Back in business
ProElite's 150 fighters were unsure of where they would end up
Scott Coker's Strikeforce acquired some contracts, including Jake Shields
Strikeforce will air 10 events on Showtime this year, the first on April 11
The wheels are moving again.
It was only a week ago that 150 fighters sat on their hands unsure when they could work. Promoters were stuck shopping in a market where the supply line was frozen, managers kvetched over decreased sponsorship opportunities and next-to-nothing leverage in contract negotiations; and major television networks were effectively locked out from broadcasting mixed martial arts, something they eagerly wanted to do.
But then news broke last Thursday that Scott Coker had cherry-picked fighter contracts from ProElite, and signed a multi-year broadcast deal to put Strikeforce on Showtime (and, in all likelihood, CBS), supplying oxygen to paycheck-hungry fighters and signaling a potential power shift in the UFC-dominated MMA promotional minefield.
A 24-year veteran of the martial arts fight business, Coker started featuring MMA via Strikeforce in 2006, a year before ProElite began. Yet, Coker, who promoted predominantly in the Bay Area, has long been held in high regard as one of combat sport's good guys, garnering compliments from even UFC President Dana White.
"Scott's one of the few promoters out there that does make money in this industry," said Affliction Entertainment Vice President Tom Atencio. "I respect his opinion and he's given me advice and I've definitely listened to him."
Following EliteXC's Kimbo Slice-Seth Petruzelli debacle that left CBS embroiled in a pseudo scandal, and the cancellation of a November ProElite date on Showtime, neither network seemed interested in taking a risk on just any promoter. After evaluating several suitors, ProElite, with heavy deference to CBS and Showtime, agreed that Coker would be the best person for the deal.
"First and foremost we wanted stability that I think Strikeforce has demonstrated in their long tenure of operating successfully," said Ken Hershman, a senior executive at Showtime who brought MMA to the network in 2007. "We like their roster of fighters and we like the combination of rosters between the EliteXC fighters they were picking up and their current roster. That presented a lot of compelling content in a short timeframe for us, so we didn't have a building process."
In other words, there won't be a shortage of fights over the next few years. With the backing of Showtime and a multi-year deal that calls for up to 16 televised events annually (expect 10 this year, the first on April 11 in San Jose where Frank Shamrock will fight at 179 pounds against Nick Diaz), athletes now under contract to Coker should have plenty of chances to showcase their skills.
"My goal is to get these guys back working and back fighting as soon as possible," Coker said during a teleconference Tuesday. "We will have reached out to everybody by the end of day tomorrow. And then we'll start putting the matches together and move forward."
Though a complete list of fighters has yet to be released, Strikeforce said 42 of 150 ProElite contracts were acquired when Coker and his partner Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, which operates the HP Pavilion and NHL's San Jose Sharks, won the sweepstakes.
With an eye towards competitiveness, matchmaking and time spent promoting certain fighters on the networks, many of the top names should transfer over. (Thus far welterweight Jake Shields appears to be the highest profile fighter not guaranteed to come over in the deal. Shields said he wanted a renegotiation of his contract or a release, and Coker appears inclined to let the highest ranked welterweight outside the UFC go free.)
For Hershman, the head of Showtime Sports, MMA has once again joined boxing and the NFL -- Hershman swooped up "Inside the NFL" after HBO decided it was no longer interested in producing the acclaimed show last year -- as cornerstones of the network's sport and live event programming.
"We love the triumvirate of those three together," he said. "We think they all cross-pollinate each other. And we expect fans of one to become fans of each of the other two."
A brilliance of the NFL has long been an emphasis on selling its brand of professional football across multiple television platforms. Strikeforce, surprisingly, seems to be doing the same. Possessing two deals with major network television -- NBC completes its 52-episode run of late-night prepackaged Strikeforce programming this summer -- means Coker is in position to garner much more exposure for his fighters than other MMA promoters, including the UFC. That sense has not been lost on some competitors, who happily welcomed the options promised by last week's news.
The extent of network television's reach was obvious Super Bowl Sunday, when Gina Carano, a female fighter who's never stepped foot in the UFC, was featured in a spot for Pepsi not long after ranking ahead of Michelle Obama among the 10 most influential women of 2008, according to Yahoo!. Had she never fought on CBS, none of that would have happened.
There are countless fighters echoing the sentiments of one highly marketable star who told me last week that the possibility of network visibility was incredibly important at a time when many athletes feel squeezed and underappreciated. As a manager who dialed me at 3:30 a.m. to eagerly discuss the sale said: "It's time to get back to business."
GROSS: Shields joins Strikeforce