Can Dana White Make A Success Of His New Partnership With Showtime?

The UFC’s purchase of Strikeforce should be seen as the latest twist in the tug of war between the UFC and CBS/Showtime, the former bankrollers of both EliteXC and Strikeforce. The tiffany network and its associated premium cable station had tried to bring the UFC on board towards the end of 2007 but arguments over cost and control scuppered the deal. They then went into business with first boxing promoter Gary Shaw’s EliteXC and then when that group crashed and burned in the flames of scandal they smiled on Strikeforce’s acquisition of most of the group’s assets. While Strikeforce failed to secure adequate ratings on CBS it has been building major momentum on Showtime, drawing record ratings and being cited as a major reason behind the network’s recent increase in subscriptions.

But the relationship between Strikeforce and Showtime brought into sharp focus the very objections of White that seemed so unreasonable when it denied UFC network television. Whereas the UFC has complete control over what appears on its Versus and Spike live events, Strikeforce has too often been forced to make bad decisions on the whims of television network executives. Too often the announcement of matches is delayed while Strikeforce waits for its paymasters to give their lineups the final signoff. Prelim fights are not shown because Showtime believes such contests are beneath them. Poor Gus Johnson is dragged away from boxing and basketball because Showtime feel it’s more important  to have a commentator that its viewers recognize from his work in other sports than one who cares about MMA. While Strikeforce has undoubtedly benefited from the exposure given to it by its deal with Showtime, the product is frequently damaged by the compromises it has to make in return.

The impact of this deal on the MMA landscape will be decided by the type of relationship the UFC is able to establish with Showtime. The UFC has been right to reject offers from the likes of CBS and ESPN that would have involved them ceding too much control over their product. Both boxing and pro-wrestling have been greatly weakened by television networks gaining too much control over the product, the failure of Turner Broadcasting to make a lasting success of World Championship Wrestling and the recent problems at HBO Boxing are testament to that. But one has to acknowledge that their hard line stance has meant that the UFC has been stuck on second and third-tier networks and has so missed out on the additional exposure that would have came from a blue chip deal.

Showtime’s deal with Strikeforce lasts until the end of next year. Should Zuffa be able to put past difficulties aside and use that time to establish a productive middle ground between the UFC’s autarky and Strikeforce’s former subservience then the acquisition of Strikeforce will surely pave the way for branded UFC shows to finally appear on premium cable, so opening up another valuable revenue stream. Should Zuffa and Showtime once again fall out then much of the benefit will be lost – without the extra television dates there simply won’t be enough events to justify maintaining a roster that must now be well past 300 fighters. And just as what happened in 1984 when an exasperated Ted Turner plotted to throw Vince McMahon off his superstation, Showtime would once again start looking for a malleable partner to build up as a genuine contender to the UFC. Today Showtime and UFC have signed an armistice, by 2012 they’ll either have signed a genuine alliance or hostilities will be resumed.

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