Within mixed martial arts circles, it has long been taken as a given that the UFC pays USA Today for coverage. As the rumor goes, the UFC buys advertising from USA Today with the tacit understanding that USA Today will cover the sport, and do so favorably.
USA Today is a lot of things. It’s USA Today, the national paper that you occasionally read in an airport or hotel bar, and also the USA Today Sports Media Group, which runs a number of sports websites. One of these is MMA Junkie, which is now, though it wasn’t always, USA Today’s primary vehicle for coverage of the UFC.
To be clear, the actual evidence for a media ethics scandal here has always been highly circumstantial, which is why we’ve never written about it. It’s true that MMA Junkie runs broadly positive coverage, and treats some important subjects—like efforts to unionize the sport—with kid gloves. But that’s not unusual. The UFC is much more hostile to the press than almost any other major promotional body in sports, and while part of this is just UFC figurehead Dana White’s pugnacious personality, it also has to do with the nature of the sport, which is highly centralized, making it much easier to control media access. To stay on White’s good side, some sites go so far as to brainstorm lists of topics not to write about so as to avoid incurring his wrath, such as financials. That doesn’t mean they’re all on the payroll. (It should be noted here that Deadspin is blacklisted by the UFC.)
Even so, there have always been things that make you scratch your head. Why would MMA Junkie send writers to cover boring third-tier fights in far-flung locales, for instance? Who has the budget to do that, and why would they choose to spend their resources that way absent some hidden motivator? This is the sort of thing that comes up in inside-fight circles when this subject is discussed.
Anyway, we’re writing about this now because among a barrage of angry tweets White sent out over the past two days was this one, seemingly confirming the whispered accusations:
There aren’t too many ways to parse this tweet without concluding that a) Dana White generally doesn’t like USA Today’s lack of coverage of the sport, and b) he’s happy that they have finally written about it without him paying for it.
When I contacted David Morgan, president of USA Today Sports Media Group, about White’s tweet, he sounded exasperated, and unequivocally denied that UFC bought advertising from USA Today in exchange for coverage. “We don’t have an agreement with them,” Morgan said. “They buy site promotions and advertising on all of our platforms, like others do.”
As he went on to explain, the newspaper USA Today caters to the very definition of a general-interest audience while USA Today Sports Media Group properties speak more to the hardcore fan. Given this, it makes sense for USA Today to run most UFC coverage at MMA Junkie. But Dana White, who would like the imprimatur of USA Today’s name and reputation to give his sport legitimacy, doesn’t like this.
Look at the tweet Dana White is replying to. Somebody tweeted him a link to coverage of his embarrassing Twitter meltdown at FTW, USA Today Sports Media Group’s cesspool of a “social news” site. Despite being a USA Today Sports Media Group property just like MMA Junkie, it has “USA Today” in its URL. Under this parsing of the tweet, Dana White—who has presumably always thought, “Man, what do I have to do to get USA Today to cover my sport, pay them?”—is confusing FTW and USA Today proper, and sarcastically expressing happiness over finally getting coverage in the latter. You can decide how strained you find this reading.
When I asked Morgan if he had heard about the rumors that the UFC pays for coverage, he said my question about it was the first time. The UFC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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