September 12, 2007

by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com

(Photo courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media, Inc.)


Mark Cuban has proven to be one of the most successful businessmen in all of the United States with his ventures that include owning and operating the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks franchise, HDNet, which is Cuban’s TV network and 2929 Entertainment, but now the billionaire entrepreneur is setting his sights on MMA and he joined MMAWeekly Radio on Tuesday night to talk about his new operation, HDNet Fights.

After selling his company, Broadcast.com, to Yahoo! Cuban invested in many new operations. His TV network, HDNet, has shown MMA for some time now and his newest work is a start-up promotion that will debut in the American Airlines Center, also owned by Cuban, on Oct. 13.

Cuban spoke to MMAWeekly Radio about his move into MMA and how they plan on expanding into the growing industry.

“We’ve had it on HDNet on Friday nights for a while now,” said Cuban speaking about MMA. “We’ve worked with the WEC before they got bought, we’ve worked with Art of War, the IFL, you name it. I wasn’t really a fan until we put it on and I started watching it more and more and got more and more into it.

“That led to the business side of me saying maybe there’s an opportunity here, maybe not just as content for HDNet, but maybe to take some of what I’ve learned with the Mavericks and apply it to the world of MMA and that’s propelled me and over the last few months. We’ve hired Guy Mezger and a variety of other people to help us get rolling. We have a card on Oct. 13 and I don’t even know have the final card in front of me, but we’re serious about this and we’re going to make a roll at it.”

Cuban did confirm that the first fight in October will take place in a cage, although the opportunity to work in a ring hasn’t been ruled out in the future.

The NBA has grown to accept Cuban as one of the most popular owners in the sport and after turning around the Dallas Mavericks; he hopes to have the same success in MMA.

After following the sport for some time, Cuban is realistic about his expansion into MMA.

“We’re not out there to compete with the UFC right off the bat,” stated Cuban. “Part of what I actually believe in is that you’ve got to walk before you run and the card on Oct. 13 is more of a beta test if you will, where we’re trying to get all of our systems in place and all of our promotional elements and marketing elements in place and really get a better understanding of how we can treat the fighters better and really get them to believe and the fans to believe that these are truly professional athletes and we’re going to treat them that way.”

Cuban acknowledged the UFC for what they have done in the sport, but also feels MMA should soon go in a different direction with his HDNet Fights.

“The UFC’s done a great job in what they do, but they kind of stole the WWE script,” said Cuban about the UFC’s success. “And we just think that we can take a different approach and treat them more like a Mavs game, more like an athletic event than a spectacle.”

Dealing with a sport like professional basketball on a daily basis, Cuban has seen all the ins and outs of major league sports and the pay scale in MMA is just one thing that concerns the 49-year-old billionaire.

“It’s not so much what they get paid per fight, it’s a question whether or not they can do it full time or not,” said Cuban. “The way the contracts are structured, they don’t know when they’re going to fight or if they’re going to fight again, and unfortunately some folks hold their next fight over their head using it as pressure to extend a contract or using at pressure for any number of things and that really puts these guys in a bad position.

“I do see us trying to set relationships with fighters so that they have a guaranteed salary whether they fight one time or four times or five times, and if they fight more often the salary becomes a draw against their purses and if they fight less because they’re hurt, they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay their bills.”

One of the most noticeable absences in MMA compared to other professional sports is a player’s union. Cuban feels this is something that also needs to be addressed soon.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Cuban said about the addition of a fighter’s union. “Fighters are in the same position the NBA was in the ’60s where they had managers, but they didn’t have agents. So there’s a lot of smart people managing fighters, but traditionally they’re guys they sparred with who didn’t quite make it or guys who have gotten out of the fight game or guys who were boxing managers as opposed to the NBA where managers typically help develop careers, but it’s typically agents who negotiate the contracts.”

Cuban has already started to move many of his influential friends towards the growing sport of MMA.

“I’ve talked to several NBA agents and encouraged them to sign up fighters and to step up and partner with the managers. And I think a union would help them as well.”

The marketing behind MMA has been successful for the UFC, but Cuban feels for the sport to truly succeed it must veer towards being seen as professional athletics no different than the NBA or Major League Baseball.

“I think part of my goal is to turn MMA into professional sports,” said Cuban. “I think boxing has suffered because of the battles between (Bob) Arum and (Don) King. When it’s all said and done, and our fight on Oct. 13 is still kind of a beta test, but you’re not going to see ring card girls in our fights. You’re not going to see 20 hoochie mamas with whatever the latest energy drink is or 38DDDs, not that there’s anything wrong with that, sitting at the side of the ring screaming and bouncing for the TV cameras. That is not how you extend the perception that these are professional athletes.”

And while Cuban has never met UFC President Dana White, he states he has followed the organization and its leadership for some time now.

“I’ve never met Dana, but I obviously have a ton of respect for what he’s done. He’s taken that (UFC) for a million or 2 million dollars and turned it into a hell of a business. The good news about that is that he’s the leader, and the bad news is sometimes the guy who’s first and the leader gets the arrows in their back. Everyone else gets to learn from their mistakes.”

Part of the mistakes and money issues that other organizations have had to deal with is something Cuban doesn’t have to worry so much about.

“Remember when you’re talking about losing a lot of money, at worst case, this is great content for HDNet,” said Cuban about potential loss. “But unlike other organizations where they said ‘if I can get a TV deal,’ well I have my own TV deal. I have my own DVD output. I own my own arena. I can put it on in American Airlines Center. We have our own production company, so I don’t have to pay a third party to come in a truck and produce video so I can put out a DVD. These are all elements that we already control.”

Beyond having his own TV network and production team, Cuban also has a relationship with many other mainstream sports outlets like ESPN who he has already had discussions with about his new fight venture.

“I know those guys,” commented Cuban about ESPN. “I have great relationships with those guys and you’ll see a Mavs game where somebody is interviewed who is going to be in one of our fights. If we’re on a national game, you’ll see them sitting next to me on national television.”

Owning a team in the NBA will also help Cuban with sponsorship deals for his league and his athletes.

“We’re working on discussions with Nike and Adidas and different clothing outfitters to sign with us to get the full treatment that a Dirk Nowitski gets. They might not get paid by the clothing manufacturers right out the door, but eventually they will if they are perceived as professional athletes.”

Working to get MMA on outlets like ESPN and seeing fighters wearing a Nike warm-up is just the first step for Cuban to transform the sport and he doesn’t back down when speaking about some of the pitfalls many of the current organizations have set forth.

“The reality is that MMA fighters have the perception that they’re big names, they’re brand names, but it’s still wide open whether they’re perceived as professional athletes,” stated Cuban.

“I watched TapouT tonight and I see guys in grease paint and this and that as their managers are all trying to brand themselves. And I see the reality shows, the UFC reality shows and they’re getting drunk and they’re hitting each other and they’re bouncing up and down. That’s not going to get you a deal with Nike and a sponsor. That’s going to make you one of any number of guys who have 33 different names tattooed on their shorts. There is a market for the spectacle that the UFC and WWE created, but there’s also a market for serious athletes who wants to be treated seriously and who wants to be perceived as being a serious athlete, who wants to be full time at their craft.”

And while Cuban is quick to point out the spectacle nature of MMA, he did state a potential partnership down the road with the leaders in professional wrestling in the world.

“We’ve been in discussions with the WWE, Vince and Linda McMahon and Shane about doing some cross promotions under the HDNet Fights banner,” said Cuban. “Since they do a great job of putting together events, within some of the restraints that I talked about, the no ring girls and obviously the events have to be straight up, there’s no scripted anything, but they want to get into that side of the business. They realize that if they just brand it as WWE, that people aren’t going to believe that it’s not scripted, but if they work with Mark Cuban and HDNet Fights and the Dallas Mavericks approach, then people will trust it.”

The Pittsburgh native has also had conversations with former Pride USA President Ed Fishman about his involvement in the HDNet Fights family.

“Ed’s obviously a smart guy, he has amazing experience and he’s looking to do a whole lot in MMA and we’ll have ongoing discussions. I’m an opportunist and if someone can help me and extend us and propel us then I’m going to work with them and he’s certainly one of those people. We haven’t done any deals yet, but we’re talking.”

Cuban is also investing in a journalistic MMA show that will debut on HDNet in the next week.

“We’re starting a show, ‘Inside MMA,’ that we’re going to film the first episode tomorrow and ‘Inside MMA’ is going to kind of be like ‘Inside the NFL’ on HBO where we’ll cover all aspects of MMA, not just what we show on HDNet,” Cuban commented. “Even though the UFC won’t give us video, we’ll cover and talk about the UFC fights, the WEC fights, whatever happens to be going on, we’re going to cover it. Our primary host is going to be Bas Rutten and everybody knows Bas and he’s going to be colorful and have some fun with it too.”

One of the biggest questions since Cuban has entered his name into the world of MMA is his intention to sign the biggest name in all of MMA free agency, Fedor Emelianenko.

“I probably talk to White Chocolate Management (Fedor’s U.S. representatives) every day via email,” said Cuban. “It’s one of those things where it’s got to be the right deal for both of us, but at the same time there’s certain things he’s looking for that we’re fine with that we think create win-win situations for both of us.”

Cuban has also said he would pursue other free agents such as Josh Barnett down the road, but makes no bones about the type of fighters that won’t be seen on HDNet Fights.

“Now we’re not going to take someone who was kicked out or an athletic commission won’t support any longer because they held a choke hold too long or etc., etc.,” said Cuban, almost referencing recent UFC outcast Babalu Sobral by name. “We’re not looking for the rejects. I’m not saying that we’ll certainly sign all these big name free agents, we’ll probably limit ourselves to just a couple who can go out there and do PR and work with us, who are well spoken and if English isn’t their primary language, we’ll give them a translator, but we’re looking for people who can represent us.”

One thing for sure about Cuban’s interest in MMA is that he is getting in to succeed, something all of his business ventures have done for him so far.

“I’m not doing it to be half-assed,” stated a very adamant Mark Cuban. “If I do anything, whether it’s ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ or the Mavs, I do it to win and this is no different.”