A long-standing exposure to mainstream sports has trained the casual fan to recognise the regular features of a popular sport’s broadcast. On prime networks today, the presentations of American football; soccer; baseball; basketball; and even the Olympics mirror one another. Combined, they have created a legitimacy accepted by the vague, overarching demographic of a sports fan.
As MMA looks to breach the inner circle in record time, this blog looks to examine the subtle tactics that MMA organisations could employ if they intend to achieve this level of mainstream credibility.
Legitimacy is just as much about perception as the quality of content being shared with an audience. There is no denying the credibility of in-ring competition today. Popular labels like ‘government regulation,’ ‘unified rules,’ and ‘state commissions’ are a testament to this growth since a time when cage-grabbing and crotch-punching were legal. The transition over twenty years is remarkable, certainly nothing to critique. My focus in this article is the external qualities of MMA’s presentation. What features could MMA promotions adopt from alternative broadcasts? Which changes would improve their product, without harming the existing facets that make the sport so endearing to us in the first place?
Part I – Greater media collaboration with the fighter’s coaching team.
There is a popular scrutiny of the coaching staff in other mainstream sports that adds an extra layer of discussion to all associated media coverage. There are times when the head coach’s exploits, good or bad, dominate the headlines more than the talent actually competing – see Sir Alex Ferguson or Bob Knight. There are plenty of gains from showcasing a talent’s coaching staff. Equally, there is a fine line between featuring coaches in media and overly criticising them when a fighter underperforms. While MMA coaches aren’t contracted to oversee their fighters as in other sports, their passion is just as strong.
There are several ways coaches could be further integrated into the MMA product. I will expand on these and their benefits below.
Coaches, by choice and definition, are the most avid students of MMA. An acute ability to break down techniques and point out the slightest flaws in furious exchanges certainly makes their insights valuable. Added to that, MMA coaches communicate these precise observations to aspiring fighters on a regular basis. A coach’s pundit analysis on promotion and media broadcasts would flourish. Tapping into his/her occupational skills, a martial arts coach can analyse MMA bouts in an entertaining and educational fashion; for hardcore and casual fans respectively,
There is an intangible quality to all MMA bouts that is often discussed in pre-fight media attention; the intrigue of ‘the gameplan’. Styles make fights. Journalists, broadcasters and analysts have committed hours to weighing one fighting style against another, debating which strategy will prevail.
Bellator’s pre-fight interviews with competitors, moments before their walkout, are not that effective. However, comments from their head coach about preparation and gameplan would provide a view into the fighter’s mentality that builds anticipation without affecting their state of mind.
Embracing the ‘team sports’ motif
Media collaboration with coaches would also appease the casual viewer who prefers the ‘team sports’ dynamic. Bringing coaches into the broadcast through media features would slowly introduce an element of camp allegiance to the MMA phenomenon. We don’t want to merge into IFL territory, where the teams received greater attention than their individual fighters, but there is scope to raise the profile of a camp; once they have established multiple successful fighters in MMA. From a PR perspective, every compelling story has a fundamental appreciation of context. This notion draws from human psychology; the more one knows about a subject, the more they can emotionally invest themselves in it.
The rise of Team Alpha Male following Duane Ludwig’s addition as head coach is a prime example. ‘Bang’s’ influence was so great that Raphael Assunção’s win over T.J. Dillashaw in October was enhanced by Alpha Male’s collective success beforehand. A profile of certain camps, similar to the UFC Primetime series, would enjoy residual effects from this attention. Fans could be inspired to join a gym themselves after seeing the positive effects elite MMA academies have on individual students and the local community. Whether a team’s demeanour is likeable or frustrating, their reception would translate to market value. The investigation into a fight’s back-story would compel more viewers to watch it.
There’s even potential to develop merchandise, allowing fans to rep their favourite camps as team brands are established.
They are nice, down-to-earth people!
As risky as it is to focus on organisations beyond a promotion’s control, profiling certain coaches and their camps offers a relatively low PR threat. Through interactions, fighters portray martial arts coaches as humble, caring and loyal individuals. It is hard to recollect a scenario where a coach has poorly portrayed themselves. When Jon Jones declined to fight on a week’s notice at UFC 151, even in the face of criticism from Dana White and the UFC, head coach Greg Jackson remained loyal to the Jones and the teams’ best interests even at the expense of a payday. It might not have been a popular decision, but the entire scenario underlined the loyalty of MMA coaches.
From a PR standpoint, profiling coaches offers multiple benefits. Their integration into broadcasts and media attention (relevant to the size of the promotion) would glorify the technical nuances inside the cage. Stimulating a greater appreciation of the talent and their hard work, their knowledgeable and passionate insights would be accessible to various audiences. Hearing a Duke Roufus or Mike Winkejohn more often would only improve this MMA fan’s experience.
Ultimately, martial arts coaches have committed themselves to a career of helping other people improve in a sport where humility is integral. It is a commendable role, one that the sport could benefit from highlighting.