clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to monetize in a pandemic: Louis Smolka proposes live-streaming sparring sessions

UFC 207 Media Day
Louis Smolka
Esther Lin

A thirst for combat sports and boredom – these are two things in ample supply during the coronavirus pandemic, and UFC flyweight Louis Smolka hopes to capitalize.

As the world figures out how to pass the time during the “hunker down” phase of the outbreak, Smolka plans to film his sparring sessions with the aim of drumming up a little extra cash and helping out his gym. He’s not sure how exactly it’s going to go down. He doesn’t have much of a plan. But he figures it’s better to do something than just sit and self-quarantine.

”We’re not going to try to kill each other or show everything we’ve got,” said Smolka, who was scheduled to face Davey Grant at the ill-fated UFC on ESPN 8 card. “We’re just going to provide entertaining interactions for community sanity.”

On Saturday, Smolka said he’ll turn on the camera and see who shows up for an informal scrap hosted on his Twitch account. If all goes well, he told MMA Fighting, he’ll have hacked the problem facing many rank-and-file fighters at this moment: no events, no money coming in.

”I worry about the impact on the MMA community as a whole,” he said. “Our ecosystem is not necessarily cut and dry like everybody else. There’s a lot of gym’s suffering from people not coming or canceling their dues. If people don’t show up, then they can’t pay their rent.

”If it works out for us, other gyms could do it, too, if they need the money.”

When news broke of the UFC’s postponement of his event and two others, Smolka was glued to his phone like everyone else. But he soon returned to his gym, Team Oyama in Irvine, Calif., where he noticed a “general somberness” – and a few of his teammates drinking beer after practice.

Smolka mentioned his idea to a few of them after tweeting it on Monday. They didn’t exactly respond with open arms. For one, nobody wanted to give out any secrets. In the age of readily available fight footage, information contained in sparring sessions could very easily be weaponized by possible opponents.

”That’s kind of giving guys the inside lane,” he said.

So, Smolka came up with a compromise: 90-second rounds, and everyone fights southpaw (or orthodox for the lefties). He brought the plan to head coach Colin Oyama on a group text the team shares, and he got the green light. (Oyama did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The plan, for now, is to have fighters show up in pairs with a head coach to guide them and, presumably, separate them if things get too heated. To keep excitement high, Smolka thinks the fighters could take suggestions from viewers “like cam girls.”

”I was just going to take it as it comes and react to fan interest,” he said. “If they want to see us do WWE-style stuff, whatever. If they want to see Carla Esparza box with our know what I mean?”

Again, there hasn’t been a lot of forethought about the whos and hows and whys – Smolka doesn’t even have a finalized lineup yet. And he isn’t really sure about the potential regulatory repercussions, if any, of a for-profit unarmed combat event of sorts without any oversight. Things haven’t gotten that far.

Right now, Smolka’s model is Sean O’Malley, who once said he took home $4,500 every month gaming on Twitch for eight-hour “shifts.” That, presumably, was the way the UFC bantamweight avoided the poor house during a lengthy layoff due to an anti-doping violation.

Then there’s Tony Ferguson, who offered the MMA world a much-needed highlight with another demonstration of his unorthodox training methods. Put that on Twitch, Smolka said, and you might have a hit on your hands.

Of course, there’s no guarantee of making any money. To even be eligible to monetize, you need to meet the streaming platforms requirements for becoming an “affiliate,” which call for 500 total minutes of broadcast time and seven unique broadcasts over a 30-day period, among other requirements.

Smolka will need quite a few fighters to agree to crash into each other in a variety of ways, or make up the time somehow in order to make that O’Malley cash. But in the current climate, he ventures that might not be as hard as you’d think.

”The hardcore fan base is pretty big,” he said. “If I can get like 200 people on there for an hour, maybe a couple times a week, maybe Twitch pays us a couple grand for it. That’ll at least help.”

It’s a situation fighters like Smolka wouldn’t have to face if the UFC paid them like employees rather than independent contractors. But for the 28-year-old flyweight, it’s always been about earning his keep. He said the promotion has been there for him in the past, and he wanted to return the favor when it sought to entertain a marginally captive audience by barreling forward with events.

Now, he wants to help the fighters on his team – and write the blueprint for others who might be in a similar predicament.

“I’m sure [the UFC will] take care of the guys who really need it,” Smolka said. “I’m just trying to help here, not just for the fighters, but the MMA community.”

Update: Approximately one hour after this story was published, Oyama told MMA Fighting that county officials had just shut the doors to his gym until March 31, citing the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting