The State of MMA Sponsorships: Outside the UFC
In this series of posts, the exploration of the major changes to MMA from a sponsorship/business standpoint will be highlighted from the past two decades: from the Sponsor Tax, to the Reebok Deal, how streaming fits into all of this and how everything has settled since. The goal is to highlight when exactly the landscape started to change, what it meant for all parties involved, and where we are now.
UFC’s Reebok Deal
With the UFC having an exclusive outfitting deal with Reebok since 2015, curiosity sunk in regarding how the sponsorship industry was doing around MMA. I remember when I first got into the sport as a fan, one of the things I noticed was the aesthetic of the fight gear itself. These were top tier athletes but somehow the uniforms resembled NASCAR drivers, bordered on pro wrestling at times and was for sure a far cry from the cookie cutter formats the NBA, NHL and others follow.
Once that infamous deal first got announced [on December 2, 2014], the sport became more uniform, almost overnight. More bland. It became harder to recognize guys and it isn’t because of the money fighters missed out on or the deal itself. It was more so what it did from a residual aspect. They were able to raise the value of in cage spots for brands like Modelo, Nemiroff and P3 by making sure there was no more wiggle room for smaller brands to get their 3 minutes of shine via spots on a fighters short. And all of this comes AFTER a 2009 decision made by the UFC to institute the infamous ‘sponsorship tax’, meaning that if you wanted to sponsor a UFC athlete for your brand advertisement, you now had to fork over 100K every 6 months.
So now from my fan perspective, if I want that same throwback feel that got me into the sport, I must go elsewhere.
In the age of promoters, getting Silicon Valley money is no big deal; from the sponsors side there’s now no more entry to the ‘big leagues’ and you have to search outside the UFC. From the fighters point of view, obviously less small sponsors are able to help, making things like fight camp a more expensive task to manage. Now this is all broad, however, it’s purely in hopes that you’ll see just how complex the game got in the span of a few years.
A new era
So with this new era, came an end to brands like Tapout, Affliction, Condom Depot, and others; some to complete bankruptcy, others to dissolve or downsize the operations altogether. We were told that UFC fighters were going to be paid based off of their rank, which switched to tenure, that fighters would get 20% of all merchandising sales that had their likeness on it. Only to find out that, like most clothing lines, everyone doesn’t have the same depth of merchandise available, if at all. While that was going on, there was simultaneously a hope that some of these blue chip sponsors like Gatorade, Bacardi or Xbox would stick around in some facet. Most didn’t.
Bellator hasn’t changed its stance on the matter, with their President Scott Coker even acknowledging that the Reebok Deal has been, “very good for [our] business.” And there are many promotions that can join that list, but context is key and Bellator simply wasn’t the giant that the UFC was in 2015 to cause the type of attraction I mentioned above.
So what does this all mean when boiled down? That on one end of the spectrum, things are getting more and more concentrated towards exclusivity, while other organizations are keeping the model that was in place prior to the UFC shaking the entire industry in 2009. They simply haven’t been able to show the same level of attraction when it comes to similar suitors in the space. But with such a vast difference between the 2 systems, Bellator or anyone else for that matter, doesn’t HAVE to have that type of success just to be feasible in terms of having a platform that the promoter and fighter can mutually benefit from.
Other fight promotions are succeeding too
Now somewhere in the middle of all of this are promotions striving for relevancy amongst the big two. Some are trying cross promotional fights like RIZIN did this past NYE, others appealing to a strong local scene like KSW or ACB. There’s also been a flocking to free digital platforms like ONE, and some simply putting big bucks up for grabs, like the Professional Fighter’s League. Besides having a tournament format in place that rewards its victors with a million dollars, they also have decided to take a hybrid approach to the problem of fighter sponsorships. I’m not saying that this is a panacea to the situation, but I do believe that it’s important to highlight any major player that is going to attempt to address fighter pay, even if it is in the smallest way possible.
In June 2018, the WSOF rebranded completely as the PFL, launched its first tournament with a twist on its outfitting policy; fighters would be allowed up to 2 sponsors on their clothes supplied by PFL and would be allowed to change said sponsors around up to 3 times per season. No sponsor tax involved here, just adherence to placement, logo size, etc. Not a bad compromise on those old school aesthetics. But all of this got me thinking, what does an actual MMA sponsorship look like today?
Sure the UFC is pretty much off limits as far as outfitting, but other organizations are clearly still alive and doing well this year. With PFL signing a broadcast partnership with ESPN earlier this year and making some sponsor deals of its own with companies like Anheuser-Busch, clearly there are reasons to believe the old era never fully died off, it’s just taking some time to come back.
Trying to help become a part of this resurgence, is a website called The Scrap.
The Scrap is changing the sponsorship game
I was able to talk to the owner, my coworker, about how the process works today. The Scrap inked a deal with PFL season 2 debutant Alex Gilpin recently, after only 4 months of being in operation. Joel Torres, the head, put the site through a rebranding process from 2016 to now and has added a staff of writers to the fold, officially sponsoring a ‘signed’ athlete, and has ambitions for more in the future. The perfect candidate for this discussion.
So how does that look in 2019? What benefits does a non UFC athlete get from a sponsorship, how does one even get into that process amidst all of the factors stated above and how much does it cost? As I always like to say, let’s talk about it.
I asked Joel directly, if I’m a sponsored fighter through The Scrap, how much can I get and what type of packages are there for me to choose from? I was interested to see in this day and age how sponsors choose to approach deals and the things they offer given this social media world. Torres shared, “we currently don’t offer fighters an array of options; they fighters already have them. They normally have a paid option of $500 or $250. If a writer comes directly to us and want us to design their fight shirt, there’s a free selection where we supply the fighter with their shirts, logo and other related gear in return for the promotion of our site.”
For someone that’s trying to get to the big shows or just sustain in between fights, it wasn’t hard for me to see how that could go a long way in the lead up to my camp, but it seemed a little basic so I followed up. What if I didn’t need the cash or the gear? Torres shared, “we could do a barter where we would expect the fighter to shout us out on various social media platforms and things of that nature and in return we would help them do the same, as well as come up with other creative ideas along side them to help boost their brand.”
That also sounds extremely viable, in an impression-driven world that could make the difference if you have the right amount of buzz behind you. But as good as that sounds, how do you make sure that the social media quality is good? How do you know you aren’t just wasting the fighter’s time while saving that money on the side? Joel replied, “we take a look at a particular fighters analytics, we try to work with what they have, it’s important that they have a tight circle around them, that’s what I try to look for; who they keep around them as well, outside of that we take care of demographics, where they are known, how we can push their brand to somewhere new, while not making them be something they are not.”
And on getting in contact with people? How does a fighter go from struggling on Twitter for a sponsor translate into getting a check with some backing? “I primarily use Facebook, and there’s a lot of local cards where I live [CO] so I can see guys in person and see how they carry themselves there as well. If I see someone through Fight Pass or at a local card, I simply look them up and add them; from there I try and wait until 2 months out from a scheduled fight and see if we can settle the deal.” The rest of the conversation was filled with details that an individual fighter would have to iron out, but I understood the process a bit more and was able to come to some sort of conclusion after sleeping on it.
People are still trying to give opportunities to fighters struggling to get by, nowadays you don’t have to rely on getting to the main stage to get a lifeline, you just need to be seen online by the right set of eyes. It also shows me that in these days, nice guys can still get paid without storming up faux buzz via trash talk, and while the PFL has other fish to fry, it is at least doing something different… Trying.
In MMA, with all of the group thinking and constant hand wringing, it’s worth taking a step back to see whose out there putting money into fighter’s pockets. Just because Gatorade and Nike are gone, doesn’t mean everyone abandoned ship. Sure the pool lost some water, but there are suitors out there trying to pour some back in, and they deserve to be highlighted as they attempt to do so.
Stay tuned for the next part of the MMA Sponsorship series – “A Digital Deal.”
Sources used to write this article:
– Bloody Elbow: Rebook Deal / PFL Deal
– MMA Mania
– Fox Sports
– The Scrap News
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