The MLB Network. What does it have to do with MMA, you may ask? Nothing, really. But it might provide an interesting template for the way MMA can be covered on television in the future.
Rather than focusing on one game, showing every pitch of every at-bat, a large portion of the MLB Network’s airtime during the hours in which live games occur is spent hopping from one game to the next. It’s not about staying in one location and covering one game, but rather about bringing happenings from the entire league into one centralized broadcast, delivering key at-bats, important innings and big plays—some live and some just moments in the past. The feeling isn’t like that of watching constantly looped replays on ESPN Sportscenter, but rather one of being in the moment, witnessing what most fans would consider the most meaningful at-bat at any given moment, the one they will all discuss around the water cooler the next day.
How can that translate to MMA? That’s where AXS TV comes in.
The network formerly known as HDNet has invested its resources heavily into its MMA product. It is currently in a lengthy stretch of airing regional and international shows on consecutive Fridays—we’ve had XFC, MFC, Legacy FC and, next weekend, Titan FC. The network’s Inside MMA news magazine block also sends camera crews to regional shows of all sizes to capture footage for replay on its live Monday broadcast.
As great as all of this is, there’s something lacking. The opening fights of most of the events are comprised of fighters with little experience or name recognition, and the fights can either turn out incredibly entertaining or excruciatingly dull. Even the main events can disappoint. And let’s face it, all but the most hardcore of fans will tune out if they aren’t interested in a fight—if they don’t feel the bout or the event holds importance, or if it turns into a series of lay-and-pray fights or clinch-fests against the cage, the remote is within arm’s reach.
But why focus on one event when there are camera crews at multiple shows on any given weekend? Why not take the MLB Network approach? There’s no doubt that producing an evening of fights in this manner would be a much greater challenge, but it would also deliver fans a guaranteed night of action and important fights, dissuading viewers from reaching for those remotes.
The concept would be rather simple. The camera crews sent out to film fights solely for replay on Inside MMA would suddenly become part of a live series of crews throughout the nation. As with the MLB Network’s coverage of baseball, the focus would turn from covering an event to covering the most interesting, important and entertaining moments of the night.
For a hypothetical, let’s say that a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler was competing at an event in Ohio, as Team Alpha Male’s Lance Palmer recently did. Meanwhile, a larger scale event, such as a XFC card, is taking place in Tennessee. And finally, perhaps there’s a card on the West Coast featuring a fairly well-known UFC veteran.
Under the current format for AXS TV, the XFC would be broadcast live in its entirety. Highlights of the Friday night events featuring Palmer and the UFC veteran would most likely be canned and delivered on Monday’s edition of Inside MMA. That means shelving that content for almost three full days, while airing the entire XFC event regardless of the quality of the fights.
However, if AXS TV adopted the MLB Network’s formula, fans would be treated to the best from the three undercards and also witness the featured bouts either live or just moments after they happen. Instead of reading about Palmer’s win on this or other websites and waiting until Monday evening to view the highlights, fans would see it as it takes place. It would gain instant significance.
This turns an evening in which AXS TV normally broadcasts a five- or six-fight card, where few care about the opening match-ups, into an evening in which we suddenly jump to the Ohio card, where two fighters with a combined experience of less than five fights—a common characteristic of many of the early fights for promotions such as XFC or Legacy—are engaged in a war that could be considered a “Fight of the Year” candidate if it took place in the Octagon and featured fighters with names like Mauricio Rua or Anderson Silva. And once that fight concludes, we head to the West Coast for another stellar bout. Then, we still head to the more significant promotion for its featured title fight. Instead of the best and worst of one promotion, we get the best from three or four and leave the worst on the cutting room floor.
Obviously, the production needed to pull this off would be tremendous. Live production and quick turnaround of fights broadcast via a tape delay of mere minutes is no easy feat. Yet, AXS TV already at least has the groundwork in place with the crews out at these events recording for Inside MMA. And the MLB Network proves that it can be done, though it can rely heavily on regional networks that already broadcast the games. That’s a luxury AXS TV would not have. Can AXS TV replicate the MLB Network’s approach? This most likely stands as the biggest obstacle in the way of ever implementing such an ambitious concept. It won’t be cheap and it will be more technically difficult to master. AXS TV might not feel that the complicated production would be worth the effort.
The other obstacle would be with the promotions. The ones previously only featured on replays would obviously be overjoyed at the idea of having fights featured on Friday night. However, the promotions that currently see entire cards featured would balk at the idea. Those organizations would lose airtime. There’s no easy solution to appeasing these entities. AXS TV would have to navigate through current contracts, or let them run their course without renewal. The network would also have to convince the larger promotions to buy into the concept.
Buying into the concept might require a demonstration that ratings would be higher for the concept than for the card as a whole. While AXS TV is currently in the midst of a lengthy run of consecutive Fridays of live MMA action, there are weeks where the network doesn’t feature an event. Why not give this idea a trial run on one of those weekends? Single out four or five cards that would be in consideration for Inside MMA filming and instead go live. If the ratings show success, then the format could be explored further and perhaps the bigger promotions involved with AXS TV could be convinced to participate. If the ratings turn in a bust, then the effort could be considered a failure and all parties could pretend it never happened.
Finally, there’s the issue of events taking place concurrently, which might mean all of the most relevant fights also take place at the same time. This is where a combination of tape-delay, coordination of events with AXS TV and another concept used in other sports—going to split-screen—could come into play. The promoters might be willing to stagger show times, or at the very least insert an extra intermission prior to a main event, with the promise of a live national broadcast.
The responsibility of the production crew would be to hone in on the pulse of the moment. The MLB Network is talented at making in-progress jump-ins feel as though they have urgency. AXS TV would need to create a similar aura while also not letting anything fall through the cracks. Do this right, and AXS TV’s Friday night MMA broadcasts could transform from a show where fans tune in for one or two fights—or don’t tune in at all—into a must-see block of MMA on a weekly basis.
Ambitious? Absolutely. Crazy? Probably. But, a concept that fans might enjoy more than the status quo? Certainly.