The Ariel Helwani dilemma: Lawsuits & informants, not protests or unions, is how to fight UFC media policy
By Zach Arnold | June 6, 2016
UFC has profited yuge from their media tactics. It got them ESPN. The media has a 6% approval rating. It will worsen https://t.co/OSTUOllmwJ
— FightOpinion (@FightOpinion) June 5, 2016
There are two different stories coming out of UFC 199. In the world of general sports fandom, UFC 199 was a great event with Michael Bisping accomplishing his lifelong dream of becoming a UFC champion. In the world of general sports media, the UFC banning Ariel Helwani for life after he scooped UFC PR on Brock Lesnar’s return to MMA for a fight at UFC 200 is a big scandal.
In a Yahoo Sports article published on Sunday event, Helwani claimed that Dana White accused him on nearly ruining UFC’s deal with Lesnar because Lesnar was upset that the news got out early. Does this mean Dana White allegedly accused Helwani of potentially interfering with UFC’s prospective economic advantage by doing his job as a journalist?
If this wasn’t so laughable, I’d shed a tear. Regrettably, Helwani’s employer (SBNation) MMA Fighting released a short, terse statement regarding Saturday night’s incident. I give SBN the benefit of the doubt in terms of needing to do their own independent investigation to find out all the details as to what happened. I still believe that they should have stood up more aggressively on behalf of the face of their MMA web site.
Media outlets such as the CBC, the Washington Post, Deadspin, and Pro Football Talk have ran stories pushing back against the UFC for what they allegedly did to Helwani. NFL personality Rich Eisen questioned why UFC would go this far given that Helwani has an audience that supports their product. It’s great to see this kind of response but it’s about 10 years too late and will largely be chalked up by UFC’s rabid fan base as a case of the media doing what they do best — talking about each other and how important they are.
The UFC has managed to pull off a feat that very few sports or entertainment enterprises could ever do. They manage to get the big media entities like Fox Sports and ESPN to grovel at their every step while maintaining media control like an entertainment property such as WWE. They get the best of all worlds with their terrible behavior but it’s absolutely calculated to perfection. UFC doesn’t need writers to carry their water. That’s a mindset stuck in 2000. UFC is making hundreds of millions of dollars doing what they’ve always done. The price of “media” admission to a UFC event is a contract of sorts that you will do whatever they tell you to do in exchange for not having to pay for a ticket.
From UFC’s vantage point, any media member who doesn’t do what they say is in legal violation of the contract of getting a media pass. It’s purely a business transaction. I’m surprised UFC hasn’t sued media writers yet for breach of contract.
There is now reportedly an allegation that UFC supposedly “ordered” Fox to fire Ariel Helwani. That’s a very serious accusation to make. If it’s substantiated, Ariel must pursue a lawsuit for interference with contractual relations. If it’s unsubstantiated, UFC could easily pursue defamation options against Ariel. The clock is ticking. If the statute of limitations runs out, Ariel will forfeit any legal or moral right to complain about what supposedly happened to him. If he chooses to sue, however, he likely will be able to find an attorney who will take the case on contingency given a) the parties involved are high-profile and b) the potential defendants involved have a lot of money.
What UFC did to Ariel Helwani on Saturday night was clearly a signal that they do not fear him or his employer. They loathe his presence and find him irritating but they do not fear legal repercussions. This must change in the future.
Reframing and restructuring the MMA business model
Those in the media who still cover MMA for a living must adjust to the reality on the ground. You cannot treat UFC the way you would treat another sports organization. You have to make a living by covering the sport on your terms, not theirs. That means paying for event tickets. It means shoe leather detective work inside and outside of the arena. It means not bothering with getting credentialed. That game is a dead end.
You want the UFC to respect you? Prove to UFC that you can do your job without anything from them.
Want to change UFC’s behavior towards you? Demonstrate that you’re a threat. Once they perceive you as a threat, they will likely be more willing to negotiate terms of better treatment. The best way to demonstrate that you’re a journalist threat is by creating a network of informants to produce evidence that could be used against UFC in a court of law.
Such a change in journalist tactics against UFC has worked in the past. Dana White is still Dana White but you don’t see him as much on camera after Rob Maysey and fighters sued UFC in an anti-trust lawsuit. UFC was going along with the testosterone hall pass charade for its fights until the temperature and issues of liability got so hot that they had to back off for their own self-preservation.
If the media wants to gain more access without giving up their integrity, they’re going to have to demonstrate their own self-worth. If you let the UFC define your professional self-worth by how much access they grant you in exchange for cash value of a ticket, you’ve already lost.
UFC’s tactics against the media are not new, nor are these tactics as harsh as media policies in a field like politics. Hillary Clinton’s public relations machine mastered the “pig pen” strategy that is ruthlessly executed to perfection by all major American political candidates today. Team Clinton figured out that if you physically enclose national media members into an area surrounded by metal gates or rope, you can control them by threatening to take away their media access and blacklist them if they escape the pig pen and talk to voters or officials at campaign events. The end result has been complete and total submission by American writers, who have spent lots of ink publicly protesting the pig pen strategy only to find that readers, by in large, have zero sympathy. Readers expect members of the media to circumvent the rules and do their job regardless of how thankless the terrain may be.
Which is why the rules of engagement must change for the MMA media in how they deal with the UFC.
The first & second prongs – pay-to-play and lawfare
UFC has unlimited access to the public through Fox Sports 1, ESPN, and TMZ to promote whatever they want to promote. Like Brock Lesnar’s upcoming UFC 200 fight versus Mark Hunt in a cushy-soft interview:
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) June 6, 2016
It’s time for everyone else to pull a page out of the TMZ playbook and start buying informants.
Recently, some political writers decided to change their tactics by crowdfunding investigative reporting. One such site is called WeSearchr, which offers bounties for anyone who can provide direct evidence and research implicating certain individuals for alleged criminal acts or torts. Money talks.
Hypothetically-speaking, is it possible that there are unhappy insiders in a company with hundreds of employees? Sure, it’s possible. Hypothetically-speaking, is it possible that a large fight company could contact an agency such as an athletic commission and influence public officials to target members of the media or spread unsubstantiated rumors to create a false narrative? I won’t name names specifically but this has happened to me personally in the past and I didn’t find out about such underhanded tactics until years later when the statute of limitations had already expired.
Start crowdfunding topics of interest. Raise the cash and produce evidence that could be introduced in a court of law. Create your path of discovery and find out if there is a formal policy of retaliation against members of the media. Find out if there are civil rights violations regarding how individuals in a protected class (gender, sexual orientation, race) are treated at the office and at fighting events. Video tape interviews with current or former employees and obtain written documentation regarding employees who may or may not been targeted for termination.
UFC has masterfully put members of the sports media into submission. Now it’s time to make them the investigative journalistic target. Watch how fast UFC changes their tone once the press demonstrates real leverage. UFC currently has no reason to respect any MMA writers because those writers do not contribute the company’s bottom line for making a profit. If you can’t prove your financial value to UFC as a member of the media, then the only way they’re going to show you fear and respect is if you demonstrate your ability to investigate the way they conduct business and prove to the world that it’s immoral or illegal. Huffing and puffing that you lost a media credential that you obtained in a contractual agreement with UFC will get you nowhere.
Members of the media need to understand how to build leverage so that they can negotiate better terms of treatment later on. That starts with paying for investigative information and building legal arguments against UFC’s current conduct. An outlet like SB Nation has the cash to buy informants and build leverage with UFC. They need to start utilizing their financial toolbox.