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Mixed Martial Arts Gold Mine?

We have been blessed to work with some amazing athletes and sponsors over the past few years. They both shared one thing in common, they gain exposure when they perform, and in that performance they have a 50% or greater chance to loose. Throughout this time in the sport of MMA, fighters complain that they do not earn enough and the sponsors claim to not be able to identify the return on investment (ROI) involved.

One of the big issues is that the athletes are usually too busy to market themselves correctly and do not have the right representation helping them find the time and tools to build their own fame outside of the events. The sponsors rarely activate the sponsorship and roll the dice on the event. Yet the athlete they are paying has little to no control over the event, if they show the sponsors logos or the very important walkout. Some brands have paid mid five-figures per fight to have their shirt worn during the walkout and post-fight coverage.

Many opportunities to engage the consumer and potential consumers are often missed or ignored and the activation is almost non-existent. The major promotions like the UFC regulate and restrict which sponsors are allowed and even charge the Brands a sponsorship participation fee. This fees can sometimes be in the mid to high five figures per year. They are not given anything that any other brand is given. You would think that this “tax” would increase the sponsors desire to get more for their investment. Instead it appears to have only reduced the amount the sponsors are willing to pay, made the sponsors focus more on if the event will be televised, and at the same time weeded out the small to medium apparel companies from the mix and removed their ability to support athletes. That is at least what they will have you believe. The fact is, many have just used this “tax” as a reason to leave the sport because they never developed an ROI.

We have brought in many non-endemic sponsors that are focused on the athletes and are willing to look at the events as “bonus” exposure while working with the athlete in a true endorsement fashion. One of the UFC’s major sponsors, Bud Light and it’s parent company, is arguably one of the largest Sports Marketing agencies in the world. They are also one of the most successful.

There is no missing the event involvement Bud Light has in place with the UFC. Their approach to their MMA Fight Team is less about big in-event placement on the athlete and instead more focused on outside the event endorsement. They use their athletes in their retail point of sale advertisements, use the athletes image and likeness in their bar and restaurant advertising, produce webisode series promoting the athletes and more. They make sure they ingrain their brand and athletes at every possible outlet and event. It may be argued that they provide equal or greater promotion of these athletes than the UFC does.

So what are some of the solutions? The first step is for the Brands to realize they are sponsoring and endorsing an athlete. They need to have a plan in place on how they are going to extract value from the sponsorship and utilize these athletes. Instead of looking at it as a billboard type logo placement it must instead be viewed as a relationship. They have to get beyond being a fan of the athlete because that will only lead to the most expensive Facebook photo in the world. Second, they need to activate around the athlete and his or her platform. Use the events these athlete’s participate in as spikes in exposure and capitalize on the ability the events have to engage the target consumer but do not make this the be all, end all effort. The athletes and their team need to make sure they have a platform to offer. The brands need to try to coordinate and cross promote whenever possible.

As you can see Wrangler does a great job with this. They offer a wide array of their shirts with various PRCA and PBR sponsor logos on the shirt along with their Wrangler logo. I know MMA has to get away from having seven competing fight brands on one tee shirt and shorts before they can offer this type of merchandise. As you will see in the slide show below it is not just Rodeo either, many sports employ this model. You are also not tied to using all of the brands as you see with the Wrangler shirt above.

Here is the Official NASCAR Team DuPont Jersey.

And here is a NASCAR fan wearing the same jersey.

Obviously there are no competing brands on this jersey but you see various brands showcased and the primary brand DuPont is prominent. The fans buy these jerseys for the same reason they buy NFL, NBA and MLB apparel because it is authentic looking.

I recently moved to the Central Coast of California and on any given day you see a slew of Cyclists riding through the hills, coast line, and throughout town. I started to notice the majority of them are wearing authentic team apparel. Either Radio Shack has started sponsoring every cyclist in the world or once again we are seeing fans and practitioners of the sport seeking authentic apparel. Here are some examples –

Here is the Team Radio Shack cycling uniform.

and

Here is the Team using the uniform

And once again here is a fan who has sought, purchased, and is proudly representing the brand in the exact same gear.

This is not really a sport specific phenomenon. The fact is NASCAR, NBA, Soccer, MLB, NFL, PBR, PRCA, Motocross, Indy Car and more derive a considerable amount of revenue from this type of merchandise. The brands exposure is extended beyond the athlete, the event, and the athlete’s platform and the marketing provided by the Brand. The exposure alone is a tangible return on the sponsors investment and having your brand worn by your target consumer or applied to your target consumers personal property becomes an extremely valuable proposition for the brands supporting these athletes and Teams.

The majority of the MMA industry is missing this market and opportunity. From the athletes to the brands no one seems to be making any replica merchandise. There is no doubt that there is a demand for these types of products. There is no doubt that in these tough economic times we need the sponsors to be more successful then ever before and at the same time find a way to extend the engagement beyond the events.

The managers and agents in the sport of MMA need to get out of the patch business and get into the brand building business. They need to build the brands of the athletes they represent and help guide the brands that support those athletes to successful and controllable engagements. If you are merely trading logos for dollars based on exposure you did not create you are on the path to failure for you and your clients.

The athletes need to look for ways to connect with the fans and extract value for the sacrifices made. Depending on events and televised exposure you can not and do not control is a recipe for disaster. You need to yourself or have other people helping you build your brand and increase your exposure even when you are not fighting.

Brock Lesnar’s sponsor Death Clutch has offered replica walk out tees in the past. They seem to be one of the few brands or athletes offering such items. In the past you used to be able to buy the Overeem Replica Fight shorts. The issue with fight shorts is that unless you can kick ass like The Reem you probably should not be wearing his shorts. It is kind of like showing up to your first BJJ class with 20 sponsors on your gi.

Here is the Death Clutch UFC 116 walk out tee:

We have had one client that fought 9 times and 3 of which were in the UFC and he had earned just under $100,000 for 3 years of work and 9 fights that he won, his MMA earnings were predicated on when or if he fought. The same client is now a millionaire based on competing 3 times over two years. He has months where he makes $50,000 and has consistently has earned a monthly income from his endeavors in and out of the Octagon. The difference has been focusing on building his brand and finding ways for his sponsors to earn their ROI. He has both endemic and non-endemic sponsors alike.

The authentic and replica tee shirts are a great opportunity to increase your brand, your sponsors branding, and your income as an athlete. You can go to any size event and you will see merchandise similar to what you see here and in our slide show. If the athletes do not create these then the brands should. Even the video games strive to ingrain authentic sponsors on the in-game characters on both the THQ and EA Sports MMA games.

This should not be ignored and it very well may be the lowest hanging fruit in the entire MMA market. If you trained would you wear replicas of your favorite fighters shorts or rash guard?

I am sure just about everyone in the US has seen that NASCAR fan who has their personal possessions or vehicles with logos from the brands that support their favorite athlete.

Here is a slide show that shows various sport jerseys and tee shirts and the fans that wear them. It is easy to see the potential market that is out there. A lot of these fans are cross over fans and are fans of many sports.


Henry Cejudo

Henry Cejudo CeWHOdo

Cejudo Captures Gold

You might not be a fan of Wrestling if you do not know who Henry Cejudo is. Either way, please keep reading as this blog is relative to any sport and athlete.  Henry won the Olympic Gold Medal in the sport of Wrestling at the ripe age of 21.

Being the youngest Olympic Gold Medalist in USA Wrestling History was quite the accomplishment.  His Olympic run was your typical underdog story.  He came into the Olympics seeded 16th and even lost his first period of his first match.

In the sport of wrestling, especially at the elite level, losing the first period can sometimes mean losing the match. Again in the quarterfinals and the semifinals Henry would go on to lose the first period and was forced to rally back to victory.

Henry went on to win his gold medal match and the gold medal.  Henry’s personal struggle and life story made this unbelievable accomplishment even more amazing.

Henry was one of the country’s most decorated high school wrestlers.  He won State Championships in two states (AZ and CO) and was the ASICS Wrestler Of The Year. He was also the first high-schooler to win U.S. Nationals since USA Wrestling‘s formation as the sport’s national sanctioning body in 1983.

Henry’s youth was another tale of overcoming accomplishments.  He was born in the late 80’s in South Central Los Angeles, California.  His parents were undocumented Mexican immigrants.  Henry’s father was a frequent long-term visitor to many of the California Prisons.

Henry’s mother did what she could to provide for her six children and worked numerous jobs to provide for her family.

Henry’s family eventually settled in Phoenix, Arizona which was just a hotter version of the bad neighborhoods they had lived in the past.  This is the basis for a story that many lead to tell from behind the walls of America’s prisons.  Some could say he was destined for failure.  Henry found wrestling and began to devote himself to the sport.  Henry used the sport to build an opportunity for himself and his family.  Henry and his brother dominated the sport of high school wrestling.

They were so talented the national developmental freestyle coach for USA Wrestling invited both Angel and Henry to attend the resident freestyle program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO.

The fact that Henry essentially raised himself while his mother worked and his father paid his debts to society lead to the fact that Henry’s education was nowhere near the college level.  Making it to the Olympics without college wrestling is the route less taken to say the least.  Had Henry’s chosen sport been Basketball or Football he would have been on a full ride to any NCAA Division I powerhouse and playing in the NBA or NFL today, he is simply that good.

Henry took second at World’s losing to Matt Azevedo but came back the next year and won the spot on the 2008 Olympic team.  This is normally a spot reserved for NCAA All-American’s and Champions.  Henry would secure the Gold Medal in storybook fashion.

Henry was the poster child for the 2008 Olympics during his time in Beijing and when he came back to the US.  He appeared on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, CBS Early Morning Show, ABC’s Nightly News, Oprah, and many more.  For a short period of time he was an International Star.

I was sitting one row ahead of him when he and his posse rolled into a MMA fight in Phoenix.  Most everyone knew who he was and a lot of kids were coming up asking for his autograph and he was even announced as being in attendance by the promotion.  He must have had 12 to 15 people with him, who all seemed to be catering to Henry.

Henry was living the life of a rock star.  Everyone wanted a piece of him and “just a few minutes of his time”.  It seemed like wrestling finally had a star.

Now, fast forward to 2011 and we are beginning to approach the 2012 Olympic Games where Henry is again just one of many wrestlers in the 55 kg division competing for the one spot at the top.  In the last 4 years we have seen All-American Wrestlers become Champions and millionaires in the sport of MMA.  We have seen Wrestlers become the dominant force in the fastest growing sport in the world.  Wrestling programs at the College level are under attack and stories like skipping college to pursue the Olympic Gold may become the only option.  The PAC 10 Conference is shrinking and NCAA Division II powerhouses like Nebraska have been eliminated.

Pac 10

Wrestling is one of the few USA Olympic sports that still uses true amateurs when competing.  Something the Eastern European countries stopped doing long ago.  Athletes like Henry need to find ways to earn a living and remain relevant for 4 years before then hoping to secure the single spot on the Olympic team.

This may be the very reason that wrestling is considered a “poor mans” martial art.  It also is likely the same reason the sport of wrestling is failing to thrive while wrestlers are able to use wrestling outside of the sport the thrive and earn a living.  My very own brother has spent 20 plus years of his life sacrificing his time and efforts for about $2,800 a year.  The Athletic Directors pay by season so it doesn’t seem as bad but any Wrestling Coach will tell you it is a year round commitment.

Why is USA Wrestling so anti-MMA?  Everywhere I go I see BJJ gyms and MMA gyms opening in the same town where the Wrestling Programs are on life support.  What was the plan with a guy like Henry?  Obviously the USA Wrestling program knew he could win or they would not have even invited him to Colorado.  Once he made the team and won the spot on the ladder, why not market him?  When he won the gold and had all of the press and momentum, why not market him?

Instead they let a rising star succumb to gravity.  Imagine an athlete like Henry competing in MMA.  His wrestling skills alone would place him at the top of the 125 pound division.  Then you take his story and his Olympic notoriety and he is everything the UFC was hoping for in a Cain Velasquez.

Imagine a wrestler like Henry after he has learned to contend with punches and submissions.  He would be an elite Mixed Martial Artists and his participation in MMA would allow him to earn a living, promote USA Wrestling and make him a more complete athlete when the Olympic Games come around in 2012.

Instead Henry Cejudo is just another great Wrestler having to earn every inch he gets.  He has to work harder and train harder than any other athlete in the world and all for a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent our Country for free.  USA Wrestling needs to embrace MMA if it expects MMA fans to embrace Wrestling.  MMA is the NFL for Wrestlers.  MMA makes it possible for guys like Henry to continue building his brand outside of Olympic Trials and The Olympics.

If not MMA, what is the plan?  There is an extreme lack of follow-through in marketing and little to no plan exists to keep amateur wrestlers who earn a place in the spotlight relevant.  From Henry’s posse to USA Wrestling, they all have to take responsibility for Henry’s lack of exposure.  If he happens to win another Olympic Gold, will we see even less than we have seen since 2008?  Maybe USA Wrestling is waiting for Henry to save a baby from a burning building while overcoming the obstacles in his life and winning the US Olympic Gold.

No matter what the platform or stage, athletes and their posses need to find a way to stay relevant and engage with people of the sport.  Do not expect those around you to do so because you are the current flavor of the week.  You worked hard to earn this opportunity, make sure you have someone working hard to make it last.  Do not become a Henry CeWHOdo.

Olympic Gold Taste So Good!

For my wrestling readers, please do your part to support your local wrestling tournaments and teams.  Give back to the sport.  It needs you now more than ever.  One of the greatest and oldest sports in the World has played a large part in building one of the fastest growing professional sports in the world.  There has never been a better time to support Wrestling and Wrestlers.  USA Wrestling works for you.  They could not exist without your contributions so make sure you let them know you want more for the sport and the athletes of the sport.

Jason Genet

http://www.ingrainedmedia.com


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