5 Minute Round with… Jeff Wagenheim, Sports Illustrated

Posted: April 28, 2011 in Bellator, Local MMA, Marketing, PR, Social Media, Strikeforce, UFC

In addition to exploring local schools and social media do’s and don’ts in MMA, this blog focuses each week on the mainstream coverage/views of MMA. This week I’ll be profiling veteran sports reporter, Jeff Wagenheim who has more than 20 years in journalism representing nationally renowned outlets such as The Boston Globe, SportsIllustrated.com and ESPN.com.

Jeff was kind enough to go one round with me to answer a few questions regarding his career in MMA journalism and his thoughts on MMA marketing.  Jeff and I share a similar perception to where MMA sits in the mainstream sports world.  However, he reminds us although there is a lot of marketing being done around the sport there is still some room for improvement from brands if they want to be recognized for their efforts.

You’ve covered MMA for Faster Times, ESPN and SI.com – what started your interest in covering the sport?
I’ve been watching MMA since the early days when Royce Gracie was chopping down guys twice his size. I had no background in martial arts and no technical understanding of what was going on inside the cage, but the fights intrigued me. I couldn’t get enough.

Back then, in the mid ’90s, I was working for the Boston Globe on the sports desk. I would tell my colleagues about these VHS tapes of the Ultimate Fighting Championship that I’d regularly rent at my neighborhood video store in Brighton. Their usual reaction: “The ultimate what?” No one at the paper was the least bit interested. That remained the case until I left the Globe for a magazine job six years ago, although I was happy to see the paper give extensive coverage of last summer’s UFC 118 at TD Garden.

How did I come to write about MMA? Two years ago, with the economy tanking, the magazine I was working for as a staff writer folded, leaving me looking around for something to do. A former colleague had just joined a new “online newspaper,” as the editors at The Faster Times were calling their startup website, and I sold them on bringing me on to write about MMA. I still write for the site, although no longer about MMA. When the Sports Illustrated opportunity came along, I shifted my focus at The Faster Times to writing a more general column called “Sports Pulse.”

During my time on the MMA beat for The Faster Times, I pitched a story to ESPNBoston.com on Dana White and his Boston roots. With MMA having just been approved for sanctioning in Massachusetts and the UFC planning an event for Boston, I focused the piece on Dana’s excitement to be bringing the UFC to his former hometown. That led to me writing several stories for ESPN during the week of UFC 118.

Then, when I heard that SI.com had just lost its MMA writer to ESPN.com, I sent some clips and was hired mainly for fight event coverage, although now I write other columns and features, and even get to put my own spin on the monthly fighter rankings. It’s a lot of fun.

Are there any local Boston based MMA schools you keep your eyes to?
I’ve visited both Mark DellaGrotte’s Sityodtong gym in Somerville and Kenny and Keith Florian’s place in Brookline, Florian Martial Arts, for stories. So I do pay attention whenever one of those places is mentioned in the media. But I live in Northampton, way out in western Massachusetts, so I’m not around Boston enough to really keep up with what’s going on at those or other schools. The focus of my MMA coverage is the national scene, even international, not local. I just happen to be based in New England.

How long do you think the sport has until it is as well received as the NFL, MLB, etc? Or do you think it already is?
MMA isn’t the NFL, MLB, the NBA or even the NHL. It isn’t even where golf and NASCAR are, in terms of widespread recognition. But it’s come a long way in so little time – just a few years ago this sport was widely perceived as a barbarian tough-guy contest, and now a lot of people recognize the skill, the training, the discipline involved. And between the pay-per-view shows at least once a month and ever-increasing exposure in the general sports media, MMA is doing pretty well for itself. I don’t know if it will ever be as popular as football, basketball or baseball, though, or how long it will take for the sport to be even in the same ballpark.

The best way to build up MMA, I think, is to expose general sports fans to these fighters. Some of the guys look pretty fearsome, with their tattoos and such. But the more we see them interviewed or read profiles about their backgrounds, the more we realize that they’re not thugs, they’re elite athletes. And they’re educated, engaging human beings who are a lot easier to like than some of the prima donnas who populate the big three sports.

How do you prefer to work with PR professionals or MMA Agents? (If you do at all.) For independent fighters (who may not have representation) looking to introduce themselves to you, how do you prefer to be contacted?
I’m always happy to be contacted by PR folks, MMA agent or fighters themselves. The easiest way is to click on the “e-mail Jeff Wagenheim” link that sits above my stories at SI.com. The thing I ask people to remember is that my job is to tell interesting stories, not promote a product or a fighter’s career. Sometimes my mission and the PR person’s mission coincide, and we have a story.

Other than the national outlets you write for, are there any MMA blogs or publications you like to read?
I read everything I come across that’s MMA-related, and discover new things practically every day. I try to keep up with general sports sites that offer MMA coverage, like USA Today, ESPN and Yahoo, and also MMA-specific sites like MMA Fighting, Sherdog, Bloody Elbow, Cage Potato, Fight Opinion, MMA Junkie . . . and I’m sure I’m neglecting to mention some good ones. I follow people from these sites on Twitter, where I also get news directly from fighters and their reps and from the UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator. I also love reading Fight magazine, because I have a magazine background and enjoy the way the sport is portrayed in its pages. I also like UFC magazine, which earns my respect by not reading like a company publicity rag. I check out fan forums, too, but try to keep in mind that they can give a distorted picture of fan interest and opinion, as the loudest, angriest and most frequently posting voices are the ones that seem to get amplified.

With the growth of the sport and brands like Bud Light, etc. hooking into the popularity of the UFC, are there any consumer brands not yet associating with MMA that you are surprised to not see lining the cage?
Marketing people are going to hate me for saying this, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to the brands splashed all over MMA venues and fighters. I suppose those advertisers have subliminally snuck into my consciousness, but mostly it’s all white noise for me. Even though I now do notice the Bud Light logo everywhere, for instance, the thing that first made me overtly aware that the beer brand is a major UFC sponsor was the whole flap at UFC 100 with Brock Lesnar. So I guess what they say is right: All publicity is good publicity.

Having said all of this, I do think there’s an opportunity for smart marketing folks to expand MMA branding beyond beer and other nutritional supplements. I know online poker sites have been big with MMA, and they’re now having to pull back, leaving a void for someone to fill. I wouldn’t presume to tell marketing professionals where to spend their money. They know their products’ target consumers. But as MMA grows and attracts a broader audience of men and women, I think it’s safe to say we’re going to see a broader range of products being pushed.

If you’d like to read more from Jeff you can check out his MMA pieces in SI.com, ESPNBoston.com or his personal site http://jeffwagenheim.com/ or follow him on Twitter at @jeffwagenheim.

  1. Derek says:

    Great piece, Matt and great perspective from a recognized national writer. The fact that Jeff is making a run at having a sustainable gig writing about MMA speaks to how it has grown over the past few years.

  2. Awesome interview! Very interesting to read about his progression as a writer covering the sport during it’s growth spurt over the past few years.

  3. […] the sport I like to take a look into the various players that live within the MMA world (teachers, reporters, brands, etc).  Through a friend I was able to connect with part owner of a new MMA clothing […]

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