Amidst the torrent of media being spit out every hour around UFC 244, one that has gone largely unnoticed is the fact that for the first time ever, a sitting US President will be at a UFC event. In any other administration, this would be a major media bragging point for WME and the UFC. Presidents rarely go to sporting events, and for an organization outside the “big three” MLB, NBA, and NFL to host one is almost unheard of. The UFC has a big PR win on their hands.
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So why are Dana White and UFC staff oddly reluctant to talk about Trump being in Madison Square Garden on Saturday night? Simple reason: they’re probably terrified Trump will do to the UFC what he did to the NFL.
We’re all adults here. Love him or hate him, we can at least agree that our current President is controversial. In that sense, UFC 244 is a great fit for him. Not only is MMA still an edgy sport in some corners of the country, but this card in particular will feature the bad boys of the roster. That includes outspoken Trump supporter Colby Covington. Covington has build a whole character around being a die hard MAGA guy, although the fact that it’s a charade is basically an open secret in MMA.
I can’t fault Trump for not being up on the personalities of MMA, I do this for a living and I can barely keep up. But if he thinks that Colby being a Trump superfan will translate into a friendly crowd, he’s in for a rough night. Colby has become famous precisely because he knows how hated Trump is among the 20 – 40 year old demographic that makes up the majority of UFC viewers. A demographic that skews left of center anyways. And they will be congregating in New York City, which is solidly blue, with a particular anti-Trump attitude since the President is a New York native.
All of this will likely translate to a hostile crowd if the UFC production team has the stones to display Trumps face on the big screens Saturday night, which they almost must do to avoid his ire. But after Trump being booed by 45,000 people at the World Series, you have to wonder how an MMA crowd will receive him at an event where crowd violence is fairly common.
It highlights the impossible position of the UFC and why their best case scenario is that Trump simply doesn’t show up. They know that about half the country loves Trump and the other half hates him. What’s worse is that both sides feel so strongly, they will readily endorse, or boycott, any business that he associates himself with.
We’ve seen in the past three years that Trump, has the power to kill or severely damage businesses. Sometimes this is intentional, such as when he revived what was then a year old Colin Kaepernick debate to change the breaking news about his knowledge of his son’s meeting with Russians. A MAGA army began pressuring the league to get their players under control and standing for the National Anthem, which the league tried to do. But that only raised the ire of the left, who had been mostly apathetic about Kaepernick until they realized their sworn enemy had joined the fight.
The NFL just wanted people to watch football, but in 2017 their viewership took a massive hit that they have yet to recover from. This season, viewership is continuing its mediocre numbers.
But other times, Trump has damaged businesses simply by standing next to them. The easy example here, is his own. The Trump organization has slumped, with both patrons and corporate sponsors not wanted to be associated with a controversy magnet. His children’s businesses haven’t escaped the double edge sword of the Trump name either.
The UFC already dodged a bullet when everyone forgot that Dana White himself spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016, giving a ringing endorsement of the future President. Even then, it was a ballsy move for a company that needs democratic lawmakers to support them in their hometown of Nevada, a Democratic and union stronghold. Since then White has done everything he can to keep his organization non-political. Other sports leagues have tried to embrace right or left politics, such as Nascar did in the 2000’s. But taking a side in the culture war has nearly killed entire industries. Not just in sports, but in retail and music as well.
So you can imagine just how many nightmare scenarios are out there on Saturday night. What if Colby says. . .anything, after his fight? What if an angry crowd boos Trump and results in a tweet storm. What if any number of the nearly twenty athletes on the card insult the President in a post fight interview or press conference? Hell, what if there are protesters?
What the UFC needs is more fans, not enemies. The last thing MMA fans should want is for the love of this sport becoming a litmus test on your political views. That’s why none of us should be excited about seeing Trump at the fights on Saturday. Are we really ready for the UFC to become the next lightning rod in the culture war?