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Sports TV Executive of the Year: Dana White - Broadcasting & Cable

Sports TV Executive of the Year: Dana White

The bombastic president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship discusses the massive deal that put UFC on the broadcast map and other issues facing his business
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Dana White doesn’t pull his punches, but he does keep his promises. In October 2010, the bombastic president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship created quite a stir in the sports and mixed martial arts worlds when he guaranteed to B&C he would have his sport on broadcast television by the end of 2011. For a sport once dismissed as “human cockfighting,” that was quite a proclamation, considering White had no deal in hand at the time.

But White, as he has often done while building the UFC into a premiere television sports property, backed up the brash talk. On Nov. 12, the UFC debuted on the Fox broadcast network with a one-hour show that featured a heavyweight championship fight. While the fight ended with a stunning knockout in only 64 seconds—welcome to heavyweight combat, folks— the night completed an improbable (unless you ask White) ascension of the sport to literal primetime status.

But Fox was not alone in wanting UFC. Several networks desired the former Spike property, and a deal was originally in place with Comcast-NBC that would have seen UFC buy the G4 network and put its programming across the NBC broadcast and cable properties.

While White won’t comment, sources say the NBC deal fell through because UFC wanted its popular Ultimate Fighter reality show to air on USA Network, a development that was opposed by World Wrestling Entertainment, a huge player for USA. All White will say is: “We were right there—we were very, very close.”

Undaunted as usual, White quickly audibled and landed the massive Fox deal that put UFC in the spotlight, put his programming on Fox, FX and Fuel and put hundreds of millions of dollars in the UFC coffers.

The UFC frontman looks the part of king of the pugilists, and he has made a name for himself spouting off honestly in front of the cameras. Away from the spotlight, however, he is a self-aware, savvy and thoughtful executive. For instance, he readily acknowledges that most people don’t even know what UFC is, but says he knows how he is going to change that and will talk about it in a quiet and con! dent manner. That is, unless you ask him about someone he doesn’t like.

And true, he may interrupt you during a chat to tell a staffer to tweet out to his 1.75 million rabid followers, in caps, “HOLY SHIT, HOW TOUGH IS DOS SANTOS!” But that connection with the fans has been a major catalyst for the popularity of both the man and the UFC itself. White gives the out! t an inspirational leader that fans feel they would want to have a beer (or nine) with.

In recognizing the explosion of the once (and still, by some) derided property that is now on the same network as the Super Bowl, World Series and the Daytona 500, Broadcasting & Cable is naming Dana White its 2011 Sports TV Executive of the Year. To discuss the massive deal that put UFC on the broadcast map and other issues facing his business, White sat down with B&C editor-inchief Ben Grossman for an extensive conversation. An edited transcript follows.

Last year you made quite a splash when I printed your prediction that you would have a broadcast deal by the end of 2011. Were you close to something at that time, or just being bullish?
We knew we were ready to take this thing to the next level. It was time. We knew there were people interested. I had no clue then [who it would be]. I had no one network in mind. But this is no bullshit: Fox is the one I wanted.

Why?
Because it’s our demo, they are great at sports, they have a lot of platforms. Plus they are global, they have a lot of networks in other countries. One of the big ones for us is the U.K. You can’t go on network TV and make a lot of money off it. It is an investment in the future of the sport and the brand.

What was the process like, shopping for TV deals?
It was the most stressful thing to go through. Boxing became so big because of the ABC Wide World of Sports days. Even the cable deal for USA’s Tuesday-night fights created a lot of the big stars from the ’90s. I’ve been making some pretty big claims for 10 years, and we’ve been knocking them down one by one. Ten years ago, I said we were going to be bigger than boxing; 10 years ago, I said we would get it on television, and we weren’t even allowed on pay-per-view then. We’ve always had some big goals with this thing.

What were the meetings like? Who was pitching whom?
We talked to all the networks. This is how complicated our deal is: It’s not like we are just going out and saying, “We want to get this TV show on your network.” We have live fights, we have a reality show, we have news shows. That’s how much content we have and can create for a network or networks. So just being on one channel doesn’t work. If you look at how much of Spike’s primetime programming we were, we still needed more. It was time for us to graduate to the next level.

What did you learn from the whole process?
I learned that I’m happy to be in a seven-year deal so I don’t have to go through this shit again in three years.

How close did you get with the other networks?
Now that we are in the TV business, I watch these guys. Like what’s happened to Discovery, how FX grew the way it has. Tru TV—when it came out, I said it was a stupid name for a TV network, but look what they did. I walked into their office and told them I love it, love their programming—it’s a men’s network. We were interested in them, but all the different pieces and parts we needed, that one didn’t work.

So, what happened after things fell through with NBC?
We started talking to Fox. Everything happens for a reason. We were all the way down the road on this thing. I was in Seattle at a fight, we do a conference call with Fox, with [Fox Sports Media Group copresident and COO Eric] Shanks, then it turns into a meeting. We literally walk into the boardroom at [talent agency William Morris Endeavor] and hammer this thing out in one day. Everyone was there on my side—our exec team consists of, like, five people. All ! ve guys were there. David Hill wasn’t there, but Shanks was and [fellow Fox Sports Media Group copresident and COO Randy] Freer was on the phone, all the lawyers and everyone else.

Why did you leave Spike?
We couldn’t come to a deal. They let the biggest sports franchise in the last 50 years go. We negotiated with Spike. We’re loyal guys. We were loyal to Spike. The Spike thing worked for us. That really worked, to build the way we did there. Could it have worked if we went back to Viacom, who knows? I wouldn’t change a thing.

It came down to money?
Yeah, pretty much. And we needed more content. All these platforms….

What will happen with Fuel? Do you think it will be rebranded?
I think it will become a real network. I think it’s going to stay Fuel. [Fox execs] are talking about it staying Fuel. (For the latest on Fuel's branding strategy, click here.)

Did you ever talk about launching a network in this round of talks?
Yes.

What do you think of launching a network?
I am glad we didn’t. It’s not what we do. We do fights, we provide tons of other content. I just think at this point it would have been distracting. We had it teed up, we had all the guys ready to come in, to run it. If we did it, I assume we could have made it work. We took the most tarnished, beat-up brand, bankrupt and everything else and got it to where it is today, we probably would have pulled off the network, too.

With partners?
It would have been a partner for a little while, then on our own.

A new partner?
It was Comcast. We were going to own a majority interest.

Why do you need broadcast?Monday Night Football, the NBA Finals, they are on cable.
It’s not that I ever had a hard-on for broadcast, or I would have been on three years ago. I had an HBO deal at one time, and I walked away from that. It was a goal of ours to be on broadcast, because you know how we believe in this sport. And we believe the more people are introduced to it will fall in love with it. There will always be people who don’t like it, but this is how we grow the fan base.

You never ended up on HBO, and now there is new leadership at HBO Sports. They brought on Ken Hershman from Showtime to replace Ross Greenburg…
They go from bad to worse. This guy is doing such a bang-up job at Showtime, they bring him to HBO? I don’t know.

But Hershman did do MMA, which HBO didn’t.
Maybe that was why. If Chris Albrecht was still there, we would have done the HBO deal. I would have absolutely done that deal with him.

Was ESPN ever in the mix?
We’ve been talking to them forever. Just to get them to cover us, let alone to get involved with us.

Were they ever a serious possibility?
No. We never had hard negotiations with them. It was Turner, Spike, Fox, Comcast. And CBS, too.

So looking back now, how did the first Fox event go?
It went great. We can’t control how long the ! ghts are going to go, but I wouldn’t change a single thing. We came on with a Fox Sports feel, not our usual testosterone, and we told stories. That was our introduction to the mainstream. The network got no complaints, it went off without a hitch—we pulled killer ratings.

What was the nightmare scenario?
What if it was a three-round war with one guy against the fence and he’s cut and blood squirting all over the mat and it goes on and on with blood everywhere? It could have been a lot of worse.

What will the next Fox card look like?
Four fights, two hours. Still tell stories. You will see a lot more storytelling on broadcast than PPV. With our hardcore fans, we got smashed, they thought [the Fox event] was horrible. But that’s a [tiny] bubble. And we have lived in that bubble the last 10 years. The rest of the world doesn’t know about it. If you walk down any major street in any major city and ask people what the UFC is, most of them don’t know. Or they have heard of it but never seen it. We have to educate people on what the sport is about. The perception is not the reality.

You own a former rival outfit called Strikeforce, which has a deal with Showtime. Will you keep that running? We’ll see what happens with Showtime. They have an option, we’re negotiating right now. I would like to work this thing out. I want to keep it going. I flew out to New York and sat down and met with these guys to try and keep it alive with Showtime. Hershman was my problem over there. We had been in talks before that with CBS. I like Les Moonves a lot, I really like him. The rest of the guys at CBS have been very cool.

After you jumped from Spike, Viacom bought into another promotion called Bellator, which they are going to replace UFC with on Spike. Is that competition good?
It’s absolutely good for business. What are they going to do? They let us go, and [UFC is] the only thing that ever rated on their channel. It makes sense they would try and replicate it.

How good a product is it?
If we are No. 1, [Bellator] are number two. Hey, if the UFC is No. 1, it’s not bad being No. 2.

So Bellator is better than your own Strikeforce?
I don’t know, it’s a good question. If you look at Strikeforce right now, Strikeforce has better talent.

Are you concerned about any Federal Trade Commission intervention as far as monopoly claims?
How can we be a monopoly if Viacom is in the business? We now become the mom-and-pop.

You are a different kind of sports exec, with your bombastic persona. For instance, in a recent press conference you told your fans to shut up if they didn’t like something. Your persona: Is it on purpose, or is it a strategy?
I wouldn’t say it’s a persona or a strategy. It is what it is. It’s my relationship with the fans. I love social media and talking to the fans. It’s a real honest relationship. Yeah, sometimes I do say shut up and they say stuff back to me.

Does your candid persona ever hurt you?
No, I think the only time it ever has is when I used [the word faggot] that one time, and now I’m labeled a homophobe, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I think it’s the only time in 10 years anything like that has happened.

I read PPV numbers are down like 50% this year; is that right?
We are down, but not quite that much. We’re in this funk right now. We are in this weird transition from Spike to Fox. If we were still deep in our Spike deal, I would be programming a lot of things on that network right now that I am not. So we are in this weird position, between injuries and this transition period from Spike to Fox. We’re not concerned. We had a lot of great main events lined up, and the list of injuries is crazy. We lost 10 main events [in 2011] to injury.

What’s the biggest challenge for the UFC right now?
As we continue to grow and go global, it’s time. Time is our biggest enemy. There are only so many of us. Just getting everything done.

Why not just hire more people?
It’s not about throwing more bodies at it. We’ll get it figured out. Once we get settled in [on Fox], then we’ll start cruising again.

What can you do about people who say that Ultimate Fighting Championship is “human cockfighting”?
Eventually, as we continue to educate—you have to be so uneducated about the sport to say something like that. We’re all human beings, fighting is in our DNA. Everyone understands the sport. It’s not like cricket, where it has to be explained. This is fighting. Everyone gets it, but not everyone is going to like it. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. I don’t like golf, I don’t watch it. Change the channel. This sport is not going anywhere.

Do you get pissed off when people dismiss UFC as being too brutal?
No, it’d be like someone being pissed at me for not liking golf.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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