Last Friday the UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, sent a message when they denied media credentials for Strikeforce: Diaz vs Daley to a number of sports reporters. The UFC has always taken an aggressive stance with reporters, viewing credentials as a reward for coverage they like, rather than as a way to help the press cover the sport.
CBS Sports reporter Loretta Hunt, a veteran MMA journalist who has written for Full Contact Fighter, Sherdog and the Los Angeles Times, was one of those denied credentials. As a result CBS Sports pulled all coverage of the event. Hunt spoke with Sherdog's Jason Probst (transcription via Fight Opinion) about the situation:
"Did it hurt me? Yeah, sure. That was my first assignment for CBS Sports. I worked with one of the editors, producers over there who does the NFL and also had done MMA in the past. His name is Denny Burkholder, he's a big fan of Mixed Martial Arts and CBS Sports, I'm told, hasn't really covered MMA for the last year or so for various reasons I'm told because they've had some difficulty with getting interviews and things like that in the past, so they kind of cooled off from it and then they were coming back in, this was the first show that they were going to do in quite some time. They brought me in, assigned me, and then we were turned down. So, CBS Sports decided that they just weren't going to do any coverage at all of the UFC. They don't want to be told who they can send to their events and who they shouldn't send to their events representing them.
"Yeah, I mean that I'm sad this door closed. I mean, a door really did close. CBS Sports is not going to look at MMA for at least a little while."
"Yeah, you know, I don't want to speak out of turn. I just, I had some conversation with CBS Sports a little bit. They just haven't really covered Mixed Martial Arts so much because, uh, you know, because like I said I don't want to speak out of turn but I definitely got the indication that, you know, when they were running the Elite XC events on CBS which was a competitor, you know, I think some of the access that they wanted to get in interviewing certain people and stuff was difficult for them. They felt some kind of restriction, so they kind of backed away from it and this was them kind of dipping their toe back in the water again...
"But, you know, the bigger picture here is, it's not just about me, there's other people involved, too. There's other media that's not allowed in. It's the UFC's decision that they're going to do this because, from everything I've been told, this doesn't happen in other sports. Journalists are granted credentials if they work for a reliable media outlet and, you know, are responsible reporters. I don't think it's been proven that any of us on this banned/restricted list were ever irresponsible in our reporting, we haven't been. So, you know, that's the bigger picture with the media ban for people are kind of stepping into this and seeing this for the first time."
In part of the discussion, Hunt references a recent blog post by Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, explaining his view of sports media in 2011. Cuban makes a number of interesting points. His central argument is that in the modern media environment a sports team is also a media company using its web site, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate directly to its fans.
We'll hear more from Cuban his fellow NBA owner Ted Leonsis and SI columnist Jeff Wagenheim in the full entry as well as seeing a breakdown of the UFC and WWE business models.
For this reason, Cuban has sorted requests for media access into distinct categories: Newspapers, TV, and Internet Reporters. He views the first two categories as essential outlets that he must cooperate with to reach their audiences which are often offline and out of the reach of the Mavericks own media efforts. Internet reporters, not so much.
Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has a more open approach than Cuban and responded to Cuban's diatribe. It's clear from Leonsis' piece that he shares Cuban's frustrations on a personal, emotional level, but nevertheless is maintaining an open access policy because he believes in openness and dialogue.
But note the key difference between Mark Cuban and Dana White and their media policies. Cuban has made a hard-headed decision to tolerate the media outlets he can't replace and purge the rest.
In contrast, White is more than happy to restrict access to entities like CBS Sports and ESPN that undeniably bring audiences that the UFC/Strikeforce can't reach on their own. Meanwhile many sites that Cuban would ban because they don't bring a unique audience and are blatantly engaging in rumor-mongering to generate traffic are credentialed.
Ironically Cuban's own HDNet was long blocked from using UFC footage on its Inside MMA program. They've since worked out a deal, but it took Cuban backing off entirely from any talk of competing with the UFC as a promoter.
Hunt points out the contrast between the Zuffa approach to press and most mainstream sports:
"(Zuffa) wants to move into being a mainstream sport and a mainstream league at this point, like I don't think that's there any argument that UFC is now the our league of our sport, right? The thing that we didn't think would happen but it happened and, you know, I gladly I can admit that and say that about this sport. If they want to be like all the other leagues, you know, the NBA like you know barring whatever Mark Cuban is considering, the NFL, all these other guys they don't restrict the media and I bet you they don't like the media that comes through because they are probably a lot more critical in other sports than the hardest critics are in Mixed Martial Arts. So, what's happening is extraordinary and makes us seem kind of hokey, you know, Mixed Martial Arts compared to all the other sports. What other big promotion do you know that doesn't let the media in? It's the WWE, it's the professional wrestling. They don't let certainly media in that they don't like, who they don't want covering certain things. Dave Meltzer's been banned from the WWE for years. So the UFC's following a model of a fake sport!"
UFC fans don't want to hear this, but Vince McMahon is clearly Dana White's business role model. The WWE has built its business on the following:
- Use of free cable TV programming to reach fans and promote Pay Per Views
- PPV as the big revenue driver
- Aggressive international expansion
- Ruthlessly compete against domestic competitors and buy any that are too big to crush
- Use the brand and the company executives as the front man of the company to prevent any single fighter/performer from getting too big.
UPDATE: Sports Illustrated columnist Jeff Wagenheim pulls no punches:
On the same night that Strikeforce ascended to the major leagues of MMA, running what by all accounts was a smoother, slicker show while bidding adieu to insufferable window dressing such as the pyrotechnics that at past events had rattled bones during fighter introductions, the organization also apparently stooped to the amateur-hour vindictiveness of its new ownership. Two reporters assigned to cover Saturday's event by major media outlets were denied press credentials, just as they have been refused access to all UFC events in recent years after writing stories White evidently didn't consider worthy of his company's PR clip file.
"It would be a good thing if news organizations applied some counterpressure," said Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing and sports journalism at the Poynter Institute. "When the leaders of a sport start screwing around with press credentialing in response to what they perceive to be unfavorable coverage, that sends a big message to all responsible journalists who are covering that sport."
It might take a while for that message to sink in with enough media members for it to make a difference. Perhaps nothing will change until the UFC and Strikeforce are firmly entrenched in the American sports fabric, and company officials are regularly dealing with editors who demand the professionalism of mainstream sports leagues and teams. Clark, for one, believes the time will come.
"Any time someone tries to control coverage in this way, it backfires," Clark said. "They look like jerks. They look like bush leaguers. And the actions that they take against journalists become stories in and of themselves. They end up inviting negative coverage."
Wagenheim, a tenured member of the elite sports writers fraternity that has been so resistant to covering MMA, is an opinion leader in his circles. Other sports writers and pundits who are less open-minded about MMA than Wagenheim will take their queues from him.
The big league sports news entities that the UFC needs desperately if they truly want to make MMA the biggest sport in the world are watching and they are not impressed. But again, I think Dana White knows exactly what he's doing. His interests are perfectly served by keeping MMA as the biggest PPV sport in the U.S. and nothing more.