“MMA Exists in an Alternate Universe, Far Away From the Laws That Govern the Rest of Humanity”
By Ben Goldstein
Here’s the deal: People have been making this argument for years now, and all the while, the UFC has continued to gobble up market share, land major sponsors, expand its impact on the Internet — they might even be buying a damn cable channel in the near future. Sure, pay-per-view buys are an obvious measurable that you can point to as proof that the promotion has plateaued. But it’s certainly not the only indicator of “growth.” And to blame Dana White’s t-shirt collection and frathouse vibe for the promotion’s flat PPV buys makes a pretty large assumption — that mainstream sports fans care about, or are even aware of, what the president of the UFC is doing at any given moment.
White is allowed to operate differently than the top brass of other sports because MMA exists in an alternate universe, far away from the laws that govern the rest of humanity. You’re right — things that get a pass in this sport would be completely unacceptable in any other. The solution isn’t to swap out the frontman for somebody as dull as David Stern, because then you’ll repel the UFC’s powerful fanbase, who shamelessly mark out for the outlaw quality of it all — the company president personally handing out stacks of tickets on the streets, the color-commentator saying whatever he wants, smoking whatever he wants, with zero professional repercussions.
That’s the UFC’s appeal. It’s a rebel sport. And to some extent it always will be, because you’re never going to convince people like Bob Reilly that two men fighting in a cage is acceptable family entertainment. Explicit violence is repulsive to some people; that’s a hurdle that other major sports don’t have to overcome.
Look, if you’re trying to convince me that Dana White is an immature asshole, you’re preaching to the choir. But to say that the UFC needs a “businessman” at the helm rather than a “character” just rings false to me, considering that the 10-year history of Zuffa has proven over and over again that Dana White is as good a businessman as any sports executive in the world. Granted, the UFC’s pay-per-view buys have absolutely stalled out, but before we go out on a limb and blame DW’s vulgarity, two other explanations seem more reasonable:
- The lack of regular broadcasts on network television. Getting on network TV is 100% critical for the UFC, if they want to complete their shift from niche sport to mainstream. If casual fans need to go to basic cable or PPV to find you, they won’t. The UFC’s rumored G4 deal might be a stepping stone to wind up on NBC one day. That will be monumental for the UFC’s viewership.
- The lack of nationwide legalization. Basically, New York is screwing this up for the rest of us. Until you can say “Our sport is legal in all 50 states” — until you get to the point where people don’t even need to ask anymore — MMA will be ghettoized in our culture. Dana White has worked his ass off to get the last pieces in place; it just hasn’t worked out yet.
I also think that the nature of the UFC’s events themselves — the fact that they all take place at night, and are generally very expensive to attend — is probably helping ensure that the sport continues to attract young single men rather than a more diverse, welcoming crowd. I suppose Dana White could consider lowering ticket prices, but unless he wants to move events to Saturday afternoons there’s not much he can do on that front. Combat sports just aren’t practical options for family outings.
DW’s an easy target for criticism because he doesn’t behave like any other successful business leader you see on television — but he’s done a hell of a lot for the sport so far, and the factors that are still holding back the UFC’s progress relate more to culture and politics than White’s personality. Like Rogan and Rampage, there will be a time when Dana White may have to act like a gentleman. Well, we’re not there yet by a long shot, so there’s no reason to replace him and risk turning off the fans who are actually sustaining the business.
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