When billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban launched the high-defi nition channel HDNet in September 2001, mixed martial arts was a sport on life support. With critics calling it “barbaric,” many pay-per-view providers refusing to air events, and sponsors shying away, the future looked bleak.
Cuban, however, was quite literally building a channel for the future. At the time, “high-defi nition” was hardly a household phrase, and the term “HD” would have brought quizzical looks from most. But he realized the technology would eventually change living rooms around the world. And as a lifelong sports fan, he innately understood that presenting athletic competitions in the format would present the fan a new, hypnotic viewing experience.
Over time, MMA would prove to become a cornerstone of the network. Even before The Ultimate Fighter brought the sport into mainstream America, HDNet was bringing MMA to its subscribers. On January 23, 2004 – almost 1 full year before TUF debuted on SpikeTV – HDNet ran its fi rst MMA broadcast: tape-delayed coverage of World Extreme Cagefi ghting.
Cuban, who famously made his billions during the 1990s dot-com boom, has found success in several other business ventures. Before his massive windfall, he’d already become a millionaire by selling his company, MicroSolutions. Less than a year after making his billions, he bought the downtrodden Dallas Mavericks of the NBA. During the decade before he bought the team, it didn’t have a single winning season; since then, it hasn’t had a losing season or even missed the playoffs. He also owns 2929 Entertainment, a media company.
Unconventional as he may be, his participation in the MMA world certainly raised eyebrows, but any backlash against his move or his programming was not unwelcome.
“I loved the fact that it was controversial,” Cuban says. “The more emotion our programming can generate, the better.” The channel would remain the home of the WEC until the promotion was bought by UFC parent company Zuffa in December 2006. In an indirect way, Zuffa became responsible for HDNet’s subsequent growth spurt, as the channel decided to replace its lost programming by developing partnerships with a host of companies.
Since then, the channel has produced more MMA than any other company or network, including the UFC, with events emanating from around the world including hotspots like Brazil and Japan and far-off outposts like Bulgaria. In 2009 alone, the channel is anticipating producing around 35 events with partners like DREAM, M-1, Sengoku, Ring of Combat, Maximum Fighting Championship, SportFight, and more.
“We think there is no better roster in the world,” says HDNet Fights CEO Andrew Simon. “UFC has a pretty good stable of fi ghters, but we feel we have as good a lineup.” HDNet Fights’ reputation today is largely due to the work of Simon and company president Guy Mezger.
Simon came into the fold in October 2007 with a goal of branding HDNet as the home of MMA. Ironically, his fi rst night of work was one of two attempts the company made at running its own promotion. Dubbed HDNet Fights: Initiation Night, the show had a main event of Erick Paulson vs. Jeff Ford but also featured notables like UFC veterans Drew Fickett, Justin Eilers, and Pete Spratt, and a pre-UFC C.B. Dollaway. After one more promotional effort, HDNet Fights shifted gears, fully embracing the current partnership format.
“There are a lot of great non-UFC fi ghters. We wanted to provide a platform for them and great content for HDNet,” Cuban says. “We did the two [shows], and they went well, but we decided we could do better to work with other promoters individually. Not to bring them under one umbrella, but rather to help them develop their own promotions and get stronger. The stronger the independents are in this sport, the better it is for all the athletes.”
With their course set, Mezger and Simon aggressively courted partners, signing deals with regional powerhouse Strikeforce, the IFL, and others. Through early broadcasts, they were able to showcase stars rarely seen by U.S. audiences, like Fedor Emelianenko, Kid Yamamoto, and Eddie Alvarez. Their stature also rose with the success of MMA’s fi rst weekly televised news show. Launched on September 7, 2007, Inside MMA, hosted by Kenny Rice and MMA legend Bas Rutten, offers fans a look at the mixed martial arts world along with a changing panel of guests who provide commentary on current topics. Helmed by executive producer Darrell Ewalt, Inside MMA was soon functioning as a Friday anchor, establishing the night as required viewing for many fans.
“If you tune in on Friday to watch Inside MMA, you know something else is coming up,” Simon says. “We always have something good for the fi ght fan. And I think many of them have made it their home for MMA.” Many of the key players inside HDNet say Inside MMA has been most crucial to its increased profi le in the MMA world. Because of its willingness to show highlights from small organizations as well as draw attention to rising and established stars from around the world, HDNet earned credibility with the fi ght community as well as the discerning fans.
The network also made a concerted effort to be part of the sport’s fabric, as evidenced by events such as a July 2006 charity tribute show, the proceeds of which went to the family of Ryan Bennett, a well-known MMA reporter and broadcaster who died in a car accident. The relationships have become mutually benefi cial for the channel, the promoters, and the fi ghters. Television exposure changes the level of sponsorship dollars and also brings in added interest from fans who might not otherwise be aware of the promotion. In the last 18 months, HDNet Fights invested time and money scouting different promotions and searching for possible matches. The company’s interest lies in organizations looking to grow that are willing to invest in great fi ghters; present quality shows; and have a long-term, viable business plan. Once a partnership is forged, the company takes an active role in fi ght cards, helping to oversee the crafting of compelling matchups to air on television.
“Sometimes you have to convince promoters to spend more money than they want to,” says Mezger, the former MMA fi ghter who now runs the HDNet Fights day-to-day operations as company president. “And by that I mean, convincing them that let’s up the show. Let’s make it better. And making them recognize they will have the opportunity to earn more revenue as a result. Most of the guys are great partners who bust their butts to make great shows. And the ones who don’t aren’t partners anymore.”
Lou Neglia is one promoter who believes his partnership with HDNet Fights has benefi ted not only his organization, but also the sport. Neglia runs Ring of Combat, a New Jersey-based fi ght league that is the longest-running sanctioned MMA event in the United States and boasts Matt Serra, Phil Baroni, and Josh Koscheck among its alumni. Ring of Combat has to date run 24 shows and draws thousands of fans to its events, which are often held in Atlantic City. “Without a doubt, fi ghters want to be on the show because of the reputation of the show but also because of the exposure on HDNet,” Neglia says. “HDNet has broadened the audience of fans, and exposed them to fi ghters who otherwise wouldn’t be known. Fighters love it, sponsors love it. It’s benefi cial for all of us.”
In a November 2008 report, Nielsen Media estimated that about 23.3 percent of U.S. households – around 27 million – have highdefi nition setups. According to the company, HDNet has 14 million subscribers, so it is present in more than half the homes with HD capability. Cuban does not disclose ratings but says MMA program
ming does “very, very well.” Not content with its current position, HDNet is taking the long view on the sport. Mezger has hopes of improving the sport’s amateur programs, arguing they are too fragmented and similar to the pro ranks to do much good. He also hopes to create a scenario in which various promotions would match their best in champion vs. champion bouts.
“The idea is to keep constantly moving forward,” Mezger says. “Do what we do, but do it better. How do we create more people tuned into what we’re doing? How do we help our partners and blow them up? How do we make them bigger and stronger, and make them national players? My vision is still, How do we create a real major league sport here? People think it’s major league already, but it’s not there yet. I want to see a proliferation of MMA.” It appears that day could be nearing. UFC and WEC have national cable deals. Strikeforce, an early partner of HDNet, recently signed a deal to air shows on Showtime and CBS-TV (Cuban says the deal doesn’t preclude continuing the relationship). Affl iction plans to run a third show this summer. Upstart Bellator has a deal with ESPN Deportes. And coverage, at least on the Internet, is growing.
“The more the better,” Simon says. “I know, from a quality standpoint, we have the best MMA in the world. The fact that ESPN is talking about it now and other networks are interested, it’s great for the sport.” Now back to the beginning. HDNet Fights, which was started as a promotion, might not have seen the last of its self-promoted cards. Remember, after Randy Couture briefl y left the UFC, HDNet had a major interest in putting together the long-hoped-for Couture-Emelianenko fi ght (“We thought we were close until the lawyers got in the way,” Cuban says). And none of the HDNet executives closed the door on putting together their own card in the future. The situation just has to be right.
“I think what Mark looks at is the bigger picture,” Mezger says. “He believes there’s a lot of good organizations out there. We don’t want to turn ourselves into the other 800-pound gorilla. If there’s going to be an American Airlines (UFC), we can help the Deltas, Continentals, etc. That allows us to put on so many events. We couldn’t do that without partners. But I think down the road we’ll do more events. [Mark] wants to do big events.” Mezger paused for a moment, then perfectly encapsulated the entrepreneurial attitude that gives the company its heartbeat. “The thing about Mark is this: He doesn’t do anything small.”