It’s Wednesday morning at ESPN Headquarters in Bristol, Conn, and Jon Anik is poised and ready. He is given the cue and the broadcaster shakes his head, smiles at the camera, and introduces viewers to this week’s episode of MMA Live.
The weekly webisode premiered in May 2008 and has established itself as a strong online product for the company.
“We didn’t know how it would go [or] how the response would be,” he admits. “I mean, obviously my bosses were acutely aware of just how rabid the MMA fan base was, but I can honestly say that never in our wildest dreams did we expect the response to be as consistent [as it has been]. It’s been great, but it’s also been consistent, and I think without ‘MMA Nation’ (the show’s interactive audience) tuning in every week, there is no way that this thing would have the legs it does.”
A fight version of SportsCenter, the polished 30-minute show features Anik reporting on the latest MMA news, co-hosts Franklin McNeil and Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight Kenny Florian providing analysis, and Molly Qerim taking the lead on interactive segments.
The concept for MMA Live was birthed in 2007 by the show’s executive producer, Anthony Mormile, and coordinating producer, Kieren Portley. Working previously on projects for fantasy football and poker, Mormile and Portley were always hooked on boxing and mixed martial arts. After the Griffin-Bonnar Boom, the duo saw an opportunity.
“We said, ‘Here is a sport that doesn’t really have a news and information show, or an outlet, in a video sense,’” says Portley. “There’s a lot of good Internet publications [and] a lot of good magazines. But we took that ESPN approach and applied it to a sport that we feel needs that level of attention, just like any other mainstream sport. We felt there was a void there, and, based on the position we could get into, we could hopefully serve fans of MMA the same way ESPN serves football [and] college football [with] NFL Live [and] College Football Live — the same vein of those shows.”
Once Mormile and Portley received the green light from ESPN they hooked up with Anik, who hosted a boxing radio show in Boston and had been following MMA since 2005. Molly Qerim previously worked as the interactive reporter for College Football Live, but left that program once she heard an MMA version was starting up. Franklin McNeil already penned articles for ESPN, so he was a natural choice as an analyst.
To complement the rest of the broadcast team, the producers decided to feature a current mixed martial artist as part of their panel in order to get a fighter’s angle on the topics at hand. “I was very impressed with their vision of how they wanted the show to be and how passionate they were about the sport,” Florian says. “It was too good of an opportunity to pass up even though I knew it would keep me very busy.” Whenever he’s busy training for fights, Stephan Bonnar, Frank Mir, or Miguel Torres will fill in.
Pre-production meetings take place on Monday, but the real work kicks into high gear on Tuesdays. Once the producers hand Anik a rundown, he researches the latest stories, outlines the show, and writes the script – which can be altered anytime up until shooting starts. As this happens, Portley will book guests to appear on the program. On Wednesday mornings, everyone gets together to shoot the show. Finally, after some editing, the episode premieres Thursday afternoon on ESPN.com and other sites that decide to post it.
“In the beginning, I felt like I [was] just there and trying not to screw it up whereas now, I know those guys have my back. We’re just having fun now,” McNeil explains. “There’s no pressure. The pressure is gone. We go in there, and it’s just like we’re sitting at the bar. It’s so much easier now because were a bunch of buddies, sitting around and talking MMA.”
There currently no plans to air MMA Live on television. However, the general feeling is it could air one day if its popularity continues to rise, as demonstrated by the fact that the show was produced on site at UFCs 91, 94, and 100.
“We know the sport is the fastest growing in the country,” Anik continues. “I feel as long as we continue to improve the show and control what we can control, I hope eventually we do take the next step.”