The History and Changing Face of Fighter Sponsorship
Over the last decade the fight game especially in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has had an aspect to the industry that in many ways has defied good business sense and become so rife that often more deserving athletes later on have suffered the backlash as companies mature and learn the financial realities of the sports they are involved in; That aspect is sponsorship. This article seeks to explore the history, common misconceptions and the hard realities of the fight business and hopefully give Combat Sports Professionals of all disciplines a better understanding of how they can attain a better income level from their efforts by becoming a more saleable asset to the companies and people they approach for sponsorship.
Although the general hints, tips and advice here will relate to all combat athletes much of what I will speak of is going to be drawn from the experience in MMA. The reason for this is historic so take a few moments to hear the history.
During the early years of MMA there was essentially no industry relating to it; The 4oz MMA glove was only brought into the game officially on UFC 14 (1997) as fighters had damaged their hands fighting bare knuckle in the early events. In essence all MMA equipment
at the time was drawn from Boxing, Muay Thai and to an extent BJJ. MMA shorts were surf shorts from the beaches of Rio and Southern California or essentially a version of Swimming trunks.... Enterprising Brazilian and later American companies often with a link to another sport (Such as HDB or Badboy linked to Surfing and Moto Cross) took an interest in the new combat sport and started producing apparel around MMA. At that time it was easy to get what later became to be MMA Stars such as Wanderlei Silva to model and endorse their brands as simply there was nothing else available.
During the early years there was almost unlimited access to the athletes of the sport as essentially they were unlike superstars in more mainstream sports with a whole lot less money available to either the athletes themselves or the companies involved. As MMA accelerated its growth in North America and across the world the industry started to develop, the very simple model of using the fledgling internet, fighter endorsement and some often quite rudimentary graphic design meant almost anyone could start a brand and get some kind of following in such a young sport. I was involved with a UK Company called Evolution Fightwear who were very successful in the early part of the 2000's building their name on being often the only
available fight brand in UK at the time with athlete endorsements ranging from Dan Hardy to Anderson Silva which were both attained for the cost of a few tee shirts and later a little equipment. If you consider where those two names are in the sport today then you can see how much this has moved on.
Enter the age of the UFC Tax....
As the sport grew and the industry developed the UFC started to see the potential of advertising via its then almost exclusively PPV shows. Athletes supplemented their then still low fight purses by gaining sponsor money in return usually for wearing the shorts and walkout shirts of the brand, more strategically minded companies did longer term endorsements and based their advertising on particular athletes whilst some such as Tito Ortiz started their own brands and were their own "sponsored" athlete choosing to sell the products direct and built companies on the back of team names. This Era may well be looked back on as a bit of a golden age for MMA. The UFC brought in a levy on companies wishing to use their platform whereby any brand wanting athletes to don their logos in the octagon had to pay the organisation a substantial sum to do so even before they paid a penny to the athletes. This also brought a host of lawyers often from the Celebrity lifestyle focused Los Angeles into the game who switched roles to a more glamorous "Fight" management lifestyle. During this time deals were often done on fight day such as with representatives from the infamous Tapout company literally writing paychecks on the day for Fighters to wear the brands shorts on the way out to the Octagon. TV coverage was seen as the golden apple here and with few others truly in the race for MMA brand supremacy it was certainly a strategy that had some merit early on and was subsequently successful for several major brands.
All good things
By the end of 2013 there were whispers that the UFC were going to scrap the multitude of brands advertising in the Octagon and switch to a uniform provided by a single sports apparel partner. When the announcement was made in late 2014 it was to be Reebok the ripples continued and confusion reigned as the details of the deal and more importantly for the industry the effects became more and more apparent.
Whilst UFC certainly have done more than any other organisation on the planet to promote MMA to the masses the largely unpopular move with the rank and file fighters may well be seen as one of the catalysts that changes the landscape of the sport forever in years to come.
The deal between the UFC and Reebok has made the business of brand promotion in Mixed Martial Arts a much less one route avenue and whilst there were almost certainly major losers in the mix with the main ones being the handful of brands who put all their marketing eggs in the UFC basket there has also been a maturing in the sport which brings it into line with other more mainstream sports industry such as cycling, boxing and athletics.
What this has meant to the rank and file fighters though has been a reduction in their income potential. To be an MMA fighter at any level in the modern age requires incredible commitment; there is too much to do to really hold down a serious day job if you wish to progress in the sport 100% is what it takes but the rewards are only there at the very top. Sponsor money was a lifeline for many fighters on the way up and when guys in the top ten in the world lose their sponsor money from MMA brands who realised the financial outlay on fighters no longer justified the exposure gained then it leaves a chasm for the guys on the way up the ladder.
Another aspect of this situation is the usefulness of a sponsors actual product to the fighter; prior to the Reebok deal what were primarily Apparel brands often added in equipment production as their brand exposure ensured sales of what was often below par gear as well as a need for their poster boys to be able to be seen using that brands signature equipment and continue to build brand exposure on shows such as the UFC Countdown show, with that gone the actual quality of the gear being produced suddenly counts for a whole lot more as fighters who had in private used the fight equipment they trusted often leaving the sponsor gear in a bag for photo shoots or when the TV cameras arrived now had much less requirement to do so however the cost of replacing this gear became a factor so gaining sponsors who could provide useable equipment became far more important.
In my second article I will explore some simple ways that fighters can look to build their income levels and help themselves gain followers, bigger pay days and extra income in the age of Fighter Austerity !