Dana White, UFC continues to show instability as a major sports brand with even bigger problems ahead

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In the five years since UFC left Fox to announce a landmark $1.5 billion broadcast deal through 2025 with ESPN, it’s been hard to find a time when UFC president Dana White hasn’t been smiling .

White, the 53-year-old maverick who has faced the most successful promotion in combat sports since 2001, has typically closed each calendar year reminding members of the MMA media just how lucrative the ESPN contract is. , usually by declaring the UFC’s best year. to date financially in the company’s history.

The beginning of 2023, however, has felt a little different.

UFC currently finds itself at the crossroads of a confluence of reports, events and unresolved issues – mostly regarding the treatment of its athletes – that have created a “perfect storm” of challenges that could threatening future success.

Indeed, the endless subject of fighter pay that has dominated the headlines for two years while furthering the rift between White and the MMA media he often refers to as “scumbags” for questioning his decision . Then, the A recent gambling scandal centered around former trainer and renowned trainer James Krause, which has led to two UFC fighters being cut after the promotion banned all participants from legally betting on fights among legitimate concerns about the integrity of the product.

To make matters even worse, White publicly apologized this week after a video surfaced of his physical altercation with his wife since New Year’s Eve that was caught on video in a nightclub in Mexico. No legal charges have been filed, but everyone from ESPN to the UFC and Endeavor’s parent company have been remarkably quiet since then.

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The only comment ESPN made about the event was to direct it media back to the UFC by saying, “ESPN does the distribution and UFC does the content.” From the files of bad timing, the news of White’s domestic change came on the same day that former UFC fighter Phil Baroni was arrested in Mexico for he allegedly beat his girlfriend to death.

All of this brings us to Thursday morning when, seemingly out of left field, one of White’s staunchest critics, YouTube star turned pro boxer Jake Paul, announced he was signing a two-fight MMA contract under the banner PFL, launching pay-per. -view “super fight” section. PFL also announced that Paul would receive company equity and that it would mean that PPV promoters would receive “at least” 50% of profits, which is a purposeful injection aimed at UFC , which pays its fighters, according to previous court filings, just under 20% of gross income.

While Paul’s news may seem unrelated on the surface, the biggest surprise from the announcement was that ESPN, which has a smaller production deal with the PFL, essentially acquired one of the White’s biggest PPV foe in Paul, who created retired cottage industry boxing. UFC fighters, to compete directly against him under the same network banner.

Nakisa Bidarian, the UFC’s former CFO who White has previously dismissed as a “scumbag accountant” was also hired by PFL and given an equity stake. Bidarian, who co-founded Paul’s Most Valuable Promotions, will assist with league operations and strategy for the PFL’s PPV expansion.

PFL co-founder Donn Davis even used Paul’s announcement, in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, to reveal exactly what he intended.

“You’re no longer a prisoner of the UFC,” Davis said. “You can now choose the UFC or the PFL, but what makes the PFL different is that we’re coming out with a real economic partnership for fighters.”

While none of the current issues facing the UFC are likely to cause short-term issues — with the exception of ESPN, UFC and its parent company Endeavor’s deafening silence regarding White — the long-term risk of each problem cannot be ignored. over. .

The focus of both Paul and Davis on fight handling goes beyond just pay, however, and is directly related to the ongoing gambling scandal, which affects the UFC in more ways than it believes. has signed a 5-year, $350 million contract with DraftKings. in 2021.

One of Krause’s former fighters, featherweight Darrick Minner, entered an infamous Nov. 5 fight against Shaylian Nuerdanbieke with what appeared to be a pre-existing leg injury. Minner used the injured leg to kick twice in the first round before succumbing to pain and being stopped by elbow strikes.

Due to the dramatic swing in the pre-fight odds, including a big money coming in on a first-round TKO loss to Minner, the fight was removed from various sportsbooks , with UFC betting temporarily banned in several jurisdictions, including the Canadian province of Ontario, until the investigation that led to the dismissal of Krause and Minner.

But outside of the real fear that the Miner fight eliminated the possibility of impropriety behind the scenes and increased speculation into the fight situation, his lot may not be that different from what happened to the former heavyweight champion. bantam TJ Dillashaw in an October loss to the current champion. Sterling Aljamain.

Dillashaw seriously injured his shoulder in training camp and later admitted that he came out of the pocket up to 20 hours entering the fight. Dillashaw would go on to lose via second round TKO after suffering a shoulder separation in the opening minute that left him largely unable to compete. The connection between Minner and Dillashaw revolves around previous injuries and UFC policy, which states that the promotion will only pay for surgery following injuries suffered inside the Octagon.

On the surface, the lucrative ESPN contract and the steady stream of new sponsors being added suggest that the UFC has evolved to a level of success and crossover activity that it could not to have dreamed only 15 years earlier. Back in 2008, UFC was becoming an emerging PPV vehicle that rivaled boxing but was having trouble breaking through the stigma of cage fighting enough to warrant regular coverage. pulled from major outlets like ESPN (full disclosure: I worked for ESPN from 2005-2017).

At every step of the company’s rise, White was ahead of the game prophesying the global potential of the brand and that the UFC would one day be considered a “big four sports” unit on par with the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and elite college sports. To White’s credit, that came to fruition, with ESPN’s contract signing and deliberate crossover promotion of the sport through the network’s legacy platforms like “SportsCenter” and “First Take” seen as a graduation, of sorts, to the a level of respectability at a country club.

White’s already strong reputation for consistently exceeding fans’ expectations for big fights was cemented into mythic immortality by the strong ways in which kept the product alive amid the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, ESPN was the only place in town to visit for live sports in the spring and summer of 2020, as UFC rallied to meet the minimum set of dates required by ESPN’s contract. achieved while White’s rivals sat idly by.

Both UFC and White became darlings of almost everyone, from fans to the same ESPN executives who partnered with them. But the ride wasn’t smooth without bumps as White was told to “stand down” by Disney, ESPN’s parent company, in April 2020 when he first tried to hold fights in California on Native American grounds before state commissions granted permission.

What this current round of serious issues seems to be calling into question for the UFC, however, is whether White and his trusted fight campaign are truly ready for prime time in terms of the responsibilities that come with it. to be presented as a mainstream organization, especially since ESPN’s contract has offered selected UFC dates on terrestrial television with ABC.

ESPN’s silence following White’s domestic scandal seems to call into question whether the network truly sees UFC on the same level as the other major leagues it deals with, including the NFL and NBA. Could the commissioner or front-office executive of any other major sport survive this kind of bad news with impunity? And what is the responsibility of ESPN, as an editorial organization, in covering the issue as strongly as other sports?

White has built much of his reputation on how politically incorrect he chooses to be. This type of seat-of-your-pants leadership probably worked better when UFC aired on Spike TV or Fuel TV in earlier eras, when MMA was seen as nothing more than non-fighting. civilized to the outside world. But it can’t sustain at this level, where trivial or previously forgotten issues become front page news.

What happened to White and his wife was a small incident and has a strong impact on a combat sports community that already has a terrible history of domestic abuse and the treatment of victims. The rally cry of fighters, fans and even members of the media who have publicly supported White in the past few days indicates that there is still a big change to be made.

UFC may have fulfilled all or most of White’s lofty dreams to get to where he is today. But if recent history is any indication, that honeymoon is over and choppy waters abound for a company whose response to serious issues is still too immature for the platform it carries.

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