The UFC’s curious response to ESPN’s piece

(Editing a little after listening to the Josh Gross podcast with Outside the Lines reporter John Barr.)

I have to start with a disclaimer, of course. If there’s a dispute between the UFC and ESPN, then I’m in the bad situation of being beholden to both sides. I’ve done some freelance work for ESPN, though none for Outside the Lines and very little (one story) relating to MMA. I also have reasons for keeping up good ties with the UFC.

So in writing about the dispute over the Outside the Lines story on UFC fighter pay, I’m either being incredibly stupid or simply trusting that all involved will be kind enough not to hold anything against me.

But frankly, no one should be horribly offended by anything I’m writing here. This is really more of a summary for those who didn’t get a chance to see the full broadcast Sunday morning or the rebuttal the UFC has released. And it gives some insight into the steps the UFC is taking as it continues to move into the mainstream.

The first thing you may notice if you’ve watched both pieces is that the UFC isn’t really refuting many of the points offered in the piece. That’s because the piece wasn’t particularly damning. SB Nation’s Luke Thomas called it “a tepid piece on fighter pay.”

But many UFC fans didn’t watch the ESPN piece. They’re only going to see what Dana White releases in response.

So many fans may think that the clips of Lorenzo Fertitta in the UFC rebuttal didn’t air in the ESPN piece. Most of them actually did. The consensus among most sources I’ve read is that Fertitta came across quite well.

One major exception, released earlier, is a clip of Fertitta turning the tables on his interviewer to point out how little some fighters on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights are paid. Judging by the Twitter reaction, people think Fertitta “pwned” ESPN with that bit. But the more knowledgeable MMA fans or media watchers know that ESPN isn’t the promoter of Friday Night Fights. It’s not ESPN’s job to determine how much the undercard fighters are paid.

Nor are the undercard fighters on those shows in any way comparable to UFC fighters. In MMA terms, Friday Night Fights is the rough equivalent of Shark Fights or a decent regional promotion. And the ratings reflect it. UFC draws more viewers for undercard fights than Friday Night Fights draws for its main events.

The rest of the UFC’s video consists of fighters Chuck Liddell (retired, now in UFC front office), Forrest Griffin (active) and Matt Serra (somewhat active) talking about the UFC’s generosity. Their testimony would be an effective counter to the ESPN piece … if ESPN’s Josh Gross hadn’t made exactly the same point on the program. Gross even brought up the UFC’s generosity toward fighter Dan Miller when his son needed surgery, which says a lot more about White and Fertitta’s kindness than the testimonies of established stars ever could.

The most effective rebuttal in the UFC video is a clip of Ken Shamrock telling Tito Ortiz that they made good money. That’s a subtle shot at Shamrock, who got a fair amount of screen time in the ESPN piece claiming the UFC has near-monopoly power in the MMA marketplace. OTL host Bob Ley noted on air that Shamrock also had recently lost to the UFC in court — a Nevada Supreme Court appeal over the interpretation of his contract and whether the UFC owed him another fight.

Let’s go back to the word “monopoly.” Aside from Shamrock’s comments and an awkward exchange between Ley and Ricco Rodriguez, a fighter who would have no claim to make it back to the UFC on merit at this stage, ESPN went into little detail about the monopoly issue. I don’t recall a mention of Bellator and certainly didn’t hear anything about its purchase by Viacom.** A few months ago, White said the Viacom purchase makes the UFC “the Mom and Pop” brand by comparison. Hyperbole, perhaps, but the legitimate question the UFC could raise is why fighters choose their entry-level contracts instead of a Bellator deal. Or a deal with Shark Fights or any number of well-intentioned regional promoters.

Outside the Lines did mention that ESPN UFC* bought Strikeforce. It didn’t mention the other once-viable competitors — EliteXC, Affliction or any number of Japanese promotions. Most of those imploded on their own. Can’t really blame the UFC if Affliction overpaid all its fighters or if EliteXC pinned its hopes on a former backyard brawler who was hyped as something huge but was never really a top-20 fighter.

But that’s not the point the UFC made. And it’s because the UFC knows it isn’t arguing in front of a judge or jury (at least, not here — in a case that reached the august pages of The Economist, the Federal Trade Commission is having a look-see). Fertitta and White know they’re arguing in front of fans, many of whom are enamored of the UFC’s pugnacious approach to things. So they’re arguing to their audience, many of whom flocked to applaud White on Twitter and on blogs.

In all likelihood, there’s no harm done. Fertitta says fighter pay has been going steadily upward in recent years, and that’s likely to continue. (A sadder story that might be worth some investigation: When will fighters outside the UFC earn decent money?) Entry-level fighters certainly shouldn’t be any worse off after ESPN’s scrutiny.

As for the rest of us, we can only hope that whatever battle the UFC may fight with ESPN doesn’t cause any collateral damage that makes it more difficult for us to enjoy watching and reading about this impressive sport.

* – In the initial post, I got my abbreviations confused and said ESPN bought Strikeforce. It did not. That would’ve been interesting.

** – The Gross/Barr podcast describes problems they had getting Bellator to participate. And Gross noted skepticism over Bellator in the MMA community, saying their contracts can be restrictive. 

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