Save the next dance for Liddell
I'll give a warning now: This opinion piece doesn't delve into heady material. In fact, what I'm about to argue should be obvious -- "should" being the operative word.
Were it not for the countless negative responses I've received, I'd never pen such a piece. But across a multitude of platforms, word of former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell appearing on the upcoming ninth season of ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" has produced strange rejection. The innumerable, if confusing, "This makes MMA look bad" reactions, along with the "Who cares about 'Dancing With The Stars?'" memes, have become impossible to ignore.
DWTS revolves around an activity I care little about on a network I don't normally watch with participants I cannot recognize. But that's precisely the point: I'm a 30-year-old male. One, my viewing habits are atypical, even for my demographic; and two, the MMA industry already knows how to capture my attention. What about everyone else? Where are they, and why don't they watch more MMA?
If the universe were made up solely of men ages 18 through 34, Dana White likely would be our president. He, the UFC and the entire MMA industry have drilled the well of this portion of society to great effect. They know us, our habits, our purchasing power, our likes and dislikes, and more. But they've been so successful they've reached the limits.
The next level of sporting conversation and cultural integration for MMA extends into other demographics besides young men. Building a fan base in sectors of society beyond MMA's bedrock always will prove to be difficult and will take time, but getting those outsiders to become aware of, unbiased toward and unafraid of MMA is very doable. There won't be a single eureka moment for demos unaccustomed to soaking up MMA, one in which they all are converted en masse. It will have to be more of a slow burn -- but that's all the more reason for the sport to take the opportunities when they present themselves. Enter Liddell on a reality show about celebrities and professional dancers competing for viewers' votes.
The reality is that while the news of Liddell being part of the upcoming DWTS cast has been met with snickers and dismissals, every fan who wants MMA to penetrate further into the mainstream should welcome this development with open arms.
The stumbling block for many -- namely, that the marriage between a dance competition and MMA is not natural and therefore meaningless -- should be discounted. DWTS is good precisely because it doesn't force Liddell to adhere to outdated conceptions of fight-sport participants. Those who fear fighting or are unaccustomed to viewing it as sport ultimately believe fighters are static characters who exist only within the confines of their occupation. Liddell is being given an opportunity unlike what he has received in B movies and on HBO's "Entourage" -- the chance to demonstrate what else he can do and maybe a little human personality along the way.
Then there is the issue of DWTS's size. For starters, DWTS isn't just a big show; it's positively gigantic. In fact, DWTS is a worldwide phenomenon with various permutations in dozens of countries, much like the rival "American Idol" on Fox. And if that pedigree doesn't impress you, the numbers should. The show's recent ratings upswing since a 2007 semi-slump has some wondering whether it will overtake the reliable yet slightly declining "American Idol" as the most-watched program on television.
In ratings numbers, that translates to a Season 8 opener of 22.5 million viewers, a record for DWTS premieres. By comparison, that's more than three times the number of viewers for the highest-rated MMA program on network television. The show also demonstrated some audience loyalty and reliable programming through the course of that season and finished strong with 20.1 million viewers during the finale. In addition, it should be noted that DWTS is a program that airs on ABC, a station that currently dominates television markets and ratings in the young adults 18-49 demographic (not to mention 12 years old and up) in programming far beyond DWTS.
The notion that Liddell will be performing to nothing but violence-averse, doe-eyed and otherwise unsuspecting women who will gain nothing from his appearance -- save revulsion -- is patently false. We are talking about ABC, not Lifetime. Although these won't be the Affliction-T-shirt-wearing, stand-'em-up-ref hoi polloi so commonly understood to be archetypal MMA fans, the truth is the effort required to convert women and older men is not nearly as onerous as advertised. It takes muscle and time, but it can be done. So while the enormous DWTS audience isn't the fountain of youth MMA can use to build an enduring fan base, the well is hardly dry.
Skeptics could point to the forgettable appearances of boxers Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather Jr. as evidence Liddell's appearance might do little or nothing to assuage mainstream fears about MMA or create UFC converts. That's not a bad argument, but it hardly seems worth testing over the present plan to give Liddell a spin in front of a new, expansive audience. In all likelihood, Liddell's appearance won't affect attitudes about MMA much one way or the other, and only "The Iceman" himself will receive any appreciable benefit. But all of this hardly amounts to reason enough to keep Liddell off the show.
And as gangbusters as I expect the ratings to be for the upcoming season of Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter," that show will never sniff what DWTS can do in a slump or on an off night. It won't reach deeper into circles of mainstream society, either. Admittedly, there are structural impediments, given that Spike TV is a cable channel, whereas ABC is not. But that doesn't matter. White's antics and Kimbo Slice's menacing aura won't do much for disarming the hesitant. Liddell's smiling and charming face after he pulls off a decent merengue just might.
The idea that Liddell and MMA have no place in the world of those who don't more naturally acclimate to combat sport is a symptom of bad thinking prevalent among today's fans and experts. A core problem in contemporary MMA discussion is the constant vocalization of its limits: MMA is a niche sport. And because it's a niche sport -- a niche that's partly carved out for those with an appetite for violence -- there always will be a ceiling on how far it can climb. As it stands, the sport is popular if somewhat socially repudiated. So not only do many find the business of fight sport unsavory, the head start in cultural integration that other sports enjoy makes any prospect of catching up all the more unlikely.
And while that's all indisputable, there's an apathetic fatalism infecting the entire enterprise. MMA in any form isn't likely to ever rival the NFL in size, scope or popularity. But what are the parameters of "niche"? Where do they begin and end, and how wide a swath through the mainstream do they cut? The truth is, no one knows. The problem with invoking the "MMA is a niche sport" notion as axiomatic is that it ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of lowered expectations, fostering a culture of easy satisfaction.
That MMA likely will never rival American football in the States is both true and irrelevant. That statement tells us only where the limits of MMA don't figure to end, not precisely where they can be pushed. In reality, MMA might be able to close the gap more than we have ever considered. Unless all avenues toward healthy growth are explored, the true ceiling can never be identified. If nothing else, Liddell's inclusion on DWTS should be considered a trial balloon to test where the sport is and how far it can go.
So let Liddell dance. Or let him cook. Or let him marry a millionaire. Maybe let him sing karaoke or hand-bike across a moat. It doesn't matter. If more than 20 million viewers in mainstream demographics are going to watch him do it while they decide that maybe neither he nor his occupation are all that bad, it's a win MMA can ill afford to pass up.
Luke Thomas is editor in chief of the MMA blog BloodyElbow.com and contributes to Sherdog.com.
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