Last December, Vice launched Fightland, a mildly artsy fight game site. So far, it's more or less lived up to the expectations you'd have for a mildly artsy fight game site run by Vice.
You get some cringeworthy nonsense, because of course you do, but you also get bantamweight Julie Kedzie telling a great story about hanging out with Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, or interviews with Steve Albini and Big Boi where they talk about the walkout music they'd use if they were pro fighters. It's fun.
For a site with an apparently modest audience, though, it's always seemed pretty glossy—15 minute documentaries about Cuban fighters aren't cheap—and suspiciously wired into the UFC. So when this article on the corrupt fight press mentioned in an aside that the UFC actually funds Fightland, it made perfect sense. You thought Vice was investing in coverage of a rising sport just for the hell of it, or that the UFC was granting serious access to Vice just to reach past the neckless tattoo guy demographic? Come on.
There's no mention of Fightland being a 50-50 partnership between the UFC and Vice anywhere on the site itself, at least where I can find it (there is one in an obscure recess of the Vice website), and so one might describe the venture as a deceptive, embarrassing attempt to deliberately pass off what is essentially advertorial product as independent journalism. According to Vice, though, that would be totally wrong, because buried in the depths of Variety's website there's a post from May 2012 that announces a joint UFC/Vice venture, and because they issued a couple of press releases mentioning the relationship, and because they "openly talk about it on a regular basis." Vice didn't really respond when I asked what the best way to describe Fightland would be—sponsored content? a UFC Astroturf website?—so we'll just say that it's totally aboveboard and in no way sketchy as fuck, because who doesn't go rummaging through the Variety archives to see whether what they're reading is part of some #branding campaign-slash-exercise in fake countercultural sportswriting.
Which, fine; really, one has to admire the perverse brilliance of an arrangement whereby a sports promotion can partner with a media enterprise to cover it, set up that coverage so that readers are unaware of the relationship, and then plausibly say that the whole thing is completely transparent when asked about it. Maybe this is the future of sportswriting. I don't know.
I do know that there's a certain inexorable logic working here. The UFC, after all, routinely bars writers from outlets like ESPN and Deadspin from covering them for doing things like reporting stories the UFC doesn't want reported, or being too negative. The natural corollary to that is partnering with media outlets to ensure that they'll get just the kind of coverage they like.
If the UFC and Fightland's editor were willing to talk about it (they aren't), I'm certain they'd assure me that nothing of the sort is going on here, that the UFC's interest is simply in underwriting a different kind of coverage of fighting than you can find elsewhere, etc. etc.
The problem with this is that we got our hands on some emails a Vice higher up sent around last year, and he certainly seemed to think differently.
One of these emails had to do with an article in draft, in which a writer had written a mildly derogatory, perfectly accurate line about UFC figurehead Dana White. "I agree with him," the higher up wrote, "buuuuut.... that last paragraph is pretty much saying Dana White doesnt know what he's doing. I hate to always point this out but...i dont."
(Originally, the line read, "Dana White doesn’t understand, and is even mildly contemptuous of, the personality and mentality of the average fighter." Somehow, it ended up as, "Dana White isn't entirely attuned to the mentality of average fighters.")
In another email, about a draft of an article about how cage fighting isn't really especially safe, the same higher up decided to remind everyone of the fundamental nature of the site. "With Fightland being a partnership with UFC," he wrote, "I get concerned about certain things we say. I know the UFC want mma to be as accpeted as the NFL. It is proven that MMA is safer than footbal." The piece ran, but one suspects the points about just who pays the bills and just what the purpose of the venture is were made.
It's just a crummy commercial.
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