(Look closely, and you can actually see suckers being born every minute. / Photo via Getty / For previous installments of Shill Em’ All, click here.)
Everyone has a vague idea of how three-card Monte works: a street hustler places three cards face-down. A mark is enticed into finding the money card. Using misdirection, subterfuge and distraction, the hustler dupes the mark into picking the wrong card over and over. Sometimes a “shill” aids the hustler by playing the game and making it appear winnable.
The fight game is a similar hustle where many MMA journalists often play the role of the shill. Rather than being independent, certain MMA outlets and journalists are working in concert with the promoter to achieve a specific aim. Often, the promoter is buying publicity for their product, which is fair game considering that running an MMA promotion is a brutal marketplace where only the fittest survive.
Speaking in direct reference to a then-SiriusXM radio personality Scott Ferrall being paid a talent fee to attend UFC shows, UFC president Dana White said, “Believe me, in building this business, we had to do some things.”
It’s critical for an event promoter to spend money on the front end — including giving incentives to journalists — so that they can make money on the back end. Sports leagues require massive amounts of capital, as well as leaders capable of executing a clear vision; save for the spectacular Japanese league PRIDE FC that was backed by the yakuza and their dirty money, no one has done a better job of running an MMA promotion than casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the majority owners of the UFC.
If the mark happens to be the casual fan being steered into buying an MMA card, so be it. Colonel Tom Parker might have paid girls to scream at Elvis’s early shows, but his product held up to scrutiny over time. No one is holding a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them to buy watered down PPV’s or watch lackluster cards.
On the other end, when the mark happens to be the fighters, it’s a much more serious issue. Successful promotions earn tremendous amounts of revenue from pay-per-view buys, television licensing, live gate, merchandise, and other streams. MMA fighters who don’t know or understand their value will continue to be taken for a ride.
The number one negotiable expense promoters have is the fighter payroll. For instance, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. faced Victor Ortiz in 2011, his paycheck was estimated at around $40 million dollars; as the promoter, he graciously paid Ortiz, the B-side of the main event, $2 million. In the shell game of MMA journalism, media shills have a critical role in ignoring the most basic question — not merely what fighter pay is, but rather, what is fighter pay in relation to a promotion’s net revenue?
It’s easy for a journalist to write an article that relays the sanitized version of news sanctioned by the promotion. All it involves is cutting and pasting the disclosed payouts from athletic commissions, parroting the party line about how stringently fighters are drug tested in MMA, and participating in the circular argument about how to make the useless UFC rankings work better. As professor of cultural research at the University of Western Sydney David Rowe noted, sports journalists in general are more like a fan club that panders to popular opinion without digging too deep into investigative reporting.
MMA promoters aren’t exclusive in their attempts to control the media, either. The NFL’s Washington Redskins recently attracted negative attention for giving media outlets partnered with the team preferential access. According to an insightful piece in the Washington Post, the Redskins collect seven-figure annual fees from media partners NBC4 and CSN. As could be expected, the Redskins media partners gave the boilerplate statement that they would never compromise their reporting.
The unsubstantiated rumor that incited our entire Shill ‘Em All series was a post on Reddit that claimed the UFC was directly paying expenses for MMAJunkie.com in exchange for favorable coverage of the UFC in USA Today. While I never found a smoking gun tying the UFC to USA Today/MMAJunkie like Tim Marchman of Deadspin.com did to tie VICE’s Fightland section to the UFC, I did talk to many high-level MMA reporters and editors who tipped me off to simpler, more obvious connections between the UFC and favorable relationships with certain media outlets — ads.
All a fight promotion would need to do is have one of its major sponsors place ads in a publication in exchange for favorable coverage of the promotion. Consider why a major brand and UFC sponsor like Harley Davidson would advertise with MMAJunkie — or even more blatantly obvious, the UFC-sponsored content on MMAJunkie.
Probing these issues and trying to learn more about the “USA Today UFC Group” that does the ads for UFC.com has been a challenging experience. MMAJunkie editor-in-chief Dann Stupp would not respond for comment. MMAJunkie reporter John Morgan referred me to Mary Byrne, the managing editor of USA Today’s sports section. Byrne gave the boilerplate denial that the UFC had any editorial pull with USA Today/MMAJunkie and referred me to senior vice president of USA Today Leagues and Properties Merrill Squires to answer questions about the “USA Today UFC Group.” Squires has been unresponsive to queries so far.
MMA journalism isn’t getting any easier to do. At the end of 2013, ESPN.com released reporters Josh Gross and Franklin McNeil. The bright spot counterbalancing this decline in MMA coverage is that FoxSports.com brought Mike Chiappetta, Marc Raimondi and Damon Martin aboard. The UFC deal with FOX gives the television network clear incentive to promote MMA through all of its properties, but it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see news coverage like ESPN’s Outside the Lines segment on UFC fighter pay from FOX or FoxSports.com.
Suppressing the truth still is a taxing game of whack-a-mole that the promoter can’t completely win, and the MMA media will get scooped time and time again by more impartial outlets. Recent statements from Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva illuminate a different truth from what the promoter is selling. St-Pierre’s controversial comments about insufficient drug-testing and the UFC being a monopoly came through a Quebec publication and were translated from his native French; Anderson’s comments about how he asks his wife to drive him around Los Angeles so he could cry without being seen by his kids were given in Portuguese to Globo.
Many fans, pundits, and industry insiders truly believe that they have the supreme ability to separate fact from fiction and that they are impervious to the machinations of the promoter’s influence. Yet without Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva’s open and honest interviews, we would still have a Pollyanna-view of their respective situations. In a similar vein, without the unveiling of the WWE’s digital network, some MMA fans would not be able to see the flaws and shortcomings of the UFC’s Fight Pass.
As for the promoter, they don’t actually need to convince all of the people all of the time. They simply have to keep the game running, utilize misdirection through their shills, and continue raking in the mark’s money.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.