mark-cuban-1.jpgBillionaire business mogul Mark Cuban is no stranger to the world of mixed martial arts. The all-high-definition cable channel he founded in 2001, HDNet, was a broadcast partner with the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) almost from its inception.

But with music and entertainment powerhouses AEG, Ryan Seacrest Productions and Creative Artists Agency new part-owners in the rebranded network, now known as AXS TV, will MMA still figure as prominently in the channel’s plans?

Absolutely, Cuban said.

“We wanted to drive toward an all-live network that leverages social media and live events from concerts to fights,” Cuban told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “If it’s live, we want it on AXS TV. But I don’t expect anything to change.

“We have a great fan base. They love to watch ‘Inside MMA’ and our live fights. We broadcast more live fights than anyone. That is a great platform from which to promote our concerts and other live programming. MMA fans love music too.”

When HDNet launched, MMA hadn’t quite yet reached the start of its current growth boom, and many cable channels shied away from the sport. But Cuban said he always saw the value in what is now one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. He never worried the programming was too edgy or controversial for his fledgling channel.

“That thinking is about 20 years old and ridiculous,” Cuban said.

In 2006, Ultimate Fighting Championship parent company Zuffa LLC purchased the WEC and then signed a broadcast deal with Versus (now NBC Sports Network) shortly after. Rather than shy away from MMA, Cuban decided to host his own fights and launch a weekly MMA news program, “Inside MMA,” hosted by veteran broadcaster Kenny Rice and former UFC champion Bas Rutten.

The “HDNet Fights” concept quickly changed as Cuban realized his company’s strength didn’t lie in hosting fight cards. Instead, HDNet began broadcasting live weekly events from other organizations, including many top regional fight promotions.

“We weren’t as good at promotion as folks like Resurrection Fighting Alliance, Xtreme Fighting Championships, Legacy FC and UFC,” Cuban said. “If we weren’t going to be great at it, there was no reason to do it. Plus, it gave us the chance to broadcast all promotions and not compete with them. It was interesting and a learning experience, but we are better off where we are.

“The talent base for MMA is expanding by the minute. No single organization can corner the market. We wanted to show all MMA fans what they were missing, and it’s resulted in some amazing fighters putting on amazing fights.”

Cuban recently strengthened his commitment to combat sports by partnering with Las Vegas-based Lion Fight Promotions, which brought muay Thai competitions to live TV for the very first time in North America. Muay Thai is considered one of the core skills necessary for success in MMA, but Lion Fight focuses solely on the one discipline.

“We have always been muay Thai fans,” Cuban said. “We just hadn’t had the right partner. Lion Fights put together the best of the best, and we were excited to expose fans to a different side of MMA.”

But MMA remains the core focus of AXS TV’s combat-sports portfolio, and Cuban doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. With the UFC’s recent move to FOX, and with arenas around the globe filling on a weekly basis to watch MMA produced by a variety of regional and international promotions, Cuban believes the demand will continue its current upward trend.

“Every sport goes through cycles as old stars fade and new stars develop,” Cuban said. “Just when things seem down and pay-per-view numbers slip, some new storyline and a new name will emerge, and everyone will forget the downtime. MMA is fundamentally strong.

“A great example of how strong it is are the regionals. Promoters like XFC, Lion Fight, Legacy and MFC are not only stable, they are growing and working from very sound financial footing. That’s something that you didn’t see in the past and proof of just how strong the sport has become.”

And while entertainment programming will factor heavily into AXS TV’s future plans, Cuban said the channel will remain committed to MMA as it grows its subscriber base with cable and satellite providers across the country.

“We continue to grow,” Cuban said. “We are now past 40 million subscribers. When you consider that we are not offered in standard definition anywhere but DISH Network, it means our penetration is growing quickly. If you are on Time Warner Cable, Cox or Cablevision, call them. Tweet to them. Make it clear to them that MMA fans deserve AXS TV.

“Let’s not forget ‘Inside MMA.’ While everyone from ESPN to Spike TV to FOX have tried to copy us, there is only one show of record in the MMA world, and that’s ‘Inside MMA.’ Bas and Kenny have an amazing relationship with fighters and fans alike. There is no better show for and about MMA and there never will be. It’s a show that MMA fans have to watch every Friday, and they do.”

On Friday, AXS TV features “RFA 7: Thatch vs. Rhodes” live from Broomfield, Colo., following a new edition of “Inside MMA.”

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