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The time has arrived for ESPN to cover MMA like a major sport

I tuned into ESPNews last night to gauge the level of coverage for last night’s Earth-shattering upset at UFC 88 by Rashad Evans against Chuck Liddell. To be honest, I was prepared to write a diatribe about how ESPN is a joke for giving prime coverage to things such as Hot Dog eating contests and Arena Football — two sports that are nowhere near as popular as MMA.

Much to my surprise there was a spot with Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan breaking down the big news and analyzing the fight. However, something just didn’t seem right. Why after all this time is ESPN not using its own team to provide independent coverage of MMA events? Giving free air time to paid employees of the UFC to supply pre and post-fight content just doesn’t make sense. It would be like ESPN running post-game analysis from the NFL Network following its own games.

Look, league-sponsored outlets such as MLB.com and the NFL Network have their place and do a good job in their own right. But the conflict of coverage that exists is plain for the world to see and people can judge how much stock they want to put into a league-sponsored source of news and analysis. However, giving the UFC a pulpit to spin post-fight scenarios unfettered just doesn’t feel right. Hasn’t the sport grown large enough where it warrants more independent coverage from ESPN? I mean, are Goldberg and Rogan going to speculate on Evans’ place in the world light heavyweight rankings and talk about how he stacks about against 205’ers that might not be under contract to Zuffa? Of course not.

After a major boxing event is over, we’re treated to analysis by Dan Rafael, not paid employees of Golden Boy Promotions. MMA is just as big as boxing, if not bigger. So why doesn’t ESPN hire a Dan Rafael for MMA?

The reason why the “Worldwide Leader” is relying on the UFC to cover its own events is easy to figure out: it’s about saving money. Right now ESPN wants the male 18-34 demographic that MMA can bring to its telecasts. However, they don’t think the audience is big enough yet to warrant a major investment. I say that’s ridiculous because ESPN doesn’t allow the size of an audience’s demand to dictate what gets coverage; it allows the size of ownership to dictate coverage.

The NHL has ceased to exist because it decided to take more money to sign a TV deal with VERSUS. NASCAR’s popularity has grown but ESPN didn’t decide to significantly expand their coverage until it brought stock car races back to its airwaves. And the coverage and attention that the Arena Football League receives on SportsCenter is a mystery question of life even though ABC and ESPN are part owners in the league because the ratings are a joke. Nobody watches Arena Football but you’d never know it by all of the airtime it gets on ESPN.

MMA is no longer a niche sport. It’s left garage and basement training centers and has arrived in the suburbs in the form of well-lit super training centers. The stigma of being a hardcore MMA fan while living in mainstream society isn’t what it once was. This isn’t a redneck sport; smart, educated people people with good jobs are investing lots of money into this sport as a hobby.

It’s time ESPN acknowledges this demand for more coverage and gives the sport of MMA and its fanbase what it deserves: to be treated as the seventh biggest sport in the United States behind the NFL, Major League Baseball, College Football, NASCAR, the NBA, and College Basketball. How ESPN can justify devoting more coverage to Extreme Sports, Golf, Tennis, Boxing, the NHL, competitive eating, non-stock car racing events (more Gina Carano and less Danica Patrick, please?), and Arena Football than MMA is beyond me.

35 COMMENTS
  • Henry says:

    Sam, please write that diatribe.

  • Michaelthebox says:

    I think you badly overestimate how “unbiased” a more mainstream source of coverage of MMA would be. As an example,

    “I mean, are Goldberg and Rogan going to speculate on Evans’ place in the world light heavyweight rankings and talk about how he stacks about against 205?ers that might not be under contract to Zuffa? Of course not.”

    Rogan and Goldberg would not, but likely neither would an ESPN-hired anchor, not if they wanted to keep their job. How often do you hear comparisons between American baseball players and Japanese baseball players, or teams? Usually such coverage only takes place when the Japanese players intend to come over to MLB (making them relevant to American fans) or when American teams play Japanese teams (making them relevant to American fans).

    Like it or not, most MMA fans are UFC fans, and have very little interest in fighters that are not in the UFC and will not be anytime soon. Fedor is perhaps the only exception, and he was made an exception by Randy’s insistence on fighting him. If Rashad insists he wants to fight Arona, an ESPN commentator would probably talk about Arona. But short of a UFC fighter or the UFC itself making the non-UFC fighter relevant, ESPN will have little or no interest in talking about the the non-UFC fighter.

    Boxing is different, because most boxing fans are hardcore fans, and the use of ranking organizations means that there are no fighters kept out of the fandom’s eye purely due to a single organization’s needs and whims. That situation does not and will not exist in MMA now or in the near future.

    Because of this, while an unbiased ESPN commentator would speak about a fighter’s position in the UFC division without real bias (meaning the likes of Lyoto might get more hype), expecting that commentator to give real coverage to the rest of the MMA world is wishing on a star.

  • Drew says:

    One problem, Sam. ESPN and ABC are owned by Disney and you have to wonder if there is input from that end that is holding any real coverage (or live fights) back. Since ABC Sports has become ESPN on ABC, the brands are intertwined, and ABC does not try to hide its ties to Disney. The juxtaposition of Mickey Mouse and MMA might not be too appealing to some. Eventually, the push from the fan base (demonstrated by PPV buys, attendance and ratings on Spike, for example) will force some nervous TV exec’s hand, but, unfortunately, it may never be ESPN.

  • Evan says:

    Not to forget Spelling B’s and the WNBA (which has empty stadiums.)

    And I love the comment about Goldie and Rogan who I like a lot but I want to see someone else who doesn’t get a paycheck from Zuffa break it down.

    By the way…for anyone who wants an espn style mma show insidemma on hdnet gets a little better every week and its a must see. Bas and Rice have awesome chemistry.

  • texasspider says:

    Isn’t Max Kellerman a huge MMA guy? Not sure what he’s doing nowadays, but they need to get him back for MMA analyst.

  • Cathedron says:

    I totally agree. They already have MMA Live, why not expand it a tiny bit to have someone do regular coverage once in awhile? Arena Football is fun to watch live. Being able to get into a shouting match with the guys on the other team is something you just can’t duplicate in most other sports. But watching it on TV? Not so much. It’s a niche sport. MMA is growing beyond being a niche.

  • richie says:

    I would love to be able to turn on my tv to get my mma coverage instead of having to rely solely on the web. I couldn’t agree more on this subject.

  • Good points!! Agree with the independents. Tell them to hire us!

  • fightfan says:

    The coverage of 88 on ESPN, following the event was brief, to say at the least. They(ESPN) had a brief, maybe 30 second clip of Liddell getting KO’d from RAY-shawed Evans, as they pronounced him.

    And it seemed almost sarcastic or as if they were poking fun at it….at least to me. It was NOT covered or commented on as if it were a serious or important event to them in the sports world

  • fightfan says:

    It seemed as though they at ESPN sportscenter treated the brief 30 seconds segment of Liddell getting KO’d with sarcasm or even poking fun at it. It didnt seem as though the comments were serious or treated as a major sports story….at least to me.

    They also referred to Evans as RAY-shawed. Their tone and attitude when commenting on it seemed lackluster adn almost as if they were being forced to cover it. There was no emphasis or emotion at all.

  • Handover Fist says:

    I don’t think MMA fits with the Disney image.

    I lost any respect I might have had for ESPN when they caved into pressure by the NFL to cancel their hit show “Playmakers”. The only time I watch ESPN anymore is for MNF.

  • Damo says:

    A very good point indeed.

    This is definitely a topic to make alot of noise about early in the piece so that *hopefully* it can be nipped in the bud sooner rather than later.

    Until we get proper unification and rankings – there is just no way ANY staff member of ANY of the organisations can give an unbias viewpoint of the division(s) landscape and where particular fighters fit into the bigger scheme of thing.

    And lets face it – as if we want to see Mike Goldbergs head get any more airtime in the first place!

  • Jeremy says:

    I kind of wondered why they didn’t use the guys from MMALive for their coverage on ESPN. It would seemingly make sense for them, at least as a short term option, perhaps bringing in a bigger name later.

  • mmalogic says:

    You really want to know why sam?

    Because MMA writers, bloggers and analysts for the most part are butt ugly…

    Have you seen Josh Gross? (the last name must be some kind of karma)

  • b.w. says:

    they did make the ticker last night, using sherdog rankings, but it only ran once that i saw. they also pronounced evans as ray-shad, give me a break. hopeully mma live will go on to t.v. soon and wake up bristol a bit.

  • Razz says:

    It’s getting better i think, there’s the UFC 91 coverage across ESPN’s shows, there was a blurb on SportsCenter last night about Evans KOing Liddell. It’s a process, ESPN doesn’t jump on emerging sports right away, unless that sport is on their network.

  • JBAR says:

    I couldn’t agree more Sam. Thanks to all of you at 5oz. for the work you do, you make it possible for guys like me with a limited amount of free time to keep up with MMA.

  • Davey D says:

    ESPN is really starting to warm up to MMA. They’ve had content on-line avilable for over a year now. MMA Live is growing in popularity and would do very well if shown on-air. It’s a sure bet. Having a guest every week would be cool and give people a reason to tune it.

    With UFC events becoming the place to go (and be seen). The more and more coverage it will gain. This thing will get even bigger every year. If ESPN can get creative, they can find a way to present MMA in various format’s just like the rest of the sport’s they do and gain a huge following. It will happen just wait.

  • warcry says:

    Someone at ESPN has a hard-on for boxing. Clearly MMA has captured the imagination of males 18-34. It is obvious in PPV sales let alone the viewship on Spike and other stations. If Espn showed a real investment in MMA than boxing would die very quickly. Someone is fighting this inevitability tooth and nail. I say let boxing die and usher in the new era. MMA!!!

  • KTru says:

    Yeah right Dave
    The one-sided bias that has been shown here recently wouldn’t bold well.
    (Of course if a fighter was a Yankee or Red Sox fan it would be welcomed by ESPN)

    I would agree that to bring MMA to the forefront of Sportscenter, it would need more faces that people know. With the very short list of Ex-fighters, or anyone that hasnt parted with bad-blood from the UFC, well there is my answer.

    What I am saying is even though MMA(specifically UFC) has grown more and more every day. It has not achieved the status of sports elite.

  • warcry says:

    Someone at ESPN still has a hard-on for boxing. MMA is the future like it or not. Not going away. From PPV sales and network tv viewship. Boxing is dying as we speak. A real investment by Espn would do it quickly. Someone is fighting this tooth and nail. I say let it die and usher in the new era. MMA!!!

  • Steve says:

    well said.

  • bonez2799 says:

    Agree and disagree, Sam the Man.

    First off, ESPN IS sorely lacking in their coverage of MMA. But they do have SOME in-house employees, though one can argue that MMA Live is largely funded by UFC (this is NOT fact, just an observation from someone who doesn’t know).

    Though MMA Live is funded by ESPN, it is still but an internet only show for now. It’s popularity is rising along WITH the popularity of MMA in general on ESPN. The coverage has been STEADILY growing month after month and the most recent segment with Goldberg and Rogan is the most we’ve seen YET by them.

    We can use ELiteXC’s last event (though perhaps unfairly) as an example of why mainstream sports media hesitates to cover MMA. The ratings fluctuate greatly, even on network TV. But overall and average ratings are growing for all MMA events, including attendance. As that grows, I firmly believe ESPN will be forced to take notice and coverage will grow, even independant coverage.

    It’s funny…MMA is more popular than MOST of the aforementioned sports and yet it’s popularity won’t get another SERIOUS spike until ESPN pulls their heads out of their asses. Go figure.

  • bonez2799 says:

    Agree and disagree, Sam the Man.

    First off, ESPN IS sorely lacking in their coverage of MMA. But they do have SOME in-house employees, though one can argue that MMA Live is largely funded by UFC (this is NOT fact, just an observation from someone who doesn’t know).

    Though MMA Live is funded by ESPN, it is still but an internet only show for now. It’s popularity is rising along WITH the popularity of MMA in general on ESPN. The coverage has been STEADILY growing month after month and the most recent segment with Goldberg and Rogan is the most we’ve seen YET by them. I imagine their dependant and independant coverage will continue growing at the same rate it is now.

  • Sabotage says:

    I personally don’t mind the coverage. One thing at a time. Just glad to see MMA on ESPN at all! MMA Live is one of the best weekly shows out there. ESPN will bring the sport to another level.

  • el boxeo says:

    lol at boxing dying…

    reason why mma doesnt have independent coverage ala boxing with rafeal might be because there is boxing programing…. they have friday night fights ( which just celebrated 10 years) wed. night fights as well as on their classic espn have a bunch of boxing…

    i think it will take time but for right now if espn would have an independent jouralist that would cover mma, think about how “complicated” it would be for them to explain to the average viewer about fighters not in the ufc.. see in boxing there are no organizations , no boundaries… basically mma consists mainly in america of ufc/elite/or affliction ….

    i think it will happen eventually , give it like 3 or 4 years… it took forever to have yahoo have a semblance of boxing/mma on their website but now they do…

    and its not like the ufc wants unbiased opinions anyway.. for espn to have unbaised covering of mma would mean more shine on other orgs. and im sure the ufc wouldnt like that… and pretty much espn doesnt really think its that important to cover other events in mma other than ufc so might as well have those talking heads…

  • Mike D says:

    great article all great points. It sucks to see arena football getting more air time than MMA

  • dohfil says:

    Sam Sam Sam

    Do you know how big of an industry Hot Dogs are?

    What’s wrong with you man?

    Nathans Hot Dogs sponsorship at ESPN for coverage for their annual hot dog eating contest alone finances ESPN Espanol for the year.

    Geez.

    MMA is not a real sport.

    j/k

    It’s surreal at this point. Screw ESPN. Getting news from the Net and from Blogs will replace ESPN eventually.

  • Jackyl says:

    What about the fact that the MMA page on espn.com is buried deeper than Jimmy Hoffa? You have to click on boxing first, then MMA. Plus, most of the content is just pulled from Sherdog. They have very few articles from the actual espn base.

    As far as Disney is concerned. I don’t think that is a factor. Disney owns a lot of production companies. There are even shows on ABC that don’t exactly fit the “Disney” image. I think they are just hesitant because like a lot of people the brass is not educated. I do like the work they have done with MMA Live. Even though it is web only, I think it’s a great show and a step in the right direction. Keep pushing Sam. We’ll get the coverage we deserve one day.

  • rob says:

    texasspider – – Max is taking Larry Merchants spot (when he retires) as Main boxing analyst at HBO – a position which will pay him more than any MMA gig he could get – I love MAx, but he’s staying put. I would love ESPN to cover MMA more – they have a 30 min (albeit online) show with Jon Anik, Franklin Mcneil, Ken FLO, and Frank Mir doing demos of BJJ subs. I do not want ESPN to cover it like a regular sport though – – there’s something about Bob Ley and company calling highlights of the fights………personally. Put the MMA Live show on for an hour and let MMA guys do the deal

  • Matt says:

    You’re a little wrong about NFL Network employees covering the NFL. Its not the exact same bias (there really isn’t a bias on NFL Network)…

    Rogan and Goldie wouldn’t say anything bad about the UFC. NFL Network guys take shots at the league and things they want changed on the daily basis. The Hosts might be company men (but not really, they say what they want also)…but the rest of the people on the network are former players/coaches and they say what they want about anything they want.

    NFL Network > ESPN….

    When a player in the NFL gets arrested NFL Network has breaking news on it, says the entire story, not biased towards anything, just gives the story, then former players say how the guys is an idiot…

    When a fighter in the UFC gets arrested, you don’t see UFC commentators talking about it??

    Your comparison there didn’t make sense, at all…

  • Jesse says:

    i’m happy they covered it at all..
    mma will be feautred on espn soon enough it’s all about money..

  • ultmma says:

    Sam,

    What do Extreme Sports, Golf, Tennis, Boxing, the NHL, competitive eating, non-stock car racing event have in common??

    They all have a T.V deals or a regular time slot with the ABC/ESPN family of networks.

    Cut a deal with the worldwide leader and watch the UFC be treated like the 7th biggest sport…… we all can assume that UFC is the only promotion in position to cut a deal with ESPN.

    p,s its a joke the Goldberg and Rogan are the guys ESPN turns to to give pre-post fight analysis

    Imagine after the upcoming presidential debates a major network (CNN) goes to the Obama or McCain spokesperson as the be all end all analysis of the debate.

  • gomez says:

    Believe it or not ESPN does broadcast MMA news. It just comes on online on thursdays. It’s called MMA LIVE. Which Frank Mir and Kenny Florian and two of the host. Its a pretty good show. On a recent MMANEWS.com article. It talked about that show. Apparently they are in talks about making it a regular broadcast on ESPN.

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