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.