The future of ESPN’s Ariel Helwani is up in the air.
According to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, Helwani’s contract with the network is worth “a little less than half a million dollars per year.” Helwani’s deal with ESPN expires in June, and while negotiations seem to be ongoing, there is no guarantee that Helwani will stay with ESPN.
“Ariel does great work for ESPN and we expect that to continue going forward,” ESPN VP Josh Krulewitz said in a statement to Marchand.
ESPN has been in cost cutting mode. In a recent round of layoffs the company eliminated 500 jobs.
The wild card in Helwani’s work with ESPN is UFC president Dana White. White has made it abundantly clear over the past few years that he does not like Helwani’s style of journalism.
In 2016, Helwani, who was then with MMA Fighting, was let go from his role with FOX Sports and briefly “banned for life” from UFC events.
When Helwani signed on with ESPN in 2018, he said, “I’m so happy because when I left Fox, what hurt me the most wasn’t that they listened to Dana or the UFC and cut ties for no fault of my own, it’s that I never felt I had any support, I never felt they had my back, I never felt there was loyalty there. Even before I stepped through the doors here (ESPN) on Friday, I noticed right away, particularly from Glenn (Jacobs) but from other people as well, this is an incredibly loyal company. The things they were saying to me blew my mind, without me even being on board yet.”
The UFC had signed its deal with ESPN before Helwani joined the network, but the promotion did not broadcast its first ESPN event until January 2019. Helwani had no worries about the relationship with the UFC when he joined ESPN.
“Zero worries whatsoever,” said Helwani. “I’ve been reassured about various different things for several months now. …Glenn has been incredible to work with, we started this process, and I feel they’ve made a real big commitment and now my job is to prove them right and show them that loyalty back.
“Even from the UFC, I heard from many people very high up in the company when this deal was announced saying how happy they were for me and how they were looking forward to working with me, even people I didn’t even talk to on a day-to-day basis. So it’s really all been incredibly positive.”
Things between White and Helwani seemed to cool down for a while, but that changed recently.
White, not one to let go of a grudge, called Helwani a “douche” for allegedly inserting himself in the conversation around Gina Carano’s firing by Disney. “Leave her alone. We make mistakes, we all make mistakes,” White said when asked about the social media posts that got Carano fired. “For everyone to go in on her. I love how Ariel Helwani made it all about him, such a douche.”
Several of Helwani’s colleagues at ESPN spoke out in his defense, but it took ESPN three days to respond to White’s words, and when it responded, the statement was tepid — at best.
“Ariel is a valued colleague and an exceptional MMA reporter. His record speaks for itself,” ESPN wrote.
It’s not unreasonable to think White and ESPN may have had conversations about Helwani, the network, and the UFC behind closed doors—especially since White was reportedly involved with Helwani’s exit from FOX Sports. The NY Post article posits that Helwani could leave ESPN for greener pastures, but that may prove more difficult if the UFC president is bullish about wanting his exit from the promotion’s broadcast partner.
Suggestions were made that Helwani could possibly go to Meadowlark, Dan Le Batard and John Skipper’s new company, for his podcast. Or perhaps CBS/Showtime as a potential destination. The Post’s most interesting idea was that Helwani, who has over 977,000 Twitter followers and 1M followers on Instagram, could even go the subscription route.
There are several problems with each of the options Marchand put forth. If Helwani departs ESPN, he’ll likely leave behind Daniel Cormier and Chael Sonnen as his podcast partners. It’s also worth wondering if he’ll lose access to many high profile UFC fighters. Would the longtime podcast host be able to conduct a high profile show without access to the highest levels of MMA talent? Without his partners and easy access there should be some worry about maintaining the kind of huge profile Helwani has built with ESPN on a service like Substack.
It’s also worth noting that, if Helwani becomes a more regular public target for White’s ire, he could create a lot of regular fan backlash against any future endeavors for the longtime MMA show host. White is the most promoted individual with the promotion. That has been true since the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001. And it remains true since WME-IMG purchased the promotion for $4 billion in 2016. White’s word carries weight with fans and fighters, and if he puts his sites on Helwani’s next endeavor, he’ll likely do so with a heavy hand.
On the surface, the Post’s suggestions look good and smart. And if this was anything or anyone outside the orbit of the UFC, I wouldn’t argue about Helwani’s ability to succeed. But, White has taken a hard aim at other MMA media members before.
I’m sure the commissioners in other sports have journalists, reporters and bloggers who they dislike, but they rarely seem to put themselves at the forefront of their media spats in the way that White has done time and time again.