Mainstream coverage vs. niche news: the forces at work in the combat subculture.

UFC on FOX - Aidan O'Connor - mmamusing

Afraid to miss the latest breaking news, MMA media’s attention is fixed on the sport’s fighting organizations. Journalists do not dare avert their gaze often. The “greatest heavyweight fight ever,” the launch of the UFC’s digital network and the promotion’s longest-reigning world champion vacates his title. A lot can happen in seven days.

For one moment, though, let’s shift focus and examine the forces that shape and distribute these entertaining news stories—the MMA media.

Following the 20-year anniversary of MMA’s debut on pay-per-view, we are reminded how much the sport has evolved. From the days of UFC 1 to primetime network television, MMA’s short history as a televised broadcast creates a dynamic that no other mainstream sport shares. In the chaos of MMA’s popularity explosion, promotions have surfaced around the world, vying for a dominant slice of the market share. These organizations, with regular events and a wealth of associated news stories, have created a sports landscape so vast that reporting every item with rich detail has become unfeasible. From this, questions of preferential treatment toward particular MMA promotions arise. Why does one outfit get more coverage than another? Is this practice wrong? Should this trend be corrected?

Let’s examine the forces that have a direct impact on MMA news outlets, determining if there is a bias and what effect this has on the sport.

The Passion of Journalists

Before mainstream sports media groups like USA Today, ESPN and Sky accepted MMA as a legitimate sport, there was a distinct void in its coverage. Very quickly, devout fans filled this space, volunteering their leisure time to pursue MMA journalism. As the sport has grown, these “hardcore loyals” have established themselves as the leading personalities in MMA media.

It is inevitable that passionate fans have the strongest opinions. These preferences sometimes manifest as an attraction to one MMA organization over another. This can reflect in the news outlet’s choice of coverage. As an example, Tatame, the Brazilian media outfit, offers extensive coverage of MMA promotions in Brazil, compared to Fighters Only, a U.K. magazine that features European MMA personalities more regularly. Passion often enables quality coverage. In the ocean of international sports media stories, the quality of a news story will always prevail over its quantity.

Diversity Breeds Subjectivity

Many people in and out of MMA regard the sport as the purest form of competition. Competition is a subjective topic, though, interpreted differently on an individual basis. Every fan and MMA promotion has their own outlook on the best format for presenting the sport. Some prefer the tournament format that Bellator represents, whereas others favor a landscape without titles where fighters compete without reservation, like the early days of the World Series of Fighting. As another example, some MMA fans might prefer MFC’s ring to the circular cage of Bellator.

Geographical location, fighter roster and broadcast avenues also distinguish each promotion. Rather than observe this subjectivity as bias, we should embrace these kinds of favoritisms as committed interest in a diverse sport. Any positive media coverage of MMA is better than no coverage, after all.

The Reality of Voluntary Journalism

As a more practical outlook on MMA media, voluntary contributors still form a large part of the journalism machine profiling the sport today. The ability of these journalists to accommodate MMA coverage into their daily lifestyles, around a job, a family or other commitments, is commendable. This reality, however, limits the scope of their coverage. Perceptions of bias media might mistake this as a voluntary decision. Some MMA journalists must be selective of the material they cover as a consequence of the necessity to attract readers and the demands of reality outside of MMA.

The Demands of the Casual Fan

Returning to MMA’s unofficial tagline as “the purest form of regulated physical competition” reveals a lot about the sport’s target audience. The MMA fan’s mentality is arguably the most influential factor affecting sports media outlets and their coverage. Interest translates to readership, which is the fundamental goal of journalism.

MMA viewers have an innate desire to see the best in action. The outcome of the fight—who walks away the glorious winner and who leaves humbled in defeat—is a huge part of viewers’ emotional investment in the sport. It is the premise behind each fight and a big reason why the sport’s fans gravitate towards the UFC.

The UFC attracts MMA’s most talented fighters. Every modern fighter’s career path cements this notion; an impressive winning streak is the perfect résumé for a UFC contract. With the best roster of fighters, a majority of MMA fans regard the UFC’s world titles as the most credible in the industry. Zuffa’s acquisitions of Pride FC, the WEC and Strikeforce lend the organization even more credibility.

These accolades, along with intelligent matchmaking and superior production value, have helped the UFC attract more fans and viewers than any other promotion. The organization has earned its premier coverage in MMA media. Any “bias” approach by the MMA media shouldn’t be condemned. It is the industry putting its best foot forward. This practice has catapulted MMA from the fringes of society into mainstream sports’ inner circle in virtually two decades, which is a good thing.

The Impact of Network Interest

Another variable affecting the complexion of MMA sports news media is the influence of network providers carrying MMA programming. The focus here is on Fox, Spike and AXS TV, although there are other examples worldwide. These networks have their own business agendas, which naturally dictate the content of their own sports media outlets.

Fox is a staple of network and cable television and one of sports broadcasting’s biggest players. Its pedigree as a national network with an international reputation generates certain viewer expectations. Its audience demands top talent across major sports, presented with the highest production value. Fox’s deal with the UFC combines these qualities, and the partnership has flourished.

By paying for the UFC’s content, Fox is investing in an MMA brand, not the sport itself. Basic business logic has seen Fox use its resources to promote sports organizations exclusive to its network. There is no financial gain made from endorsing a competing product using its own sports media. Why would Pride FC tout Chuck Liddell as the greatest fighter of 2004 when Wanderlei Silva was under contract and blitzing through opponents? Similar logic applies here and is the motivation behind MMA media news programming such as UFC Tonight.

Among neutral sports media outlets like ESPN, there are other reasons behind a UFC-centric view of MMA. The UFC’s rapid expansion into unmarked territory has provided so many unique news stories that mainstream sports media outlets gravitate toward the UFC and its reputation as the pioneering organization most synonymous with the sport.

In contrast, AXS TV has adopted MMA programming tailored to the more avid MMA fan. Unable to compete with Fox’s finances and prestige, AXS TV has broadcast agreements with smaller promotions, like Legacy FC and BAMMA, for lesser fees.

AXS TV’s own network offers an ideal platform for developing these promotions. Whereas Fox and neutral sports media outlets focus on the UFC to reach the largest audience, AXS TV’s programming complements a more specific adult male demographic. Using its target audience’s reputation as committed fans, the network is taking a long-term approach to generating a healthy return on its investment. Without breaking the bank on high-profile talent, smaller organizations market their top fighters and grow a loyal viewership using regular coverage on AXS TV as part of the process. Inside MMA creates interest in AXS TV promotions that brands such as Legacy FC, BAMMA and the Resurrection Fighting Alliance might otherwise lack, given the neutral outlets’ preference toward the UFC.

The same can be said about Spike TV’s agreement with Bellator. Using its resources to enhance the promotion, Spike chose to develop Bellator as an MMA brand than retain the polished UFC product for a much higher price. Viacom’s current ownership of Bellator formalizes this perception.

Across the spectrum of MMA broadcasts, a pattern has developed. Every televised promotion has a contractual agreement with its network provider. Every provider has its own agenda, attracting more viewers to its product. It’s no surprise then that the network’s ability to promote its own product, using its own media, has a profound effect on the type and size of media coverage for different promotions.

The Final Word

Is there a bias in MMA media? Of course. Is this bias unique to MMA media? Of course not. This partiality is a product of two things: the pioneering growth of the UFC and mainstream providers distributing MMA programming. Each factor brings the sport to a larger global audience, which helps MMA thrive. It’s what we all want, right?

The sport is simply too complex and diverse in its young age to cover equally across all promotions. This variety is actually endearing, a testament to the sport’s appeal across borders, cultures and nationalities.

One might argue there is even a downside to throwing an ominous spotlight on budding organizations. In the heat of media speculation and excessive coverage, business owners can make rash decisions. Promotions have previously abandoned their natural business models for something more “popular” or “mainstream” and the outcome has not been ideal—take EliteXC and the Bellator pay-per-view that never was, for examples.

Without adequate preparation or time to find a niche in the MMA world, small, ambitious promotions can be brought to their knees by media scrutiny. New start-ups need time to correct production flaws, embrace a core group of talent and promote their product around its strengths. It is a process that takes time. Maybe the media’s good-natured trampling over every small promotion wouldn’t be such a good thing after all.

For more on the combat sports subculture, please see my editorial at: http://www.aidanoconnor.info/#!editorials/c1grv

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