Cuban Offers Clear Vision for HDNet in ‘08

By Josh Gross Dec 25, 2007
Coming off a banner 12 months for mixed martial arts in terms of fights available to consumers via live or taped broadcast, 2008 seems likely to blow the preceding year's marks off the charts.

With SpikeTV the established home of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Showtime the destination for EliteXC-promoted cards, Mark Cuban expects HDNet to soon be regarded as the "home of mixed martial arts."

The billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks -- who made news Friday when ESPN reported he had entered into serious negotiations to put boxing demigod Floyd Mayweather Jr. into the MMA business -- said he expects his expanding high-definition television network to join the big boys.

Approaching 9 million subscribers in both the U.S. and Canada, Cuban offered a lofty goal for HDNet in 2008: pass Showtime, which carries MMA and some of the best boxing the sport can offer to nearly 15 million subscribers.

To do so, Cuban is pushing a major MMA initiative for his network. Offering four live fight cards in December was simply a preview of the type of content Cuban expects HDNet, though HDNet Fights, to offer.

"We want to have more live fights on HDNet than any other network," Cuban told via e-mail. "So that will take increasing both the number of fights we produce and the number we partner on."

Just one of the four December broadcasts will be produced solely by the HDNet Fights team. A joint venture with Sportfight on Dec. 22 leads into two major cards on New Year's Eve weekend when the International Fight League grand prix finals and the return of Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) grace the network.

Compared to other types of content on HDNet, which is also home to NHL and NASCAR programming, MMA has carved out an impressive niche, said HDNet Fights president Guy Mezger (Pictures), taking the top spot virtually every time the sport is featured.

"Numbers keep on going up every week," Cuban said of MMA content on the network, including the weekly one-hour "Inside MMA" program hosted by Kenny Rice and Bas Rutten (Pictures). "And you will see some trade ads from us bragging about MMA viewership. It's going very well."

In Mayweather, whom Cuban befriended during the taping of the most recent season of "Dancing with the Stars," the Dallas-based entrepreneur might have someone who can push HDNet past even Cuban's expectations.

Undefeated during a career that has seen him hold world titles in five separate weight divisions, Mayweather is perhaps the most important figure in boxing at the moment. Having been one half of two of the biggest grossing fights of 2007 -- including a bout with Oscar De La Hoya that shattered pay-per-view records -- Mayweather knows what it takes to sell a fight; his entry into MMA, should it happen, would be an enormous boon for all involved.

"Floyd understands that boxing and MMA are two different sports," Cuban said. "He respects the skill and effort of champions of the sport. We discussed that it would take a while for him to train and learn the sport. So we are not at the point of who or where or even how much. But the interest is there and he definitely wants to understand all aspects of MMA, as a competitor and business person."

At the least, the presence of a star like Mayweather would raise HDNet Fights' profile as a distributor of blockbuster fight entertainment programming. There have been plenty who feel the leaking of last Thursday's meeting between Cuban and Mayweather in Las Vegas was simply an attempt to keep each in the news.

However, after sitting ringside to watch Mayweather stop England's Ricky Hatton in the 10th round on Dec. 8 in a thrilling fight in front of one of the most unique crowds in the history of sport, Cuban estimated when asked that MMA remains four to five years away from that kind of spectacle.

Of course, he said that before the potential entry of Mayweather.

"It's going to take watching fighters from a young age grow up and blossom on a national stage like Floyd did," Cuban said when asked what it would take for MMA to enjoy a Mayweather-Hatton level experience.

Mezger acknowledged that the cultivation of young fighters into marketable stars is the most difficult task in front of HDNet Fights as they move into 2008, which doesn't make them all that different than any other promoter out there.

The ability to build and market fighters though "The Ultimate Fighter" has been perhaps the single most important reason why Zuffa turned the UFC from a money pit to a perpetual ATM machine.

Having secured the rights to broadcast Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures)'s bouts in North America it's obvious that HDNet Fights isn't interested in solely cultivating its own talent. However, the Russian heavyweight has a limited presence in the U.S., this despite his status as the top fighter in MMA. While diehard fans have reacted strongly to the news that they can watch Emelianenko, starting Dec. 31 at 6 a.m. ET from Tokyo, it will take some time before he's able to carry any card on his own.

That would not be the case with Mayweather.

Cuban said he and the boxer glossed over the subject of MMA during their time on "Dancing with the Stars," but that changed last Thursday in Las Vegas.

"He was interested right off the bat," Cuban said. "Floyd is a businessman first and last. He is open to anything that leverages his skillset.

"We are definitely going to work together. He definitely wants to get involved with MMA. Whether or not he fights will be something he makes a decision on in the future."

If Mayweather determines that competing in MMA is where he wants to take his career -- and he chooses to do so with Cuban -- the likely pay-per-view bonanza would be matched only by the attention the promotion would garner for HDNet. And while it seems lofty to expect HDNet to match Showtime in 2008, Mezger said he's never met anyone like Cuban, who's drive to succeed is surpassed only by his drive to blow past expectations.

HBO's subscriber base, you're wondering: nearing 30 million.
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