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UFC Vs. ESPN: Who's Right, Who's Wrong, Who Freaked Out And Who Blew The Story

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In this video blog, SB Nation editors Luke Thomas and Nate Wilcox discuss ESPN's report on UFC fighter pay, who is right, if the report was fair, whether UFC's response was over the top and more.

Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta, Junior Dos Santos, Dana White
Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta, Junior Dos Santos, Dana White

In the aftermath of ESPN's TV and online series about fighter pay in the UFC, Luke Thomas and I discuss the story, fighter pay and the UFC's aggressive response. Video and transcript follow. This is part 1.

Luke Thomas: As everyone knows, we previously discussed the pro wrestling MMA issue and it generated a lot of controversy of course and one thing that's generated controversy without you or me weighing in on it, which is why we are here is this ESPN story in conjunction with an ‘Outside the Lines' video piece about UFC fighter pay.

Josh Gross who's had a contentious, and still does, relationship with UFC President Dana White, wrote a piece suggesting that there is a case to be made UFC fighters, at least at the low end do not receive enough money, they are not properly compensated particularly given the profits that Zuffa makes and of course Zuffa fired back in extraordinary fashion this past weekend and now Monday as well. Nate, I'll open up the floor to you as is customary, your take on the story and that includes the video and the written piece. What did you think about it?

Nate Wilcox: Well, after reading the pieces online and there were two pieces, one, that fighter pay hurts and the second was the Josh Gross piece. The first one was the teaser that let everyone know that the story was gonna happen. I have to say that the first one was relatively mild. It had the Monte Cox footage and the Ken Shamrock footage. You knew it was gonna be a little bit juicy. You just see Ken Shamrock and he's beet red and his hair's long and stringy and greasy and he's crazed and he's ranting and you're like, "Whoa, this is gonna be at least a hoot and a half if not informative," but then the Josh Gross piece was like your standard Josh Gross-Rob Maysey "Anonymous sources, let's go after the UFC" and I'm a fan of Josh Gross. He's one of the founders of the MMA journalism world and many props to Mr. Gross but I thought he kind of stepped on his tail a little bit with that story.

That went on for a day or two where's the reaction to that and it finally airs and Dana was having Twitter beef with Dan Rafael, excuse me, "Twitter discussion" with Dan Rafael of ESPN and I was a little underwhelmed by the ESPN video story. I thought it was a decent little magazine piece but it certainly didn't merit the flipout from the UFC at all and it seemed like it was on a different track, a parallel track from the Gross story. It was its own story and it didn't have the same failings as the Gross story, the Gross errors of the Gross story. What was your take on it?

Luke Thomas: I think I'm pretty much in agreement with that. I thought the video was pretty even-handed. I didn't think it was that, and we'll get to this in just a minute, but in my personal life in PR and working for some scumbags here in DC, I've dealt with way worse stories and I've dealt with way worse stories being put in front of way more important audiences and I'm sure you have too, we'll get to that in just a minute. I thought the written piece, I think my general takeaway is there is probably a story to be told about fighter pay.

I wonder about guys who are good fighters, great fighters maybe who lack the promotional skills to win promotional bonuses, who lack the flashy kind of ability to win in dominant fashion, who just aren't charismatic but they're extraordinarily talented and they put themselves through rigor and they make an okay living but not a great one and I wonder over time if they're properly compensated but I don't think entry level guys are really damaged that much. I think the entry level pay is just fine. Obviously the guys at the top are very well taken care of I think on balance, UFC fighters are probably paid okay, we'll never know, but I thought the piece failed in a couple of places and that includes the video and the written statement.

First of all, there were just plain some factual errors in the first report Gross put out, most notably he said the yearly take on median income is between 17 and 20 thousand. That was the median income per fight. I think that's a pretty big error and I'm also a very big fan of Josh Gross, I like him very much and I think his work is typically in the highest order but that is an unmistakable error.

I thought the corroborating evidence was pretty thin and we're dealing with a situation where there isn't much, but if there isn't much and you're gonna make a heavy charge, you better do what you can and I felt like, they didn't include Ken Shamrock and Ricco Rodriguez in the video piece, the leaned on them and that's a very different thing and I think Rob Maysey is doing some very important work but I don't think he had the right numbers either quite frankly. It didn't seem to me like he had a much better grasp because they're not known, than Josh Gross and I thought these are some important charges.

The claims you're making are serious, not the most serious ever, but they deserve to be taken seriously and there just wasn't a lot of evidentiary weight to what was being offered. They didn't consult the Labor Economist, they didn't consult anybody in the sports business world. Was there no one in the Sports Business Daily who might understand the mechanics of athlete compensation was included on this and I'm not sure why not? And the video piece, Ricco Rodriguez was on celebrity rehab with all due respect to Ricco Rodriguez. I understand he was the UFC heavyweight champion, but he is a guy, if you're a lawyer, he's got character issues as a witness.

All these guys, everyone that they included, Pat Miletich again has a lot to offer, even Ken Shamrock and Ricco Rodriguez, but they're all guys who've got axes to grind. They didn't have anybody who didn't have an axe to grind included in the piece and I thought that was a major failing. As for Zuffa's response, we'll get to that in just a second.

I guess the last thing we'll say is there's a lot of ways to unpack fighter pay. I think at the low end, it's probably pretty good that they don't make that much as a friend pointed out to me, Jon Jones filling in for Tomasz Drawl against Andre Gusmao, if there was a base pay that all entry fighters got, say $50,000, they would have never taken a chance on Jones and the fighter pay is low and that creates a low financial barrier to entry which is ultimately good for fighters particularly ones of considerable ability who just need that someone to notice them. I think that is a good thing and obviously if you're winning like Jon Jones is, you're gonna make money pretty fast. Again, I wonder if guys like Tyson Griffin make what they're supposed to but we don't really know.

That is my general takeaway, we can unpack the details a little bit more but it's kind of instructive that, and this is kind of naval gazing a bit, but it's kind of important, you and I were both taken aback by the vociferous from the UFC to these charges that I felt were, as we said on twitter, basically pretty tepid. Talk about your response, first of all, how did you feel? Did you feel the UFC response merited the gravity of the story?

Nate Wilcox: Well, my initial reaction to UFC's response was amusement. It was entertaining. It was the Dana White show. There was conflict. It was the UFC versus ESPN but my initial reaction was, "These guys are overreacting." Who watched ESPN Outside the Lines? A couple hundred thousand people? Are those people likely UFC customers? What's the audience for that show and it's like, I think UFC fans would tune in because it's UFC content on ESPN but I don't think they would have tuned in in big numbers if the UFC had just been like, "Hey check out, Lorenzo was interviewed for ESPN, should be an interesting story," or whatever instead of the big angry reaction.

Some people would have watched it, not watched it, but the thing is, the real life audience that the UFC should care about for that story is the regulators and the people in New York that are considering voting for or against it, the unions that have been going after the Fertitta brothers at Station Casinos, that an audience for this. They'll definitely be using this against the UFC and possibly the FTC, which has been rumored to be sniffing around into MMA after the purchase of Strikeforce so that's the audience of decision-makers that they really should care about and so I don't think that they're response to this was aimed at those decision-makers.

I think it was aimed at the MMA community, the fighters and management included but it went over great with our readers, Bloody Elbow, MMA Mania, MMA.tv, everywhere that I saw like Sherdog, people were like, "Hey Dana really stuck it to ESPN," and so that's good and I guess the subtext is it reinforced to the MMA business community, "Hey, we're still the boss here. We're not taking this. We're not taking anything laying down. Don't think that your client or you should talk to ESPN about this stuff," and so that's of use to them but I have to wonder if someone from the New York state senate is watching this and watches Dana White's reaction to this, how they gauge that and is it helpful to them?

My guess is it's not especially helpful to them. It might not be harmful but it kinda reeks of somebody having something to hide and I would advise a lot of clients that were in legal difficulties, that were having massive PR disasters and I would never encourage them to take on a belligerent or confrontational attitude with a major media outlet like ESPN as your opening salvo. It should take quite a bit to turn things into open warfare between a subject and a reporter in my opinion.

Luke Thomas: My sense about it is, I think first of all they did the right thing in filming John Barr and I've done that with clients as well in my background and what we did that for was to let the people interviewing us know that we're watching them and if you make any error, we're gonna make note of it and if you edit us in a way that makes us look bad unfairly, now of course if you have a meltdown in the interview, you're gonna look bad no matter what but if you answer the interview questions straightforward and you edit it in such a way that we are discriminated against, we're gonna let you know.

I don't think the Outside the Lines piece did that. I thought Lorenzo Fertitta came across pretty damn reasonable actually. He's a very smart guy and the other thing Dana White was complaining it's a 40 minute interview, it's only nine minutes long on the Outside the Lines piece, but that's all they had time for. That's not a long show and I've dealt with people for a variety of different clients for a variety of different publications and one of them was I had to prepare a client for an interview on Frontline.

Now Frontline is, that is about as big as it gets in terms of Washington D.C. because the audience is not huge but the audience is congressmen, senators, their staffers, people in serious positions of power that can affect legislations that can affect entire industries so if you don't do well on there, you're in trouble and this isn't even remotely the same kind of thing. ESPN has a large audience as you mentioned but Outside the Lines covers a wide variety of topics so they're not devoted to one thing. Frontline can devote an entire hour to one thing and they can really sink their teeth into it and that's a key distinction and I felt like the UFC's response, if you were just viewing it in the prism of, "Here's a fighter story and here's the UFC's response," most PR professionals would say they were bringing a bazooka to a fistfight, however, I don't think that's the full story.

I think the full story is, they obviously have difficulty with Josh Gross, that's news to no one, but I think it's about, listen, one thing I think UFC has in common with all serious MMA journalists is, if you're an MMA journalist and every place I've worked at, I've been taken care of very well, very well, but if you cover MMA and you work in a larger media organ, you've gotta lobby for your content. That's just the way it goes. People aren't against you, but MMA is just in a space where if you want it noticed man, you've got to fight for it and that's the way it goes. Certainly no one knows that better than the UFC who has had to fight and to struggle and to struggle and to struggle and have doors slammed in their face and be told whatever they've been told and I think they have a lot of antipathy towards Dana White and Dana made one point that I thought was pretty salient, actually.

On ESPN.com, obviously Brett Okamoto covers them and a lot of other people cover them so they get on the .com on balance, pretty great coverage actually on ESPN and the print magazine too, that naked issue and everything, Jon Jones, MMA athletes always get in there, whatever it's not a big deal and of course they get to make the rounds on Sportscenter with the various programming ahead of a fight but you never really see feature pieces about MMA fighters.

You saw that one on E:60 about Rad Martinez, but that was about a guy with an exceptionally special difficult case that it wouldn't have mattered what athlete he was, that was a big deal and I feel like he did have a point when they say they don't cover these fighters in a way in which other athletes are covered for even their prosaic lives and I do agree that White probably said to himself, "Hey, we've been beating down the door of these guys to get them to cover us and the first major story, I can't think of a previous written video component together, a dual action piece that was a positive story about MMA at ESPN. It's hard for me to think of one and it certainly doesn't ring a bell to me off the top of my head and I am sympathetic to the UFC on those grounds even if I think their response was totally out of proportion.

Nate Wilcox: I'd have to agree with that, but ESPN has no business incentive necessarily to cover UFC on their TV. For one thing, they're competing with FOX to be a leader in sports and UFC went with FOX. ESPN never offered them as far as I know, ESPN was never part of the discussions and so I can totally understand the UFC's perspective but I don't think they did themselves any favors. I do think they possibly engendered themselves some more coverage along these lines because for ESPN, that story got a lot more attention than a similar story might have gotten because of the promotion the UFC did for it online.

Luke Thomas: Do you think the story was blown up by the UFC, in other words, the story was bigger than it would have been?

Nate Wilcox: Yeah, I don't think that this was a story that was just gonna set the MMA blogosphere on fire if it had just come out that Josh Gross and ESPN do a story on UFC fighter pay. I mean, a few sites would have done posts summarizing the argument, the discussion or whatever and that would have been it, so long, goodbye, it's over and thanks to UFC, it got a lot more attention. Dana White's having a Twitter beef with somebody and they filmed their own video and Dana White's talking about it like he talks about Bob Arum or somebody. It created a lot more drama than was really inherent to the story I thought in the situation.

Luke Thomas: What about the issue, though? What about the issue of, you talked about it for just a second, ESPN doesn't have a business incentive but you know, to Dana's point, I thought the Friday Night Fights thing was a pretty bad argument, but, if you consider what's happening here, they're covering boxing at basically the regional level MMA. Now that costs less, only $100,000 per show, but they don't give any coverage in terms airing live fights to MMA, certainly not UFC. What about that argument that ESPN, even in their own interest, could be doing more to cover MMA both in terms of broadcasting it and covering it as a sport, not just online which they already do, but on their video and television platforms?

Nate Wilcox: They certainly could. You and I have both been long term critics of ESPN and most of the main leading sports media for being slow to cover MMA and being reluctant to cover MMA and some of the them oppositional to MMA. They've slowly begun to feature fighters on Sportscenter before a big fight although they may be pulling back on that it seems like.

Luke Thomas: And I don't know how much that really adds to pay-per-views anyway.

Nate Wilcox: I don't think it particularly does. We are remiss if we don't mention the Lee Murray E:60, so if a fighter is successful at the highest levels of bank robbery, then they'll do an E:60 at ‘em. There's lots of good stories they could be telling about MMA. It brings in a good audience, they're only hurting themselves I think by not covering MMA and they're also boxing in MMA. The lift that the kind of coverage that Mayweather or Pacquiao get from the mainstream media and ESPN before they fight would do huge things for UFC pay-per-views. If they were talking about Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit like they talk about Mayweather or Pacquiao, that would be worth a lot of money to the UFC and it would get advertisers for ESPN.

Luke Thomas: What about this idea that long term this is good for the UFC? Here's my question to you. UFC is certainly now in a better position to go mainstream, whatever that means, they need these other organs to truly be mainstream and FOX has gotta be one of the best ways to do it, no doubt about it, but they have gone to war UFC with big mainstream companies, EA Sports or EA video games being one of them and now, I don't know if you want to call this of war, but this is a pretty strong declaration of discontent against ESPN. Can they still achieve their goals and do all the things they want to do? I know they have an international focus, can they do all these things with the scorched earth policy, whatever you want to call this? It's not a middle finger to the mainstream, but it's not a hug either. What would that mean long term?

Nate Wilcox: Well it would be bad if they succeeded in convincing ESPN to never cover the UFC or MMA but I think that would take some doing. Like I said, if I were ESPN, I'd be exciting at the prospect of doing more of this but definitely if there's just a blanket state of hostility between the UFC and CNNSI and ESPN, including ABC, that's bad. That puts a ceiling on how big they can get so that's not a good thing. One thing I sort of advise clients is to fight up, pick fights with people are more popular than you and bigger than you are and get the attention of their audience.

UFC is definitely doing that. I think a certain amount of ESPN viewers that may have never paid attention to the UFC before are now tuning in to some degree although it's hard to fathom what their perception of Dana White and the UFC is after watching this back and forth which was a little silly like we said. I don't know. I think it could be the beginning of a good bickering back and forth and maybe they can pressure ESPN into doing some positive stories as a tradeoff but that would only give further attacks from ESPN more credibility so that's kind of a double-edged sword. Be careful what you wish for.

Luke Thomas: So in other words, if they did start covering MMA properly but then went back to a negative story, people would only take that more seriously?

Nate Wilcox: Yep

Luke Thomas: Interesting. My sense about it long term is I don't think it's in anyone's best intereste that they depart from ESPN. I think ESPN provides a lot of credibility. One thing that Dave Meltzer always notes is, if you look at the way boxing is covered, boxing gets less coverage outside of Pacquiao/Mayweather than MMA does in terms of general front page pick-up. If you look at the front pages of ESPN.com or Sports.Yahoo.com or SBNation obviously, you'll get more MMA on there if for no other reason than there's a lot more of it but there's still a bit of a novelty act kind of thing to MMA - unfairly in my judgment.

It's one thing you and I rally against constantly, but that's the nature of the game and boxing still has a little bit of that sporting treatment that we just can't get. When I covered the Khan-Peterson fight here in D.C., you wouldn't believe all the old media mainstream journalists here, all the major papers of the UK and not just the dumb ones. They're all kind of different than the New York Times but they were all here and I thought that was really kind of interesting that this is a fight not even remotely on the same level as Overeem-Lesnar, it's not and moreover, that's a heavyweight fight that still captures imagination and yet, I bet you the Wall Street Journal didn't cover that or Reuters, Reuters was there. Of all things, Reuters? How could it be? But it was!

I feel like those are still some last vestiges and I would say, ESPN or no ESPN, you and I both know for a fact that it's not a mystery. We talked about this in the previous chat. The UFC wants to get sports audiences. They've got some of those pro wrestling guys, they've got fight fans which are a cousin of sports fans but they don't quite have the Redskins fans. They've got some, but not as many as they'd like. They've got some of those Red Sox fans, but they'd like more and the best way to get that of course is getting plugged on NFL games, that's great. Being on FX, that's great too but as I just mentioned, they're not in Reuters, they're not in the Wall Street Journal and we'll see going forward what kind of things are like at ESPN. I wonder what's happening now. We'll see what happens but I kind of hope not, I don't know but I hope they're not painting themselves into a corner and only relying on just a few of these sporting media organs to help push them into those audiences that I know very much that they want to and frankly I hope they do reach them. It benefits you and me if they reach them, trust me. That is my one concern going forward.

Stay tuned for part 2.