Just over a week has passed when TKO Group Holdings, a publicly traded media conglomerate with a much-heralded valuation of $21.4 billion, was officially launched by Endeavour, the parent company of the UFC, by combining its premier MMA brand with that of the recently purchased WWE.
It was a significant step, especially in view of the hazy future for sports broadcasting rights as the industry shifts to streaming. As a result of the aftermath, both fan bases have legitimate concerns about the precise implications of this unusual combination for the near- and long-term future.
As a long-time supporter and journalist of both the narrative and non-fiction realms of sports entertainment, it’s difficult to anticipate how much crossover across brands will occur in the upcoming months and years, but there’s little doubt that too much would be a very terrible thing. Since the public introduction last week, there has only been a round of layoffs, primarily on the WWE side and concentrating on executives and some on-air talent.
The following is a cheat sheet of dos and don’ts for TKO to think about moving ahead from the perspective of UFC and how it might profit from the possible resource sharing from its union with WWE, without compromising the integrity of what it achieved to get here.
DO: Protect the legitimacy of the sport at all costs
One would assume that this would go without saying. However, keeping the integrity of its unscripted sport must be of utmost importance when aligning it with WWE, given that UFC just narrowly avoided a major financial disaster due to the fallout from the James Krause gambling scandal and the financial threat of how the perception of impropriety might affect deals with gambling providers like DraftKings. This worry is a big part of why many who have studied both sides of the sports entertainment industry find a cooperation like TKO so unbelievable. In these places, there is no guarantee that the toothpaste will ever be put back in the container once it has been taken out.
DON’T: Ever insult UFC fans by playing into kayfabe
When considering the inevitable crossover that will result from WWE promos and talent interviews appearing on UFC television, UFC needs to keep in mind the ancient carny phrase for the presentation of produced acts as authentic. Nobody, especially WWE, expects even its own devoted following to genuinely think the staged combat they watch is real since it’s 2023. The UFC must take great care not to straddle the line in this situation. It’s acceptable if Seth Rollins receives premium seats at a UFC event just to promote the WWE pay-per-view taking place the following night. But refrain from embellishing false narratives in a way that would lead viewers to wonder if UFC is doing the same. Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier may be the kind of personality that can transition across brands as a referee or announcer, but any trash talking of his manufactured WWE rivals needs to be avoided on UFC broadcasts. In MMA, there are already enough contentious decisions and unexpected knockout victories to make naive spectators wonder if a fix was in place. The easiest way to lose your current fanbase is to introduce encounters, even between UFC competitors, that seem manufactured or scripted, like when Lesnar shoved Cormier and made a promo inside the cage following UFC 226 in 2018.
DO: Create roster crossover ahead of select big events
Even though newly minted CEO Dana White frequently claims that the UFC isn’t the place for novelty fights (just ask Francis Ngannou), that isn’t always the case. The reverse seems to be the case, according to a simple search of James Toney, CM Punk, and even White’s current thirst for a hybrid Fury-Jon Jones fight. Celebrity crossover can still work when done properly, even inside top combat sports marketing. This appears to be confirmed by the most recent boxing matches between Jake and Logan Paul. It’s not hard to picture a WWE superstar like Roman Reigns, Ronda Rousey, or Brock Lesnar accepting one-off UFC fights against suitably matched competition if it were limited to a once-per-year type schedule linked to major events. The same may be said about popular UFC fighters like Conor McGregor or Sean O’Malley landing roles in written, cross-promotional spots on WWE television prior to key pay-per-view events, or even a staged crossover like the Lesnar-Cain Velasquez narrative in 2019.
DON’T: Create a mockery by making it a shameless habit
When the timing is right and there is sufficient “can’t-turn-away” fascination, celebrity crossovers are successful. But without compromising the entire integrity of the product, it cannot be a viable strategy, especially for UFC. A little WWE flavour in UFC circles might help fan communities interact more, but abusing these freedoms is the quickest way for die-hard MMA fans to start losing faith in the UFC’s commitment to its brand’s integrity. The CM Punk experiment in the UFC in 2016 initially succeeded, but a second attempt proved to be too risky. The same can be said for former NFL standout Greg Hardy and legendary backyard brawler Kimbo Slice’s brief UFC appearances. Gimmicks should be saved for when they really matter, and UFC should never compromise its position as one of the top MMA leagues.
DO: Step up storytelling efforts and video packages
Let’s face it: When it comes to producing pre-fight sizzle packages that make you leap out of your seat in anticipation of the upcoming action, WWE is the absolute greatest in all of sports and entertainment. In recent years, the UFC has subtly imitated the strength of their written competitors before major fights, frequently using vocal talent from actor Ron Perlman. However, there’s little doubt that UFC could be doing a better job overall of showcasing the tales of its athletes in ways that WWE has already monopolised.
DON’T: Allow paying off WWE debt to affect UFC matchmaking
Based on the type of year UFC has had in 2023, one can argue that this has already begun. The overall matchmaking across the board has suffered greatly, coinciding with the sharp increase in ticket prices and an unsavoury mix of public scandals involving fighter pay, antitrust lawsuits, domestic violence (involving White), and the bad taste left in many people’s mouths from White’s shameless push of his Power Slap promotion. The UFC has still done an excellent job of delivering at the highest level with strong PPV main and co-main events. The UFC that fans are watching this year simply isn’t as strong as in previous years as the promotion continues to rely on the fighter factory of “Dana White’s Contender Series” to continuously fill its own roster with competitive fighters who are willing to accept low-paying contracts in order to achieve their goals. How will this mega corporation and Endeavor’s need to settle the $9.3 billion debt incurred by the purchase of WWE effect the daily financial health of UFC? That is the key area where Endeavour needs to use caution, particularly when discussing how poorly compensated UFC players are in comparison to those in other combat or team sports.
DO: Step up the look and feel of UFC entrances
The world’s top MMA organisation normally doesn’t go all out in terms of imaginative fighter entrances, with the exception of former middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. Even when the UFC took over what was left of Pride in 2007, it hasn’t been able to match the Japanese promotion’s mastery at making the stressful moments leading up to a huge fight feel out of this world. In recent years, boxing has done an excellent job of striking the correct balance, especially for big heavyweight studs like Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. a fighter to customise the walkout to fit his or her style without creating a spectacle that overshadows the subsequent battle. Since the modern fight game is so heavily reliant on excitement, the UFC might learn from WWE by leveraging that hype to better connect its star fighters with the audience.
DON’T: Just copy and paste what WWE has already done
Was it cool when Adesanya made his UFC 276 entrance last summer while sporting a black hat resembling that of the WWE Hall of Famer and carrying his trademark urn? It probably was if you are a significant WWE star. The entrance, which was disappointing, had nothing to do with Adesanya and felt like a publicity gimmick more than anything else, similar to what Adesanya did at UFC 243 in 2019. when he visited Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, to perform a scripted number with a local dance group. Less than a year before the companies combined, Vince McMahon and other WWE executives were present for Adesanya’s Undertaker walk, which speaks to how artificial the event felt.