UFC has a tricky relationship with the Internet. The company’s president, Dana White, has said time and again that he believes it will be the future of television and pay-per-view distribution. Sooner rather than later, goes the theory, that instead of calling your cable or satellite provider minutes before the beginning of a pay-per-view you’ll instead go over to your computer (or other Internet-connected device à la Roku), and a few clicks later you’ll be watching the likes of Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre, and newly crowned light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones compete against each other in perhaps the world’s fastest growing sport. Its recently relaunched UFC.tv is only further evidence of this. At the same time, the company has been hard at work fighting online piracy, going so far as to bring streaming video site Justin.tv before a Nevada judge, where it hopes to convince the court that the site is regularly “exploited by users to broadcast illegally uploaded content, including UFC events.” Given that pay-per-view revenue represents such a massive percentage of the company’s overall revenue it’s not hard to understand why it’s so keen on eliminating the piracy threat as quickly as possible.
Which brings us to the crux of this here story, the UFC’s evolving relationship with the Internet. The company teamed up with the Web site heavy.com a few months ago to create a live, pre-fight Web show called Fight Day Live that gives fans that little bit of extra access that’s vital to a sport’s healthy and sustainable growth. Would the NFL be as popular as it is today without all those pre-game shows on the various television networks? (For now let’s leave any lockout discussion to Deadspin.) ESPN’s College GameDay, I’m told, has become an integral part of today’s college football experience. What’s been the role of the BBC’s Match of the Day in keeping the first division of English soccer in the public consciousness? (Before anyone out there gets mad: yes, I know the show isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not influential. It’s not Sky Sports on transfer deadline day, but what is?) The point is: selling a sport in and of itself isn’t nearly enough to bring it to the next level. You’ve got to offer fans a full experience. You need to be able to say “What is this, ‘Inside Baseball’?” in casual conversation and have people know exactly what you mean, because only then do you know that your sport has truly taken off.
(The idea of building an experience around an event isn’t limited to sports, or to television programs. Let’s not forget that authors now set up multi-media Web sites, or even full iPhone apps, to support the launch of new books.)
Heavy.com’s Fight Day Live first aired before UFC’s January pay-per-view event, UFC 126, held in Las Vegas. Like the above programs, it aims to give fans a show behind the show of sorts, to give fans access to UFC fighters who they might otherwise only see talking to Joe Rogan in the octagon, or perhaps during one of UFC’s slick countdown specials on Spike TV, and to have some of the best mixed-martial arts journalists around weigh in on the night’s upcoming events. One of the highlights of this first episode—I guess episode is the word to use here—was when heavy.com’s MMA editor, Matt Brown, predicted almost to the second the result of the main event between Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort. Did lightning strike twice?
Matt Brown is second left
I spoke to the aforementioned Matt Brown last Friday and Saturday, the day before and of UFC 128 in Newark (they invited me to the event, and it was great), to pick his brain a little about Fight Day Live, and to better understand how the show fits into the UFC ecosystem. If you had to pick one word to describe Brown’s take, it has to be excitement. These are special times to be a UFC fan, Brown said, particularly in light of the company’s purchase of one-time rival MMA promotion Strikeforce. The idea that fans now stand on the cusp of seeing the likes of Alistair Overeem, Gilbert Melendez (a Brown favorite), and Jason “Mayhem” Miller in the UFC octagon—I’d mention Fedor, of course, but I’m not sure if his complicated contract will carry over into this new, Zuffa-owned Strikeforce—has had the entire MMA community buzzing since the deal was first announced back on March 12. The idea, as stated throughout this piece so far, and also told to me by heavy.com’s CEO Simon Assaad, is for Fight Day Live to become as integral to the UFC experience as, say, College GameDay is to college football fans, or Match of the Day is to Barclays Premier League fans. If there’s a pay-per-view event (Brown said there probably won’t be an edition of Fight Day Live for some of the smaller UFC events, like Ultimate Fighter specials or Spike TV Fight Nights; there wasn’t a show before UFC 127 in Sydney because the heavy.com team wanted to ensure that they work out any bugs in the format before flying the crew to the other side of the planet), it’s heavy.com’s plan to be there, and to give you something to do before the first preliminary fights begin on Facebook—yet another embrace of the Internet on UFC’s part.
Brandon Vera, left, and host Dave Farra
Fans watching on Saturday would have seen, among other things, Brandon Vera thank Dana White and the UFC for giving him a second chance (a new “lease on life,” in his words) in the organization following his loss against an opponent who ended up having possible irregularities in his urine sample; current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz explain some of the bad blood between he and Urijah Faber, and welcome the idea of a fight with Jose Aldo; and Clay Guida (whom I was definitely star-struck by seeing, I’m not at all embarrassed to admit) say that, while he’s been relatively patient with regard to getting a title fight, he feels that “2011 is [his] year,” and that the Winnebago in which he lives, called the Dudemobile, was doing just fine… he hopes!
And of course, throughout the show the hosts, Dave Farra and Megan Olivi, were taking fan questions from the arena itself and from viewers at home.
The show’s concept was a hit before the heavy.com crew even woke up on Saturday. The first episode, from January, was seen by some 250,000 viewers when you combine live and non-live viewers. Considering the amount of hype surrounding this most recent pay-per-view-event—did you hear about how Jon Jones chased down a criminal in the hours before the fight kicked off?—it’s probably pretty safe to say that it’ll be around for a while.