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Mark Cuban’s baby steps toward MMA respect

September 12, 2007

Mark Cuban‘s news conference Wednesday wasn’t the earth-shaking news that I’d hoped for — no Fedor Emelianenko signing — but it did give some great insight into what Cuban’s future involvement with mixed martial arts might be (see my earlier post).

For now, it looks like Cuban will concentrate on building his new brand, HDnet Fights, which will showcase fighters under contract to Cuban and those with other organizations such as the Art of War and Richard Steele’s Cage Promotions. (Five Ounces of Pain has more of the details)

Some folks seem disappointed that the debut of HDnet Fights lacks sizzle, with no real superstars on the Oct. 13 card to be held at Dallas’ American Airlines Arena. But I think you’ve got to pay attention to what Cuban’s saying:

We’re not out there to compete with the UFC right off the bat. Part of what I actually believe in is that you’ve got to walk before you run and the card on Oct. 13 is more of a beta test if you will, where we’re trying to get all of our systems in place and all of our promotional elements and marketing elements in place and really get a better understanding of how we can treat the fighters better and really get them to believe and the fans to believe that these are truly professional athletes and we’re going to treat them that way.

Cuban knows he has no choice but to build his brand slowly. His network HDnet, which is broadcasting HDnet Fights, only reaches 6 million subscribers and still isn’t carried by major cable providers, such as Comcast. I would expect that Cuban will try to sign some names, like Fedor, Josh Barnett and Matt Lindland but it also sounds like he’s going to try and sign up-and-comers who his team will try to develop and market into stars.

One of the things Cuban has stressed is that he wants to emphasize MMA as an athletic competition and focus on the athletes, rather than the “spectacle” that the UFC tends to promote. Among his targets are getting rid of the ring girls.

I think that’s a curious approach. The UFC’s model has worked extremely well and I would have to question anyone who thinks they have a better plan.

What the UFC has done well is promote stars that people will tune in to see no matter who they’re fighting i.e. Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and Randy Couture. Put any one of these guys on a card and you’re likely to have a very successful pay-per-view. Of the last 10 UFC ppv events, 7 had at least one of these guys on the card (This doesn’t count UFC 75 or 70, which were broadcast on Spike).

But the guys who suffer are the guys who aren’t stars, Cuban said. Without pointing fingers, he says they’re not treated with the respect or paid what they’re worth.

I get the feeling Cuban’s vision is to recreate what boxing had in the 70s and 80s before Don King and Bob Arum ruined the sport. Back then, the boxers were the stars and they didn’t need contrived feuds and story lines to get viewers. Sugar Ray Leonard against Marvin Hagler or Tommy Hearns or Roberto Duran wasn’t something you needed a gimmick to sell.

Still, Cuban is sending mixed messages. On one hand, he is trying to push MMA more into the mainstream by getting away from some of the Mardi Gras type promotion and on the otherhand he’s talking about partnering with Vince McMahon, the master of contrived hype.

I don’t think Cuban can have it both ways.

By setting an initial low bar, Cuban is giving himself some breathing room to see what works and what doesn’t. That’s smart. It also buys him some time to get his HDnet TV into more households.

But Cuban isn’t going to pose any threat against the UFC by partnering with the Art of War and Steele Cage Promotions.

I think his plan is to create a more “acceptable” MMA product that promotes the sport like boxing, while steering away from its “no holds barred” past. He’ll do that by emphasizing the skill, strategy and athleticism of MMA, rather than the violence. (That’s easier said than done because there’s no getting around the violence).

I’m sure that executives with companies like Gatorade and Nike are salivating over the prospect of finding a way to get a piece of the MMA action. Don’t discount potential linkups with networks like ESPN or TNT, either. Cuban has the connections and savvy to make something like that happen.

And if the marketing power of Gatorade or Nike gets behind one of Cuban’s fighters? Watch out UFC.

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