Ariel Helwani is Irrelevant


Before you react to that headline, hear me out.

Ariel Helwani doesn’t matter.

That isn’t a knock on his ability, influence or profession, but, rather, in the eyes of UFC, his contributions to the sport are inconsequential to their bottom line. In fact, their recent actions against the highly-regarded MMA reporter imply that he is actually a liability to that bottom line. Should he never cover another UFC event again, either credentialed or otherwise, it will not have an adverse effect on the sport.

Should Adrian Wojnarowski or Peter King or Ken Rosenthal ever face similar repercussions from the respective leagues that they cover, the end result will be the same: it doesn’t matter.

Deadspin’s Tim Marchman hypothetically asked about that scenario (re: Woj), but also pointed out that the UFC’s actions aren’t new. Helwani has been the “victim” of the federation’s desire to control its messaging for sometime. What isn’t pointed out is that in that time, UFC has grown to record numbers and revenue. Their success can be attributed to their model.

What Helwani’s lifetime ban from UFC indicates is that reporters, in general, no longer wield the power or control they once did thanks, simply, to the ability of leagues, teams and stars to reach fans without the media middle man they once required. Look no further than the NFL Network, MLB Advanced Media, the Big Ten Network, and so forth as evidence. The leagues ARE the media outlets. The talking heads they employ to carry their message – the so-called “insiders” – are all they need. Should those hired hands stray from the reservation, they are replaceable commodities.

For journalists, it is a slap in the face, but it was inevitable. For fans, it is barely a blip on their radars. So long as the product on the field or court lives up to their standards, they’ll shrug it off. It’s the trade-off for the 24-hour access they are afforded.  The leagues are now the gatekeepers, as – in a way – they always were. Think about it. They could always determine who had what access. A few short years ago, MMA was a fringe sport that needed Helwani more than Helwani needed MMA. So, they allowed him access. They knew they could set the rules, journalistic integrity be damned, and they did/do.

Mind you, while this arguably may make it more difficult for the reporter to do his job, it doesn’t prevent him from doing so. I have no doubt he has made contacts and allies throughout his career. While his formal access may be stifled, his access to information shouldn’t be. Look at Deadspin’s tag line. While the site deserves more than its share of criticisms, it’s managed to build its influence based off of traditional journalism without “access.”

Forbes’ Matt Connolly makes some solid points in his piece that “UFC is risking credibility in mainstream sports” by banning Helwani, but he fails to look at the question, “With whom?” So long at the product in the cage is up to standards, what do fans care if a blogger/reporter has a credential? It’s heartless, I know, and doesn’t reflect my personal feelings as someone who created a conference around pushing for more inclusiveness, but it’s a reality.

If you look at Helwani’s reaction on Twitter since the incident, it appears to be one of surprise and humility.

He’ll be fine.  He’ll still cover the sport and have millions of fans listen to his show.  He’ll still be the best in the game.  Is UFC’s actions short-sited?  Maybe.  But, maybe that’s ok with Dana White who could cut and run for a cool billion whenever he decides. In the meantime, both parties might be better off severing ties. UFC doesn’t want or need them, whereas Helwani should recognize -given their tumultuous relationship – UFC will always hold the power to pull the plug and has no real incentive to change its ways.

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 30: Journalist Ariel Helwani holds the MMA Journalist of the Year award at the Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards 2011 at The Pearl concert theater at the Palms Casino Resort November 30, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)