The announcement of the UFC's new ranking system seemed like a logical and solid idea when I first heard about it last night. But a few moments of thought made it clear that I couldn't even think about applying -- even though I doubt I'd have been given a spot -- as I feel like the entire idea has some serious issues.
One of the most basic issues is the idea of voter manipulation. I've long complained about the fact that a large segment of MMA media is willing to effectively "sell" their opinions or their coverage in turn for access to either fighters or promotion.
And it didn't take long for one of MMA's most notable managers, Malki Kawa, to take to Twitter and initially joking but eventually becoming more serious and getting to the real issue when he tweeted:
Fighters, this is important, if your manager can't sell it may screw you out of important fights. This voting thing can be bigger than we think #rockthevote
If guys already alter coverage to ensure they please certain fighters and agents and retain access -- something I can promise you happens extremely often -- why would they not do the same with their rankings, altering them to bump certain fighters up a few spots? And trust me, when you don't meet demands made by promoters, fighters, agents..etc. the very first thing done is that they will threaten your access.
There is tremendous value for fighters and agents to be a few spots higher in "official rankings." Think about contract negotiations. A fighter who is sitting just outside of the top ten suddenly has considerably more leverage when negotiating for a new deal if he gets bumped a few spots to #10 or #9. Their agent can now sit down and say "I'm a top ten fighter, I need to be paid like it."
Or, as Kawa said, it provides leverage to get "important fights."
This isn't even an attempt to single out Kawa or make him look bad, he is simply being honest. An agent is going to do whatever they can to increase client value. I may think that tactics like pressuring media to alter honest opinions on rankings are ethically poor, but there's a fair argument to be made that they're "part of the job."
And even if the argument is made that Kawa -- again, only being singled out because he was the most vocal last night -- was "joking," talking to several media members last night it was clear that a message was being sent. This is part of the reason the reason that some established media members, like Yahoo!'s Kevin Iole, have already said they'd pass "I've already been invited, but I decline. Clear, unquestionable conflict of interest. No doubt about it." Others, like ESPN's Josh Gross, said that they think media "shouldn't have any input in how a promotion conducts its business."
In theory, all 90 member ballots should be made public so that everyone could be assured there is no fudging of the numbers by the promotion to move fighters around -- not that I'm saying the UFC and FightMetric would do that, but for the sake of complete transparency -- and voting members would be held accountable for what they put on paper.
However, public ballots also make it easier for managers to leverage media as they can see who isn't voting their guys "high enough."
There have been some who have pointed to the NCAA ranking systems, such as the AP poll, coaches poll and the Harris Interactive Poll as proof that the system "works" -- or is at least in place somewhat -- in other sports. But there are major differences. And some similarities:
- The AP poll no longer factors into the BCS rankings for NCAA football and has no input into NCAA baketball's post-season. However, even when it did -- and in the role it has now -- the NCAA had no input into who is a member of the rankings panel, unlike the UFC rankings. There are also clearly established ethical guidelines and it is clear that "homerism" (favoring teams in the area you cover) will lead to your dismissal from the panel. Still, there are obvious issues with the ranking system based on favoritism, voters not wavering from their preseason polls (i.e. leaving better teams below worse teams w/ same record because they started the season with the worse team ranked higher), and other factors.
- The Harris Interactive Poll replaced the AP poll as making up 33% of the weight of the BCS rankings. It is a poll based on 115 votes from former coaches, players, administrators and current and former members of the media. While there are clear issues with potential bias and homerism, the voting members each season are chosen randomly from a pool of more than 300 different nominees. Again, the NCAA has no input into who votes.
- All three polls have plenty of conflict-of-interest issues. This was on display in a big way this past year when every Big 12 ballot for the coaches poll voted nearly identically in what seemed to be an effort to ensure Oklahoma got a spot in the BCS instead of Northern Illinois, something that would have given Oklahoma a $17,000,000 check to share with the other Big 12 schools. So, yes, forgive me if I don't consider the NCAA to be the perfect model of a ranking system.
Ultimately I just have too many issues with the system as a whole, from the aforementioned input into UFC company business to the way the rankings are likely to play out. For these reasons and more, I'll join those who have passed on applying to the ranking board -- though I doubt I'd have been accepted anyway.
The thing I think MMA media most needs at this point in time is a base that no longer kowtows to promoters, agents and fighters to gain access and favor and, instead, focuses on honest reporting of news, honest analysis and honest opinion. I simply don't think that this ranking system moves us in that direction.
But maybe I'll be wrong and the rankings will be great and transparent and everyone involved will be open and honest with their ballots with no consideration to access or pleasing anyone. That'd be something...