We are dangerously close to the UFC appearing on ESPN. They’ve already been on the ESPN+ streaming service, but not to long from now, the anchors of SportsCenter will sign off and throw to Jon Anik and Joe Rogan. For a live fight card, on the Worldwide Leader in Sports. For the UFC, namely Dana White because he’s one of the few people left from the Zuffa days, it will be will be the realization of a years long dream. Zuffa always wanted to be on HBO and ESPN. The HBO thing, the dream of appearing on the same level as the absolute top level of boxing, never happened for a whole number of reasons, a lot them you could blame on the UFC. But, the HBO was at least interested. They talked, they negotiated, deals fell apart. ESPN, on the other hand, well that’s a different story.
ESPN spent years dismissing the UFC. For the better part of the last two decades, ESPN wouldn’t even allow the UFC to advertise on their channel, let alone show one of their fights. They had a wholesome image to uphold, they are a subsidiary of Disney after all. They couldn’t be associated with human cockfighting, this no holds barred sport. It verges on barbaric. The brass at ESPN couldn’t even countenance allowing the octagon to appear on their airwaves in any way, they wouldn’t even let the UFC advertise on their airwaves. From the UFC’s inception up until UFC 71, the closest ESPN came to covering MMA, outside of the time the ISKA got a Matt Serra fight onto ESPN 2, was this Bill Simmons column on UFC 39. This was before Bill Simmons was a big deal, before The Ringer, before Grantland, before anyone outside of a select few even knew who Cousin Sal was. ESPN simply didn’t have the stomach or time to cover Mixed Martial Arts. They’d rather cover Professional Bull Riding, thank you very much.
To give you an idea of what an absolute desert ESPN was for MMA, I can vividly remember people excitedly reporting they had seen commercials for some UFC pay-per-view, maybe for the Matt Hughes fight against Royce Gracie, some show numbered in the 60s anyway. A commercial. Not a fight, not a time buy, just a 30 second commercial. It, as it turns out, wasn’t even a national commercial, it was just an ad purchased through a local cable station. But, because the UFC was basically banned for ESPN’s airwaves, It caused a huge stink in the MMA sphere. It forced ESPN to release a statement on it. They asserted that this sort of objectionable, barbaric violence didn’t have a place on their network, that they had no part on allowing the ad on their airwaves, and that they had no interest in showing this “sport.” This went on for a while, until they saw there was some money to be made.
ESPN showed up to cover UFC 71, headlined by Chuck Liddell and Rampage Jackson, as a way to gauge interest and potential in covering this whole MMA deal. Did MMA suddenly become more palatable? Was the action in the cage more refined, more gentlemanly? Had something changed in the few years between May 2007 and that ad appearing on their airwaves? No, but the UFC was proving to be a reliable money maker. There’s a lot of made of the massive buy rates of recent UFC shows, and they are quite impressive, but in this era, the UFC could run any arena, put the show up for sale, and convince at least 300,000 people to buy it. It didn’t matter who was on the show, Jeff Monson and Tim Sylvia headlined a show, it did good business. Rich Franklin was a real draw. People bought shows with Kenny Florian in prominent positions. The people as ESPN, once so horrified at the prospect of allying their Mickey Mouse sensibility with Marvin Eastman bleeding profusely from a cut that looked like the product on an ax, all the sudden wanted a piece of this reliable action.
The problem was, they didn’t have any analysts on payroll, they didn’t have any coverage on their site. They had to create coverage full cloth. They reached out to the UFC, they put Dana White on SportsCenter, before and after the show. It was a crowning achievement for the UFC. They had fought for years to garner mainstream press, when big newspapers and other online sports sites started to cover the UFC, Dana White and company celebrated by revoking credentials from the MMA media. Now that ESPN was on board, they were more than happy to farm out their fighters to appear as analysts on the network, Kenny Florian became an ESPN employee. It was a wild time. But ESPN made a mistake.
ESPN, being the biggest sports entity in the world, and, at that time anyway, felt they had some obligation to uphold some journalistic standards when it came to covering this Mixed Martial Arts business. So, they reached out to Sherdog.com, the biggest MMA site in the world. Sherdog writers appeared on ESPN.com, the FightFinder, an invaluable and inexhaustible well of fight history, appeared on their MMA section. They even went so far as to hire Jake Rossen, still the best writer to ever cover this sport, in terms of committing compelling words to paper, anyway. It was an earnest attempt to actually cover not just the UFC, but MMA as a whole.
The UFC wanted none of that. Over time the presence of Sherdog faded away, to be replaced with Franklin McNeil, a seemingly nice enough guy, but a guy who thought Caol Uno was a card game and did a great job of reporting what the UFC wanted him to report. Years later, the UFC would have Ariel Helwani fill this role, bit it took some trial and error beofre they got the whole media thing sorted out. What had started as an honest attempt at coverage turned into a farce, the MMA section of ESPN.com went from featuring Sherdog articles on prospects and Strikeforce shows to dolled up version of UFC.com.
Even after giving up their online coverage to the UFC marketing machine, ESPN still didn’t seem all that interested in carrying the fights. They would show some highlights of the really big fights, but when the UFC was poised to leave Spike TV, ESPN didn’t pony up the money, and instead the UFC ended up the cornerstone of their fledgling competitor, FS1. Disney wasn’t ready to be in the fight business yet, at least not fights that took place in a cage. But, when the rights came up again in 2018, ESPN was all over it. The UFC became a huge part of their new streaming service and now has an enhanced presence on all of their terrestrial television channels.
Why, though? Why now? The UFC is more unsavory than it has ever been, we’ve got Conor McGregor as the face of the sport, Jon Jones can’t stop failing drug tests, the need for marketable fighters has grown so great that the UFC heavily promoted unrepentant domestic abuser Greg Hardy. These aren’t the days of Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes, we are a long way from the most controversial bit of pre-fight hype being Georges St. Pierre being vocally unimpressed with Matt Hughes, Greg Hardy fighting as the co-main event of a show is a far cry from Sean Gannon, on the heels of beating Kimbo Slice in a New England basemetn, fighting on the prelims. Part of it is that ESPN is under new management, long time president John Skipper left recently, but the President of ESPN still has to answer to the people at Disney, so a regime change isn’t completely to blame.
Before the UFC’s debut on ESPN+, paid shill and fair weather journalistic ethics advocate, Ariel Helwani appeared on Dan Le Batard’s radio show to promote the show. It was a perfect encapsulation of the current state of both ESPN and the UFC and their relationship. In introducing Helwani, Le Batard sums up in a sentence what it took me nine paragraphs to do. “[MMA]’s a sewer that ESPN didn’t want before but wants now all of a sudden, it was too violent for Disney but now it’s fine.” He’s right, there has never been a time in the history of the UFC that the company has seemed like more of a sewer. Even in the very earliest days, it was brutal and uncharted, but the people involved in the sport, outside of some of the poeple involved in marketing it, looked like elementary school teachers compared to the crass and boorish stars of the UFC. Tank Abbott was a braggadocios drunk, but he wasn’t a racist troll like Colby Covington. As for the whole violence thing, this unconscionable violence, well last time a checked fighters were still hitting each other really hard with tiny gloves, not a whole has changed on that front.
Later in the “interview,” and if you go listen to the clip you’ll see why those quotation marks are appropriate, when he’s not belittling Helwani, LeBatard hits the nail on the head again. “Dana White wanted John Skipper just to be seen at a fight with him, because that sport, as you know, has the reputation of sewage, and that sewage isn’t something that Disney necessarily wanted to get into bed with. And so now, what has happened is Disney sees ‘Oh, there’s money to be made in MMA,’ and Disney’s buying everything, and ESPN’s buying everything, and now we’re telling you that the violence is okay. It wasn’t okay before, but now the violence is okay, and now we sell it to you with ESPN+.” John Skipper, the former president of ESPN, wanted nothing to do with the UFC, he didn’t have to get down in the much with Dana White. He didn’t have to lower himself, and ESPN, and Disney, to the subterranean level, but he didn’t have a streaming service to hock and an ever crumbling number of cable subscribers. Things changed.
MMA hasn’t evolved, it hasn’t matured, it hasn’t cleaned up its act, it hasn’t risen up out of the sewer. The action in the cage has gotten more complex and more refined, but the sport itself, the people in it, the way they market it, its been declining for a long time. When UFC on ESPN 1 opens up, people will try to sell it to you as a great accomplishment. They’ll say “look how far the UFC has come.” Dana White will be on camera grinning, having accomplished his dream. Dana will get credit for classing up the sport, for taking the sport from the Indian reservations and backyards into the arenas, for getting the sport back on Pay-Per-View. It is all a lie. The only thing the UFC has done is make enough money that ESPN finally wanted a taste. It has nothing to do with graduating to the big time, nothing to do with the great athletes in the sport. It has everything to do with getting you to subscribe to ESPN+ to watch the sewer sport.
This Awful Announcing article has clips of the whole Helwani interview and is where the transcriptions of the LeBetard quotes come from.