The fighting organization has long traded on its outsider status. But its new owners may well change how its fighters and the media are treated
The UFC didnt become a pay-per-view colossus playing by corporate Americas rules. Instead, it took the disquieting concept of two humans fighting inside a cage to sometimes bloody completion and polished it enough to sell on TV. Its owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and president Dana White achieved just the right balance of savagery and skill to take on a failing enterprise and eventually sell it for $4bn.
But how will the UFC look now in the corporate structure of WME-IMG with its multiple investors concerned with image? Will WME-IMG be comfortable with Dana White hulking on stage in muscle T-shirts playing the companys kingmaker? Will it demand a more sophisticated look for the sports promotion?
Part of the UFCs appeal is that it was the rogue intruder in an uptight American sports world. While other leagues fret about offending sponsors, the UFC didnt appear to give a damn. Maybe the Fertittas and White (who all retains a minority interest in the company) are cashing out at exactly the right time. The new UFC might become a very different place, sanitized by their new corporate bosses.
WME-IMGs purchase of the UFC is a little like a big software company buying up an edgy startup. Rare is the startup that remains cool in the arms of their new corporate parent. Its hard to imagine the UFC maintaining the brackish sense of order that the Fritattas and White were able to create in their company Zuffa. Will WME-IMGs image scrubbers try to Disneyfy the UFC?
Corporations fear untidiness. They live in a torment of worry about what their sponsors think. There is probably not a lot they can do to change the fights. But they can alter the presentation by squelching the rough personalities of some fighters, banning the streams of profanity that spill out in press conferences and softening the gladiatorial feel of weigh-ins and fight nights. At their core, WME-IMG are agents for athletes and entertainers. They do more than that, of course, but the groups interests might not be the same interests of fight fans.
Important issues linger for the UFC. The organization has built its massive financial success by not sharing the wealth of the people fighting to make it. In March the Guardian reported that the UFC spent just 13% of its revenues on fighters between 2005-2011. Payouts are small given the physical punishment the fighters endure – sometimes barely more than a few thousand dollars. Even the biggest names get paid far less than their boxing counterparts. Daniel Cormiers cut from $1m to $500,000 after his Saturday opponent Jon Jones dropped out and was replaced by Anderson Silva, was unfair. UFCs biggest star, Conor McGregor, has long complained about the money, as have many others. There have been movements to unionize. Can WME-IMG, who represent athletes, endorse the UFCs current pay system?
The old UFC management vehemently fought recent congressional attempts to add MMA organizations to the Ali Act, a law that requires fighting entities to be transparent about the amount of money they are taking in. It also demands that organizations use independent rankings in determining fights, something that would eliminate Whites power to control who fights and when. An independent rankings system will set up bouts that might not be as appealing as the ones White arranges himself. Obviously, Zuffa did not want to change the way they have been doing things. But WME-IMG might not have the same resistance. If congress adds MMA organizations to the law, Whites omnipotence could be diminished.
And then theres how the UFC is covered by the media. A corporate owner may end Whites occasional practice of banning reporters who displease him. Several journalists, including the Guardians Josh Gross have been barred from the UFCs events. The organization is too big and successful to resort to such pettiness, especially now that it is a $4bn corporate entity.
Will WME-IMG look for an oversized television deal, will they push harder into the mainstream with more TV shows like the hugely popular Ultimate Fighter? Will they try to build agreements with a sports world that has always held MMA at arms length? Do they lure athletes from other sports? A lot will soon change : the Fertittas and White have built UFC into a money-making giant. Corporate ownership could soon make it something the organizations earliest fans wont recognize.