Billion Dollar Blood Sports
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Regular readers of this newsletter will probably recognise that when I am short of good ideas for content to fill these sacred paragraphs, I often turned to the FT Weekend. At present, it’s the only newspaper that I buy, and I drag the process of reading it out over the weekend like a ritual.
The reason that I often fall back on it is that the magazine, in particular, is very good at producing long-read pieces analysing that intersection between business, entertainment and the media. You know that old newsroom joke about how there’s “always a local angle”, well there’s almost always “a media angle”. Because, as far as I’m concerned, there are vanishingly few businesses that don’t, at least in some sense, sell communications. And there’s no way you can communicate without engaging with some form of media.
Anyhow, rambling intro aside, this week’s FT Weekend magazine had a long profile feature by Joel Stein about the UFC supremo Dana White. UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is a multi-billion dollar company that exports a very simple product: men and women in an octagonal cage, beating the shit out of each other. That’s then filmed and broadcast the world over. As the organisation’s COO Lawrence Epstein puts it in the piece: “The UFC is like Andy Warhol. Cricket is like Mark Rothko. Everybody gets Andy Warhol. With Rothko, the entrée is so hard.” And he’s right. There is a universal language that the UFC speaks to; the language of violence.
The more you think about it, the more media is concerned with the dramatisation of violence. UFC is huge business, as is primetime boxing. Boxing has also been breaking out of its enclosed ring, straying into territories such as YouTube and other social media outlets, via stars like the Paul brothers (Logan and Jake) and British vlogging sensation KSI. The answer that William of Ockham would give to the question “why are so many YouTubers getting into semi-professional boxing?” the answer would be simple enough. Money, yes, but as for why boxing, it’s because the language of the sport is so simple. Man punches man. You can broadcast that to any corner of the globe, and the rules will basically be understood.
How many of today’s successful video games are not concerned with some form of violence? At present, it feels like the two most successful formats are large scale strategy (essentially, get your group of people to kill another group of people) or battle royale (be the last person alive). Again, whatever the complexity of the game, the rules play out at the most basic level. And this is essentially how UFC has grown at an almost unprecedented rate: any idiot, myself included, can watch a fight. Without knowing the actual “rules”, I can appreciate that the one who hasn’t been knocked out is probably the winner.
For all that UFC is just broadcast violence, White comes across as extremely savvy about understanding it as a piece of entertainment. It is described as almost a sibling to WWE, the fictionalised wrestling circuit that I will NEVER understand the appeal of, where fights are carefully planned and arranged to create narrative. White launched the UFC among with a Spiked TV show called The Ultimate Fighter, understanding that the creation of narrative is central to modern sport (for better or worse). It’s why a fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather might carry a bigger pay packet than a fight between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk. It’s why YouTubers call one another out and meet in the ring. It’s also, not coincidentally, why Cristiano Ronaldo was brought back to Man Utd and why Tom Brady is giving it one final chuck of the ol’ pig skin in Tampa.
UFC is also freed from some of the pragmatic constraints of media enterprises that aren’t forged in a, literal, arena of blood and sweat. White managed to offset the necessity for lay-offs during the pandemic by opening a franchise – “Fight Island” – in the United Arab Emirates. The close relations enjoyed between the UFC and UAE would face huge scrutiny in other sports (FIFA and UEFA have, obviously, given the 2022 World Cup to Qatar but have faced constant pushback at their desire to hold more competitions in the Gulf) that aren’t run as, essentially, a single commercial enterprise. It’s why UFC and Formula 1 have a huge advantage over, say, the European Super League or the LIV Golf tour. There is no pretence that this is a true sporting endeavour. It’s a mercenary competition in a mercenary world.
It will come as precisely no surprise then, to discover that Donald Trump was an early backer of UFC. Indeed, he can reasonably claim some responsibility for its success. And don’t be shocked if Dana White – a libertarian pacifist who’s addressed GOP conventions – moves into politics. As has been noted to death, the slow consumption of American political discourse by entertainment media started a long time ago. If you enjoy one blood sport, you’ll probably enjoy the other.
BAD PODCASTERS CLUB: I am holding a free drinks at networking event, this Friday from 6pm at The Bowler in Farringdon. Please come! If you attend and look me in the eye and promise that you’re a paid subscriber to this newsletter, I’ll buy you a drink. There’s a deal. Free tickets here, if you want to help the venue with numbers, or just show up on the night.