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Scholars document media's role in evolution of 'ultimate fighting'

Scott Tainksy and Carla Santos
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L. Brian Stauffer

Once public officials realized that they couldn’t eradicate the sport of mixed martial arts, they decided to regulate events instead, often citing the events’ revenue potential as the reason for their reversal, suggests a recent study by Carla Santos and Scott Tainsky, professors of recreation, sport and tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences.

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5/6/2013 | Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Once derided as barbaric and tantamount to human cockfighting by many lawmakers, the mixed martial arts industry was on the fringe of the sports landscape during its early years in the U.S. and was banned in 36 states.

Over the past decade, however, MMA and its foremost promotional vehicle, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, have made a dramatic turnaround, winning mainstream acceptance and legalization in all but two states – Connecticut and New York.

However, New York lawmakers are considering two bills, either of which would reverse the state’s ban on MMA, a move that Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports because of the potential revenue to be derived from hosting the events.

Over the years, whether elected officials across the U.S. were trying to ban the sport or legalize it, American news media played a central role in rallying support, suggest Carla Santos and Scott Tainsky, who are sports scholars at the University of Illinois and the co-authors of several recent studies on MMA and the UFC.

Santos, Tainsky and their co-authors Alex Schmidt and Chang Sup Shim, both graduate students, explored mainstream media coverage of public officials’ discourse about MMA/UFC. Their study, which spanned the years 1994-2011, was published recently in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

“The way that politicians function is so eminently clear in coverage of mixed martial arts,” said Tainsky, who, like Santos, is a professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the U. of I.

MMA events, also known as “extreme fighting” or “ultimate fighting,” were marketed as “no-holds-barred, anything goes” street fights during the sport’s early years, provoking protests from public officials about violence and the potential impact on the American public.

“Public officials saw it as an opportunity, or perhaps a call, to become gatekeepers for what constitutes appropriate American entertainment,” Santos said. “They sought to use their political clout to prevent MMA/UFC events from happening. But as the sport continued to grow and attracted increasing numbers of spectators and economic benefits, public officials came to realize that they couldn’t prevent the growth of MMA, so the only way to position themselves as protecting American social values was to begin engaging in the debate on legislation.”

The political and social conflict and highly charged moral prescriptions surrounding MMA and the UFC appealed to sportswriters and readers, ensuring media coverage while providing sportswriters with familiar ways of framing issues. Media characterized the sport and the UFC as threats to the American social order and public officials as its protectors.

However, as the UFC grew it had to adapt its product and soften its marketing strategy to enter mainstream sports entertainment, get permission to hold events in U.S. cities and broadcast those events on television, Tainsky said.

“What better way to change the packaging than through a reality series,” Tainsky said, referring to the “Ultimate Fighter” TV show. “They’ve capitalized on the popularity of reality TV – and they’re doing it better than anyone else.”

The reality series also has a “humanizing effect,” Tainsky said.

“It’s sports meets ‘The Real World’ now that women’s fighting is starting to become popular,” Tainsky said. “I think we can anticipate that America will love the female characters on the show, but whether we’re prepared to watch America’s new sweethearts beating each other to a bloody pulp is another matter entirely. This may be the most interesting time in the series.”

“One of the fascinating things that the UFC is doing is taking a sport that’s in its nascency and being creative with it,” Tainsky said. “A lot of times the sports culture is such that we’re indoctrinated into the ways that sports function. UFC officials don’t have the kinds of restrictions and barriers that tend to come up when things change in a sport that’s well loved by generations.”

Broadcast revenue from pay-per-view has far outpaced gate receipts for UFC events. During 2010, seven of the 10 most popular pay-per-view events were UFC telecasts, which firmly established MMA as a mainstay of sports entertainment.

The UFC, which sold for $2 million in 2001, is valued at an estimated $2 billion today – “equal to the estimated average value of a National Football League franchise, twice the value of a Major League Baseball franchise, three times the average National Basketball Association franchise and four times the value of the average National Hockey League franchise, based on Forbes’ most recent estimates,” Santos, Tainsky and co-author Steven Salaga, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in a study that was published recently in the International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing.

“I think we’re going to see that as the UFC continues to grow they will be more and more capable of crafting the messages that are best suited to them in connecting us to the fighters and to the organization itself,” Santos said. “We’ve seen how they’ve done that in a very short time.”

Editor's note: To contact Carla Santos, call 217-244-3874, email csantos@illinois.edu. To contact Scott Tainsky, call 217-244-1857, email tainsky@illinois.edu.

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