NY Times: UFC vs. Viacom

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In one corner is Ari Emanuel, the Hollywood superagent who represents the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier cage-fighting league. In the other corner is Philippe P. Dauman, the urbane chief executive of the media conglomerate Viacom.

From 2005 to 2011, the U.F.C. was shown on Spike, a Viacom channel, where it became a ratings powerhouse. Then, in 2011, in renegotiating the U.F.C.’s deal, Mr. Emanuel asked for a 50 percent fee increase and made other demands. When Viacom balked, the U.F.C. struck a $700 million, seven-year deal with Fox Sports to show its fights on Fox, FX and Fuel, all owned by News Corporation.

But Mr. Dauman counterpunched, and Viacom decided to enter the fight business itself. In fall 2011, the company paid around $50 million for a majority stake in Bellator Fighting Championships, according to people with knowledge of the deal who did not want to be identified discussing internal company business.

That Viacom, home of Paramount Pictures, MTV and SpongeBob SquarePants, now owns a gritty league of muscled gladiators — who travel the country fighting in a 710-square-foot circular cage — speaks to the fierce battle for live sports rights. In the DVR age, networks desperately want to hang on to live viewership.

BUT it also demonstrates the evolution of cage fighting, which has grown in the past decade from a fringe spectacle banned in many states to one of the fastest-growing sports properties on TV. Mixed martial arts dates back to the ancient Greek Olympic sport of pankration (or “all powers”) that emerged circa 648 B.C. It allowed fighters to use a blend of fighting styles, though biting and gouging out an opponent’s eyes were outlawed. In modern times, mixed martial arts largely evolved from a Brazilian combat sport known as vale tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”) popularized in the 1920s.

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