In the 5 years since UFC left Fox to announce a landmark, $1.5 billion broadcasting deal via 2025 with ESPN, it has been exhausting to discover a time by which UFC president Dana White hasn’t been smiling.
White, the 53-year-old tireless maverick who has been the face of fight sports activities’ most profitable promotion since 2001, has sometimes closed every calendar 12 months reminding MMA media members simply how profitable the ESPN deal has been, normally by asserting UFC’s finest 12 months to this point financially in firm historical past.
The begin of 2023, nonetheless, has felt a bit completely different.
UFC presently finds itself on the crossroads of a regarding confluence of narratives, occasions and unresolved points — sometimes surrounding the remedy of its athletes — which have created a “excellent storm” of challenges that home the potential to threaten future success.
Of course, there’s thethat has dominated the headlines for 2 years whereas furthering the rift between White and an MMA media he frequently refers to as “scumbags” for questioning his determination making. Then, there’s the former fighter and revered coach James Krause, which has led to 2 UFC fighters being lower after the promotion banned all individuals from legally betting on fights amid authentic issues relating to the integrity of the product.
To make issues even worse, White publicly apologized this week after video surfaced of athat was caught on video in a nightclub in Mexico. No authorized expenses have been filed, however everybody from ESPN to the UFC and guardian firm Endeavor have been surprisingly quiet within the aftermath.
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The solely remark ESPN has made relating to the incident was to direct media again to the UFC by saying, “ESPN does the distribution and UFC produces the content material.” From the information of dangerous timing, the information of White’s home altercation got here on the identical day that former UFC fighter Phil Baroni was arrested in Mexico for.
All of this brings us to Thursday morning when, seemingly from left area, one in every of White’s most ardent critics, YouTube star turned professional boxer Jake Paul, introduced he was signing a two-fight MMA deal below the PFL banner, launching a pay-per-view “tremendous struggle” division. PFL additionally introduced Paul could be receiving firm fairness and that his arrival would imply PPV fighters would obtain “no less than” 50% of income, which is a purposeful jab aimed toward UFC, which pays its fighters, in accordance with earlier court docket filings, slightly below 20% of general income.
While the Paul information could seem unrelated on the floor, the largest shock issue from the announcement was that ESPN, which holds a smaller output take care of PFL, basically acquired one in every of White’s largest PPV adversaries in Paul, who has created a cottage trade boxing retired UFC fighters, to compete instantly towards him below the identical community banner.
Nakisa Bidarian, a former CFO of the UFC who White has beforehand dismissed as a “scumbag accountant” was additionally employed by PFL and given an fairness share. Bidarian, who co-founded Paul’s Most Valuable Promotions, will help with league operations and technique for the PFL’s PPV growth.
PFL co-founder Donn Davis even used the Paul announcement, throughout an interview Thursday with the New York Times, to declare precisely what his intentions are.
“You’re not a prisoner anymore to UFC,” Davis mentioned. “You can now select UFC or PFL, however what makes PFL completely different is we’re popping out with a real financial partnership for fighters.”
While none of the present points going through UFC are prone to result in any crippling short-term points — save for ESPN, UFC and its guardian firm Endeavor’s deafening silence relating to White — the long-term risk of every drawback cannot be ignored.
The focus of each Paul and Davis on fighter remedy does transcend merely pay, nonetheless, and has some direct correlation with the continued playing scandal, which impacts UFC in additional methods than credibility contemplating it signed a 5-year, $350 million take care of DraftKings in 2021.
One of Krause’s former fighters, featherweight Darrick Minner, entered a now notorious Nov. 5 struggle towards Shaylian Nuerdanbieke with what gave the impression to be a pre-existing leg harm. Minner used the injured leg to kick twice within the first spherical earlier than buckling over in ache and being stopped by way of elbow strikes.
The dramatic swing within the prefight’s odds, which together with main cash coming in on a first-round TKO loss for Minner, led to the struggle being faraway from varied sportsbooks, with UFC betting quickly banned in varied jurisdictions, together with the Canadian province of Ontario, till the investigation that led to Krause and Minner’s banishment was carried out.
But exterior of the very actual worry that the Minner struggle teased the potential of impropriety behind the scenes and escalation of hypothesis into struggle fixing, his lot won’t be that completely different than what occurred to former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in an October loss to present champion Aljamain Sterling.
Dillashaw badly injured his shoulder in coaching camp and later admitted it got here out of the socket. Dillashaw would go on to lose by way of second-round TKO after a shoulder separation within the opening minute left him largely unable to compete. The connection between Minner and Dillashaw surrounds pre-existing accidents and UFC coverage, which dictates the promotion will solely pay for surgical procedure after accidents suffered contained in the Octagon.
On the floor, the profitable ESPN deal and the fixed move of recent sponsors being added recommend UFC has advanced to a stage of success and crossover viability it might solely have dreamed of 15 years earlier. Back in 2008, UFC was changing into an rising PPV automobile that rivaled that of boxing however had bother breaking via the stigma of cage preventing sufficient to attract constant protection from main shops like ESPN (full disclosure: I labored for ESPN from 2005-2017).
During every step of the corporate’s rise, White was forward of the sport prophesizing concerning the model’s world potential and that UFC would at some point be thought of a “huge 4 sport” entity on par with NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and elite school sports activities. To White’s credit score, that turned a actuality, with the signing of the ESPN deal and the intentional crossover promotion of the game via legacy platforms on the community reminiscent of “SportsCenter” and “First Take” seen as a commencement, of types, to the nation membership stage of respectability.
White’s already rock-solid status for persistently exceeding fan’s expectations for large fights was additional cemented into legendary immortality by the brazen methods by which. Suddenly, ESPN was the one place on the town to go to for stay sports activities within the spring and summer season of 2020, when UFC rallied to satisfy its minimal set of dates required by the ESPN deal whereas White’s rivals sat idle.
Both UFC and White turned the darling of nearly everybody, from followers to the identical ESPN executives who partnered with them. But the sleek journey wasn’t with out bumps as White was reportedly advised to “stand down” by Disney, ESPN’s guardian firm, in April 2020 whenon Native American grounds earlier than any state commissions had given the approval.
What this present cluster of probably compromising points appears to query for UFC, nonetheless, is whether or not White and his trusted struggle promotion are really prepared for prime time from the standpoint of the duties that include being offered as such a mainstream entity, particularly because the ESPN deal has supplied UFC choose dates on terrestrial tv with ABC.
ESPN’s silence within the aftermath of White’s home scandal appears to query whether or not the community really views UFC on the identical stage as the opposite main leagues it companions with, together with the NFL and NBA. Could a commissioner or front-facing government of some other main sport have survived this type of dangerous press with no punishment? And what’s ESPN’s duty, as an editorial entity, in protecting the matter as aggressively as it will different sports activities?
White has constructed a lot of his status upon how politically incorrect he frequently chooses to be. That form of seat-of-your-pants management would possibly work higher when UFC was airing on Spike TV or Fuel TV in earlier eras, when MMA was seen as nothing greater than uncivilized brawling to the surface world. But it merely cannot maintain on this stage, the place beforehand tiny or forgotten issues turn out to be front-page information.
What occurred with White and his spouse was something however tiny and has a ripple impact throughout a fight sports activities group that already has an terrible observe file in terms of home abuse and the remedy of victims. The rallying cry of fighters, followers and even media members who publicly supported White in current days suggests there’s nonetheless main change that must be executed.
UFC might need fulfilled all or most of White’s lofty goals to get to the place it’s right this moment. But if current historical past is any indicator, that honeymoon is over and uneven waters are close to for an organization whose response to severe points stays profoundly immature for the platform it carries.