outlets such MMATorch to grow, while featuring a variety of voices. Unlike mainstream outlets, MMATorch is not beholden to any organization. Therefore I believe it is essential for individuals such as myself to explain not only the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ of MMA.”)