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Reported deal between CBS and EliteXC could be landmark event for MMA

A quote from IFL President and CEO Jay Larkin during an interview I conducted with him earlier this month for CBSSports.com:

The sport needs to be on traditional broadcast television or widely-viewed free cable television. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. Now that the writer’s strike is settled, the fear of panic thing is over but there are still holes in programming that need to be filled and MMA is a good product to fill that hole with. One day soon we’re going to hear CBS, or NBC, or ESPN, or FOX is carrying live MMA. When that happens the dam will break and everyone will jump on it just like in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (when) all three major networks carried boxing.

When Jay Larkin speaks, I listen. The sport is lucky to have someone like him affiliated with it. And if MMAjunkie.com’s report about EliteXC and CBS signing an agreement is indeed correct, then the dam may have in fact just been broken. The entertainment business is not a place where originality is encouraged.

If one company does something unique that happens to be successful, everyone else tries to copy it. Call it the Britney Spears or Boy Band effect — once Britney and the Backstreet Boys came onto the scene, how many copycats did we see? How many “Survivor” and “American Idol” ripoffs have come down the pike?

I’m not sure if it’s going to happen tomorrow or several months from now, but you better believe that another network will strike a deal to televise MMA. A potential deal between CBS and EliteXC could be a landmark development for the entire industry, for obvious reasons. You know that the UFC will be in the mix and this development could change the way they’ve negotiated with prospective television partners thus far. I’ve got to believe that Zuffa is somehow going to try and up the ante (which is what they should do).

Also, don’t rule out HBO. Whether you believe EliteXC is a big reason for SHOWTIME’s recent 11% subscriber increase or not, the fact remains that SHOWTIME is surging ahead while HBO is trending downward. HBO needs to develop new properties in order to retain current subscribers while also attracting new ones. MMA has to be one of the properties that will receive consideration and any bias that may exists towards the sport within the company will have to be challenged. Business is business. Attitudes towards MMA will change once key executives start feeling the pressure.

The big key though is for EliteXC and CBS to make sure the right producer is involved with the project. Getting on TV is not enough. It’s what you do with your allotted amount of time that counts. Unfortunately, the IFL learned that lesson the hard way. Landing a deal with MyNetworkTV was a huge coup for them. However, the vision set forth by the original production company did more harm than good for the IFL.

A producer who understands the needs of the hardcore MMA fan but also the casual fan is essential. If the sport is presented in an overly technical manner, hardcore fans will be pleased but the telecast will fail to resonate with casual fans. However, if an attempt is made to appeal only to casual fans and we end up with a product that is essentially “American Gladiators” but for MMA, it’s going to be a total bomb. Hopefully the corporate synergy that exists between CBS, SHOWTIME, and ProElite will be utilized. I’m biased, but I think SHOWTIME has done a strong job with how it has presented MMA. I hope the key principals involved with SHOWTIME’s production for MMA also become key principals of CBS’ production for MMA.

I had been quoted on the record in the past as saying that I believed the sport’s growth had plateaued, but it looks like I may have been incorrect. I’m starting to get the feeling that MMA is about to undergo another major growth spurt.

It should be fun.