Photo by Scott Heavey/Zuffa LLC
On Monday the UK’s national broadcaster—the BBC—announced a partnership between its newly digital channel BBC Three and MMA’s premier promotion the UFC.
It’s long overdue, but this is truly a landmark moment for mixed martial arts in the United Kingdom.
BBC Three was formerly a TV channel in its own right. But, is now a digital platform going forward and the deal with the UFC will see the BBC produce previews and behind-the-scenes content for its reader/viewership. The UFC’s broadcasting rights are still owned by BT Sport so this deal is separate from that, though the future home for the UFC in the UK is up in the air with BT Sport’s deal with the UFC expiring in the summer.
The content partnership announcement comes on the week of Saturday night’s event in London which sees Britain’s own Michael Bisping take on living MMA legend Anderson Silva at the O2 Arena. A marquee event marked with an important development to the growth of MMA within the country.
In the official press release from the BBC, newly-acquired Senior Vice President of the UFC’s EMEA market, which incorporates Europe, Africa and the Middle East, James Elliott, said: “We are thrilled to be recognised as a valuable asset for BBC Three and the wider BBC Sport team.
“Audiences across the UK & Ireland are becoming more and more knowledgeable about the skill, athleticism and ethics of MMA fighters and the great events and content produced by the UFC, which is driving fans to seek content from media outlets.
“BBC Three is a perfect fit for UFC and we look forward to an exciting year working together to bring great content to their audiences.”
The controller of the BBC, Damien Kavanagh, said: “BBC Three has a history of covering emerging sports that appeal to young audiences in new ways, and our coverage of UFC will be no different.
"We already offer sport on The Daily Drop and it’s right we cover one of the fastest growing and most talked about sports in the world, which has millions of fans in the UK, in a BBC Three way.
"The deal is mutually beneficial and demonstrates how BBC Three can experiment with new types of content, from new partners, in new ways.
"Last year we made a documentary featuring MMA and offered live coverage of League of Legends from Wembley with both well received by younger audiences, so in the spirit of innovation, we welcomed the chance to work with the UFC."
Elliott has already made a big impact in Europe since his tenure began as the chief of EMEA. Saturday’s marquee event at London’s O2 Arena aside, he has already got two events with big names appearing in two new European markets in The Netherlands and Croatia—while, domestically, he has negotiated a deal between the UFC and the British Wrestling Association to promote both MMA and amateur wrestling on the British Isles.
However, it’s this partnership between the UFC and the BBC which is arguably the most encouraging in propelling the sport’s relevance in the UK in 2016.
In years gone by, the British MMA fan base has been relatively small in size to that of boxing, but equally as rabid. It’s a hardcore fan base that has yearned for mainstream acceptance of the sport. In fact, I actually emailed the BBC myself back in 2008 as an angry 17-year-old fan about how much of a joke it is that MMA is not a featured sport within the BBC’s reams of dedicated sports pages—which include websites for the likes of canoeing, fencing, archery and bowls. The response I got from the BBC at the time was discouraging, saying they have sports pages for sports they analyse as popular and relevant for Britons. You’re telling me that diving is more popular in the UK than MMA is? No chance. (For your information, there is still no MMA sports page on BBC Sport.)
It may be a digital content partnership only, but this is truly a watershed moment for MMA and the UFC in the country. This announcement may not be on the same scale of the UFC’s TV deal with FOX in the USA, but then MMA was already established as a popular, mainstream combat sport in the States at that point in time.
Despite it being 2016, there is still a degree of negative stigma attached to MMA—or cage fighting as the sport is commonly referred to by the uninitiated—in the UK. Traditionally, the UK is a boxing nation and you’d often catch the sports press and pugilism pundits bashing MMA for its supposed barbarism, though attitudes are slowly starting to turn. But, it’s clear there are plenty of Britons out there who still don’t consider the value of MMA and are perturbed at the fact the publicly-funded BBC will be spending tax payers’ money on their newly-formed partnership with the UFC.
So, in essence, this is a massive step for MMA’s rise to prominence in the UK despite the criticism from a select few. But, what encouraged this move between the BBC and UFC?
Over the last few months there were a few strange instances where the BBC published content on UFC events. These were just the standard, no-thrills reports from the Press Association, but it was still pleasing to see nonetheless. However, these reports were solely based on Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor’s last outings—and their publicised ventures since.
McGregor may well be Irish, but his popularity from the Emerald Isle has most certainly translated across the Irish Sea and he is a prevalent figure within the United Kingdom. Having a European fighter as brash and impressive as McGregor—a relatable one at that for us Britons—has most definitely raised the profile of the UFC and MMA as a whole in the UK. Old school friends who used to throw barbs at me for “enjoying watching men roll around in their pants in a cage” now retweet McGregor’s Twitter posts and like anything featuring McGregor on Facebook.
It’s often been thought that it would only take one fighter to galvanise the British to embrace MMA as a sport. Michael Bisping, one of the key protagonists on Saturday night’s bumper UFC card in London, was long considered to be that man. But, it’s clear Conor McGregor has had an impact in bringing MMA and the UFC brand to the British consciousness. That’s not to say McGregor is the sole reason for this particular development. But, the fact that the BBC would publish reports on his and a global superstar in Rousey’s fights is telling.
This budding partnership between the UFC and the BBC is a momentous development for the acceptance of MMA in the United Kingdom at its still-fledgling stage. Potentially there are bigger moves to come, with Sky Sports supposedly interested in the British broadcast rights for the UFC when they are up for tender in the summer. But, for now, this is a one gargantuan step in the right direction for the sport on these shores.
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