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Feature: EliteXC steps closer to centre stage

It was announced recently that upstart mixed martial arts promotion EliteXC has signed a deal with US television network CBS to broadcast fights live and in a prime-time slot.

The news has been greeted warmly by MMA fans in the US, who see it as a sign that the sport is growing both in prominence and popularity. ProElite CEO Douglas DeLuca has described the deal as "a pivotal moment for the sport of mixed martial arts".

The fact that a mainstream broadcaster has seen fit to put MMA in a prime time Saturday night slot also shows that the sport has gained a legitimacy and mainstream acceptance that could not have been dreamed of in the so-called dark ages of bare knuckle vale tudo.

Explaining the reasoning behind the decision to begin broadcasting MMA, CBS Primetime vice president Kelly Kahl said: "Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and a wildly popular entertainment vehicle for upscale, young adult audiences,"

"It's original programming for Saturday night; it's live, creating an event-atmosphere; and it's something that hasn't been seen on network television, until now."

Some commentators have expressed surprise that it was EliteXC and not the UFC that was the first organisation to land a prime time slot with a big broadcaster. It is well known that UFC executives were in talks with HBO, but a deal never came to fruition.

Rumour has it that the negotiations fell apart over a number of issues, including who would be in charge of producing the television broadcast. HBO reportedly wanted to handle all aspects of this, while the UFC was determined to keep it in-house.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that EliteXC at time of writing has jumped the gun on the UFC and taken a big step towards its ultimate goal of edging its way into the MMA top spot.

As part of the deal with CBS, four EliteXC events a year will be broadcast on the CBS network's main channel.
CBS already broadcasts EliteXC shows on its Showtime sports channel and the two companies have also agreed to work together in an online capacity.

According to EliteXC, its ProElite.com division will concentrate on producing "interactive content for both companies' platforms, including CBSSports.com".

While the plethora of different divisions within the EliteXC brand may sound confusing to some, one thing is guaranteed - casual viewers will have no trouble finding out all about the brand and its fighters if the Saturday night broadcast piques their interest.

There is a very real possibility that EliteXC athletes could become the most famous names in the American mixed martial arts world simply by being featured in these broadcasts. That must be a sobering thought for the UFC.

Does the EliteXC/CBS deal mean that the pre-eminence of the UFC is threatened? It is a long shot but certainly not an impossibility. The UFC is considered the original mixer martial arts league and is unarguably the world's premier organisation at the moment.

It recently announced that it had agreed sponsorship deals with Budweiser and Harley Davidson. Both are major brands and testament to the fact that marketers are beginning to realise the UFC holds the attention of a vast swathe of the highly valued 18-34 year old age bracket.

However, if EliteXC is not quite yet challenging for the title, it has certainly made big leaps towards centre stage in the short time it has existed.

As well as the television deal, the company made a shrewd move in picking up internet sensation Kimbo Slice, who is internationally famous thanks to well-distributed footage of bare knuckle fights that have been watched on sites such as YouTube by millions of people.

And in Gary Shaw, the organisation has a promoter who has been working in combat sports for a very long time and has both the experience and the contacts to mount a strong challenge to UFC dominance. He and Dana White have already exchanged verbal sallies via the media and the battle is only going to become more intense.

Competition always benefits the consumer and this battle is only just hotting up. Whoever comes out on top between EliteXC and the UFC, it's a safe bet that the real winner will be the fans.

John O'Regan