Who do you think of when the UFC is mentioned (this applies to the vast majority of sports fans who wouldn’t describe Mixed Martial Arts among their top choices of entertainment)? Undoubtedly, Rhonda Rousey may be the Mixed Martial Arts’ biggest crossover star. Maybe Conor McGregor has creeped into your conscience due to his ability to market himself, going so far as to sell the idea of a cross sport clash with boxing great Floyd Mayweather.
How about Brock Lesnar? Maybe you are also a wrestling fan and are aware that recently he returned to the very real octagon. Dana White, the ultimate promoter has forged into into the upper echelon of the sport’s star status not unlike Vince McMahon’s ability to become the face of World Wrestling Entertainment.
If you know White and you know Lesnar then you may also know the name Ariel Helwani. The casual fan shouldn’t know Helwani because the sport isn’t in a space where it’s discussed by mainstream media like the 5 majors (I include soccer now).
You know Helwani because of what the UFC did to him, or as some might feel, what he did to himself. Helwani wants you to believe he is one of the brightest news reporters of the UFC. But the UFC wanted him to know that for him to be a news making conduit between the organization and the public, everything he was going to “break” had to go through them, or expect to be placed in a proverbial choke hold.
You know Helwani now because the UFC wasn’t all talk about it’s media policy which in summation is: if we pay you for anything, we expect you to adhere to our rules. And there is only one rule: Do not break news unless we tell you you can break news.
Controlling the media is something sports organizations have attempted since the growth of the media. Teams and sports have enlisted a litany of respected journalists to work under their umbrella. It has become an attractive option allowing for the proximity we sports reporters crave and a little more safety in position due to the constriction of the traditional outlets. I myself worked directly for a team run news organization which I’ll describe later, but as you’ll see in the case of Helwani, it turns out that all reputable news outlets these days have some business connection to the sport they cover muddying those waters.
Here’s what happened to Helwani. He broke the story that Lesnar, a former massive star for the sport was returning after an extended break away from fighting. This report was factually correct, well sourced and by any definition, news. Helwani who works for a website and hosts a popular podcast under the Vox media umbrella (not a business partner of the UFC) did his job.
But the UFC was upset with him for not allowing them to announce this news first. Helwani did not “clear” the report with the management of the league. So in retaliation for not giving them the courtesy of responding to the report before it was aired, the UFC banned Helwani from a recent UFC event and told him he’d lost his credentials for life.
The news Helwani broke was not embarrassing to the league which made this decision seem oddly heavy handed. But when you dig deeper into Helwani and the UFC’s relationship, you can understand why the league (wrongly) felt like Helwani owed them at the very least a heads up when he was about to air a report that would beat the UFC’s own press release. Helwani had worked for Fox Sports as a pre- and post-fight host for that network’s coverage of the UFC. But his check from Fox Sports originated from the parent company that runs the UFC so technically Helwani was an employee of the sport. So the employer has every right to tell its employee that disclosing private company information, such as the return of a massive star, is not acceptable and would have recourse.
Apparently Helwani was aware of those types of ramifications as previously underreported issues between him and the sport caused the sport, in his words, to have him fired from his Fox Sports post. If true, then the network is essentially complicit with the wishes of the sport making the platform itself an illegitimate home to pure journalism. But that’s a larger discussion for another column that would involve instances of every major and local network and how they relate with the business partners they have.
Helwani’s case drew the ire of many in the industry that breaking news, even if the league didn’t want you to, is just part of the deal when you employ journalists who take their job seriously. Helwani clearly does. He’s a popular figure in a sport where the journalists aren’t popular figures.
This story brought back memories of my time in Washington DC as a radio host/reporter mainly covering the Washington Redskins. For 8 years I covered the team for two different stations, the first Sportstalk 980, which had a business relationship with the team but did not air the games (a huge bargaining chip teams can use to leverage coverage). The final 2 seasons I held virtually the same position for Triple X ESPN Radio, a group run and owned by the Redskins to compete in the market.
The biggest difference was access. Those final 2 years I had it. Now, the first 6 years clearly gave me the credibility to be trusted but still, it was in the team’s best interest to have our station break the news. I was competing with great reporters in print and electronic journalism so it didn’t always happen, but my questions got answered quicker then at my previous station.
I was fortunate that the team didn’t threaten my employment over how I performed my job the way the UFC clearly threatened Helwani’s livelihood. If I broke a story that the Redskins weren’t particularly keen on, there might be some conversation about it, but they never once threatened me. Because of my access, I was privy to more information and had to choose which to disseminate but I’m confident in telling you that I never held back newsworthy items, only some personal issues that weren’t appropriate (in my opinion) for public consumption. Reporting that a player was to be traded or that the team would fire a coach, etc, I never felt like I couldn’t say even if the team didn’t want me to.
The point is this, the lesson learned is such: if you limit what your paid reporter can do, especially if the news would be deemed reasonable, then what you have done is discredited that journalist to the point that they lose credibility. Without credibility, there is no point to employ the journalist. The Redskins never forced me to make that choice: my job or my credibility. So while our relationship wasn’t cozy (I was still treated as press which means I’m not really part of their family) it was respectful.
The UFC lost sight of this in their heavy handed manner by which they attempted to punish Helwani. And the backlash forced them to give him his credentials back. But if Helwani didn’t know what the score was before, he certainly knows it now. Working directly for this sport will not afford him the ability to do his job so he has to make a choice. And in this marketplace where the leagues and team wield power over the content providers, it’s not an easy one.
On a side note, we are shooting sports demo reels in every city where we shoot news reels. This is a win for you aspiring sports reporters out there. If you would like to know more, email me at Bram@reelmediagroup.tv or Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat at @RealBramW.
Check out the sports reel we helped Emily Kaplan to create below, which helped her land a job at Sports Illustrated!