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To win a labor war with UFC, Conor McGregor must utilize Fox the way Donald Trump has

By Zach Arnold | April 20, 2016

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God knows what is really going on behind-the-scenes between Conor McGregor and UFC. It didn’t take a genius, however, to see that McGregor would soon attempt a leverage play for more money and, ultimately, his goal of co-promoting future events. This goes against the entire credo of UFC’s business model.

With no real ammunition left, Conor McGregor had one card to play — retirement.

Nobody is taking the threat seriously. McGregor needs money and exposure. Despite the beliefs of some in MMA media circles, Conor McGregor is not bigger than the UFC. Using the retirement card plays right into UFC’s hands. It ices McGregor out of the sport of MMA. Unless he wants to take his chances and fight in Europe or Japan, UFC will gladly watch him sit on the sidelines like Randy Couture and waste his time. If McGregor does promote his own fight, UFC will easily obtain a judgment against him in the United States and transfer that judgment over to Ireland for enforcement.

You can already see the legal wheels spinning in the minds of UFC executives.

After McGregor announced his “retirement” from UFC, the promotion yanked him off their UFC 200 card due to allegedly not following up on contractual obligations to promote his UFC 200 fight against Nate Diaz. From there, the hypothetical causes of action start flowing:

In a binary labor relations battle between UFC and a fighter, the fighter always loses in the court system and the court of public opinion. Ask Randy Couture. The pressure is intense. The paychecks stop. Television exposure and business opportunities fade away. Even if you have made “screw you” money, there’s never enough.

Changing the equation to win the war

There are several fronts right now under attack for UFC.

The biggest threat, however, to UFC’s business model is a powerful TV business partner. UFC has gotten away with having creative control of matchmaking & production with Fox. Fox has largely paid them rights fees to air a Zuffa-flavored product. Fox has never interjected itself into business dealings the way Spike & Kevin Kay have with Bellator, Showtime & HBO with boxing, or the way Fuji TV did with PRIDE and Tokyo Broadcasting System did with K-1.

To change the terrain, fighters must inject an active & strong third-party into the business equation. For MMA, that partner must be Fox. It’s the one opportunity Conor McGregor has make a difference in his business battle with the UFC and he would be wise to take a look at a certain high-profile individual who has used Fox to get what he wanted.

Donald Trump studied the path to the Republican presidential nomination process for years. Trump made sure to maintain a presence on Fox television but by no means did the network build his brand or make him into the media maven. Trump wasn’t like other politicians who had to rely on the Fox machine to build name recognition. The price politicians pay for kissing Fox’s ass is ridiculous.

Trump instinctively created heat with the face of Fox News, Megyn Kelly. When the battle got hot, Fox treated him like a child and sent Roger Ailes after him. Ailes discovered that Trump wasn’t playing around and demanded that he deal with the big boss, Rupert Murdoch, instead of Ailes. Trump called Fox’s bluff and ran a veteran’s event in Iowa opposite of a Fox presidential debate. He used Fox as a weapon and changed the media chess board to his advantage.

If Conor McGregor wants to win a labor battle with UFC, he’s going to have to pull Fox into the business equation. Fox wants to renew their contract with UFC but is struggling to find its footing. Fox Sports 1 has been a disaster. The UFC network events do poorly in the ratings. The 18-to-34 year old demo is still delicious but not as appetizing as it once was. There’s been talk that Fox Sports 1 may emulate Fox News in terms of tenor and style of programming. A more active, aggressive Fox means an opportunity to insert themselves into creative control of sports properties they do business with. UFC falls right into that category. Fox has largely stayed out of the way of UFC in terms of matchmaking and negotiating with fighters.

In order for Conor McGregor to get what he wants and ultimately change the landscape of how UFC does business, he needs to insert Fox into the business equation. He needs to turn Fox Sports executives like Jamie Horowitz into active participants like Roger Ailes & Rupert Murdoch, the same way Fuji TV let producer Kunio Kiyohara work with PRIDE. Break the binary UFC vs. fighter cycle and introduce a strong third-party into business affairs. Once Fox becomes a more active player in managing & producing UFC TV events, UFC has to sacrifice some leverage in order to maintain their relationship with Fox.

Whenever UFC breaks a big story, they go to ESPN. UFC has given Fox plenty of reason to doubt the supposed two-way street for business loyalty. UFC needs Fox as much as Fox needs UFC. UFC’s only other TV alternative is to do a deal with ESPN/ABC and right now there is great volatility in that company, especially after they overpaid for NBA rights fees and got taken to the cleaners by the NFL for Monday Night Football rights.

Fox remains the main game in town for UFC. Everyone knows this. Everyone also knows that in order for Fox to benefit from the relationship, the status quo must change. Combat sports is a star-driven business. You can only get so far pushing a brand-first product. UFC has reached as far as it can go using the brand-first model. As long as they keep making money and don’t get sued into oblivion, there’s no reason for UFC to change the way it does business. Icing Conor McGregor into permanent retirement works just fine for them. It gives them an opportunity to make an example out of yet another fighter who decided to challenge them over money and allows UFC to get rid of a guy who was becoming a massive headache. Better to be on the sidelines and silent than push a fighter who builds his own leverage while making cash in the process. A short-term loss to maintain a long-term gain.

Conor McGregor has no significant leverage right now. He’s not going to get $10 million dollars for a fight. If he wants leverage, he’s going to have to convince Fox to get involved in negotiations. McGregor, or whichever big superstar decides to challenge UFC next, is going to have to convince Fox that the network needs bigger names on cable & free TV cards, a financial piece of Fight Pass, and a financial piece of PPV promotion. Zuffa has never given into any sort of television partner on these business fronts before. The question is whether or not McGregor is smart enough to figure out that being a good self-promoter isn’t enough leverage to get what he wants. He needs third-party muscle and that muscle is Fox.

In the same way that Fox News has been a conduit in building up conservative politicians and pundits, Fox has been UFC’s television partner in building up new stars. Conor McGregor was the first big star built in the Fox Sports 1 era when he fought in Boston. There’s history there. He needs Fox and Fox needs better ratings from UFC. It’s his only chance of forging an business alliance that works for him and works for all fighters. Otherwise, he’s going to be stuck on the sidelines doing empty retirement threats and getting sued into economic submission.

Topics: Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 16 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

16 Responses to “To win a labor war with UFC, Conor McGregor must utilize Fox the way Donald Trump has”

  1. Chris says:

    Nailed it Zach.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Very well put Zach. Best take on the situation I have read thus far.

    *thumbs up*

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    Connor has played his hand poorly. He needed to be ahead of this story. Instead he was cryptic and then let the UFC counter.

    Not a big fan of Connor so don’t really care if he fights again. But he is no FMJ.

  4. rst says:

    Thats pretty shrewd Boss, you should run for president.
    I’d vote for you.

    Unfortunately for conor, although he’s quite the wordsmith for talking circles around opponents and beguiling the media, this situation looks like a less then acute pig picture business sense on his part IMO. And not only this situation, he probably shouldn’t have gotten himself into the RDA situation. He probably shouldn’t have gotten himself into the first Nate Diaz situation, and then he probably shouldn’t have gotten himself into this one. I think he’s got big enough eggs to attempt what you described and try to go over UFC’s head, but I’m not sure that he’s smart enough not to mess it up.

    “Break the binary UFC vs. fighter cycle and introduce a strong third-party into business affairs.”

    Breaking the binary cycle with a third party would not only be good for MMA, but the whole country.

  5. Jason says:

    It ain’t about the Benjamins.

    It’s about the Nate.
    Conor is ego driven as much as money.

    He fakes a retirement now, he doesn’t risk a bruised ego (or face) and he can come back again later and never publicly accept a fight with someone he knows will kick his ass.

    Don’t be scared homie…

  6. david m says:

    Conor totally flips the script. Now if Dana says Conor can’t fight on UFC 200, he (Dana) looks like a complete moron and an asshole. People are always going to cheer for Conor over the UFC in this situation; it is like Stone Cold vs McMahon in the 1990s. UFC has to either give in or look horrible in the court of public opinion, AND ruin their PPV buyrate if they don’t let him fight.

    • DIAZ'S PACKED BOWL says:

      Again Connor is copying Diaz’s style. remember when Nick wouldn’t do the media circus b4 GSP? Same thing, fight was off because Dana and the frattatas are spoiled brats who want it all.
      Dana could have said fine, go train harder so you stand a better chance of winning, you’re our biggest cash cow and that might in part be because you win.
      However he doesnt ever consider whats best for the fighter, even for their #1 fighter winning is not an option, just hang on ufcs meathook display, dont train harder or analyze mistaken which led to a loss, just do it! Again! Oh wait thats nike, what reeboks slogan?

      Good move by Connor, F ufc and their mob boss son owners.
      Its not like Connor is depriving the viewers of anything we haven’t seen before. Id rather NOT see Diaz Mac 2, right away at least. Id like to see other fighters, such as Diaz, get the bigger paydays they deserve. And cmac is helping them achieve it.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Dana’s singular job is to take hits so that Lorenzo doesn’t have to.

      If it costs them money at UFC 200 in order to gain control over a fighter, so be it. They have every legal weapon now in the book thanks to Conor’s behavior this week.

      Virtually every and any cause of action related to contracts is on the table – from as minor but aggressive as declaratory judgment to anticipatory breach to breach of contract to breach of implied covenant & good faith.

      There’s a big difference between being entertaining and persuasive. Conor is entertaining. UFC smelled weakness all the way and their calm reaction publicly indicates they know what’s up.

      You can act as if Conor has all the leverage here. He does not. And dispel the myth that UFC isn’t ready to destroy this guy and take the short-term hit in exchange for maintaining their status quo.

      I fully anticipate them taking this guy to court eventually and financially wrecking him. It will happen and the price will be steep.

      • DIAZ'S PACKED BOWL says:

        Im not acting anything. He has no leverage. I did say good for him. He’s a fighter not a Gina or RR. UFC wants to treat him like a star, he wants to roll around and blaze some fatties in Iceland for a while. Who can say who’s right, but its Connors call to make.

        Nick Diaz was expected to get pulled from the GSP fight, like cmac he missed his media obligation, and he was the
        “bad guy”(aka hardworking, but outspoken and troublesome stoner dude) vs GSP. This time however, cmac is GSP aka the “good guy” vs Nate Diaz.
        Selling the fantasy repeat as the “best fight”(its the biggest money maker) at the expense of the reality… Connor needs to do some real work real fast to beat Diaz, shows UFC is narrowing the gap between sports and sports entertainment…

  7. Chael's Roided Left Nut says:

    Why is the UFC suddenly bad for wanting it’s fighters to show up for promotion? I haven’t seen anything to indictate that the UFC is doing this big event on the cheap. Promos, tours, media obligations, tickets, all this costs money. Lots of it. And if fighters want a piece of it, get the fame, they have to play ball. Be part of that exposure.

    Connor was whining about having to do the circus monkey routine. Complaining that other fighters are going to have to do it this time. Like it was some chore that he had to do before? What the fuck? It was because Connor did that stuff before, he is as famous as he is. That ‘circus monkey’ act made him a media superstar, and enabled him to rake in the tens of millions. And buy all that blind and other dumb shit he has bought. All things . . .HE WANTED.

    MMA fighters aren’t the brightest lightbulbs sometimes.

  8. 45 Huddle says:

    Connor is scared to fight Diaz and found a way out. Simple as that. His next fight will be back at Featherweight. For all of the talking he does…. it finally caught up with him.

  9. Will Emero II says:

    McGregor is now claiming he’s back on the card at UFC 200. Can’t wait to see what the week brings with this evolving tale.

  10. DIAZ'S PACKED BOWL says:

    So ufc has a promotional tour planned for 200. They want Connor to be on tour to promote his fight. He wants that time off to train for the fight.
    The reasoning is that if he were to do the full media circus his fight would be garbage, lacking the full training camp.
    Putting the cart in front of the horse is what you call UFC caring only about “promoting” the fight and not the quality of the fight.
    Can you imagine say a writer or movie director taking time to do book signings and interviews when they haven’t actually finished what they’re promoting?

    Consider a writer telling his publisher that he hasn’t started the book, and unless he has total focus he will not finish it by deadline, only to be told by his publisher “doesn’t matter if you write a book or not, we want to spend 10 million dollars to promote it”. As a writer you’d be a complete fraud to do those tours knowing that. Your integrity would be at risk. UFC has no real integrity at all, they have cut corners EVERYWHERE, and alienated EVERYONE at some point, except the NEW fans 😉

    Now with connor out, they have their big promotion with nothing to promote. Should they even find a replacement fight/fighter, the replacement has already missed the media tour. That makes the ufcs argument for pulling connor moot.

    And of course this entire drama as helwani pointed out is better than any scripted media hype. So why not go with it?

    The best idea is to promote the fight as usual and dock connor 20-50% of his fight purse for not doing the media tour. That not only gets the stars realigned, but also sets a reasonable precedence for punishment in future media no shows.

    • rst says:

      “The best idea is to promote the fight as usual and dock connor 20-50% of his fight purse for not doing the media tour.”

      Thats actually not a bad idea. But conor has handled all of this in the worst way possible. Dana said that there was still a chance to get back on the card 2 days after conor “retired”, got removed and then “unretired”, but he had to get in touch with dana and work it out. He probably could have got back on WITHOUT having to take any pay cut, but he wanted to fight in the middle of the street on twitter instead. If you’re running a business you cant stop the whole show to play emotional tag with a diva. conor is NOT the whole show.

      • DIAZ'S PACKED BOWL says:

        the problem with “Dana said” is obvious, dana is a pathological liar.
        Obviously Connor “got in touch” with dana and said what he said to the world, “I need to work on my game or get embarrassed again on the (supposedly) biggest show of the year”.

        What the frattatas and dana need is a special friend, a guru who is real smart to guide them through these difficult times and help them make the right decision based on logic and reality. Instead of their emotions contracts and bank account.

        Regarding Danas stupid comment about it not being fair to the other fighters for Connor to drop out of the promo tour… Diaz didnt care, he understood.
        Bu how about the undercard fighters who didnt show up for the promotional tour? Im sure they would like extra exposure, but no way is ufc paying to fly everyone out, so whats really fair?

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