The House is gearing up for a battle over spending taxpayers money on sports sponsorship. The focus is on NASCAR but you cannot cut NASCAR without affecting all sports. The UFC recently inked a deal with the US Marines and many Mixed Martial Artists (“MMA”) have been sponsored by Military divisions. If the measure passes these expenditures would cease.
Republicans are divided over topics that usually unite them (spending cuts, military and NASCAR) and the Democrats are excited to have the distraction. At the heart of the battle is the $80 million dollars spent on sports sponsorships and the return on that investment. The proponents say $20 million a race is way too much. While supporters of the sponsorship programs, like Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. William Ingram Jr. say “the program is effective. “ Without the draft, the Military needs to find ways to reach their target demographic.
There is no question that the Military’s target demographic is watching NASCAR and UFC type events. The in-content exposure is valuable and hard to miss. When marquee brands like Nike are cutting TV and Print spending by 40% in favor of Team and Event sponsorships it seems like an odd move by the House to pressure the Military in exactly the opposite direction.
As the US Marines learned with their UFC deal, there are other valuable sports properties that allow the Military to reach its target demographic and not spend $20 million per event. The model in play with the UFC makes a ton of sense for The Marines. The Marines are getting in-content branding on the most sought after sports property around. They get interaction with the athletes, digital placement on the UFC’s website and more.
Unlike NASCAR or other sports like Bull Riding, MMA also opens the door to real engagements with the target demographic. This engagement can go well beyond the recruiting phase too. We all have seen the UFC and Marine marketing program. The House should be looking at ways to get more for the expenditures. Ideas like:
MMA Athletes showing up during Basic Training to help during Combatives Training.
Military discounts on Merchandise and Tickets.
Armed Forces MMA Team – While on Active Duty the ability to train and compete at the amateur level (like they do with other sports like Boxing and Wrestling).
Veterans that were on the Armed Forces Team get immediate entry into TUF and their Pro card is paid for, in return they continue to represent their Branch of service. Guys like Brian Stann should be a sponsored athlete and a part of a program that helps transition the soldier athlete to a professional athlete.
Lifetime free entry in signature events like Grapplers Quest and NAGA for active Military and Veterans.
Ideas like those will only enhance the ROI. From a MMA perspective the price the Military allegedly spends on one race would fund all of the above programs for several years. Every service member will learn some form of hand to hand combat during their enlistment. There is no reason not to offer MMA as a Team Sport on the bases. The opportunity to enhance the return on investment has never been better.
The House needs to realize that it is less about how much they spend and more about how they spend it. If NASCAR has become too expensive then find other sport properties that reach the same demographic. If you can find sports like MMA that weave into the basic structure of current Military life then you can find others. You don’t have to spend $20,000,000 per race to reach your target demographic. You don’t have to kill off your marketing plans because one part of the plan has become too expensive. Just replace it. The sport of Mixed Martial Arts would welcome this budget and the branding would be dominant and active 24/7 like our Military.
There has been a lot of talk about The Ultimate Fighter show and a lot of it has been kind of negative. If you look at the series with less angry eyes you will see that any show that can last 16 seasons is a successful series. NBC’s ‘Cheer’s', one of the most successful series ever, ran 11 seasons. “The Ultimate Fighter’ (“TUF”) first aired in 2005 and is on its 7th year of being on Television going on its 16th season in the US and 2nd season Internationally. The show is now growing internationaly, in its second season in Brazil.
This got me thinking, many say the first season of TUF triggered the explosive growth that led many to claim MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the US.. TUF and other UFC Televised fights were rating successes in the male 18-35 demographic. Marketers are still talking about how MMA is a hit with males 18-35 and by all indications growing in popularity amongst females in the same demographic. This is what the advertisers are focused on. This valuable demographic has a history of being “elusive” and has been since the early 2000’s. But it’s been seven years since the Boom of MMA, the ’18-35′ of 2005 is now ’25-42′. Who is focusing on the 25-42M demographic that helped kick start this sport? Or for that matter the early adopters of the sport: the 30-55 Male?
As the sport matures and the fan base increases within the core demographic, brands should not lose sight of the fans that helped create the early iconic brands of the sport. As we age (yeah I am one of them) so do our tastes. However we still like a lot of the same things we used to like. Most of us are passionate about the sport and that passion stands the test of time. We are the demographic that gave this sport its legs and made sure it was able to run.
Look no further than the American Express retirement commercials from the late 90’s and today to see how sophisticated brands are shifting their message. They have gone from showing gray haired grandparents quietly puttering in their flower gardens to ‘salt and pepper’ youthful looking, yet older people out in the world on adventures with sky diving, snorkeling and enjoying their retired life. American Express knows that different generations age differently and wish to be advertised to differently.
I recently turned 40 and I do not think I would wear many of the current MMA brands myself. I like my tee shirts and Chuck Taylors like most guys my age, but no foil, wings or skulls with swords in the eye sockets are going to look right at my kids parent teacher conference.
The MMA specific brands need to remember the people that bought the products that built 100 million dollar companies are getting older and we still have money to spend if you want to make products we can use. For every core demographic there are secondary demographics of younger and older fans. One thing that can’t be ignored is that these fans are getting older as the sport matures and branding and message should be adjusted to continue to reach them.
Below you will find a pretty interesting infographic that shows the habits of the Generation Y or Millennium Generation. Let us know if you agree or disagree.
“ABSOLUTELY NO FIREARMS, AMMO, HUNTING OR KNIFE COMPANIES WILL BE PERMITTED AS SPONSORS IN ANY ZUFFA PROMOTED EVENTS.”
The announcement came down this morning, and some will say it’s just “Another way big bad Zuffa is screwing the fighters”. In reality, it won’t be long until there comes a day that no sponsors will be allowed. Why? Mainly because these companies are not “sponsors” per say. They are ambush marketing televised events. The athletes are paid based on the televised exposure not based on the athlete.
Our company has an athlete that is pro-firearm and has an endorsement deal with a small firearms training center. He is paid a monthly salary to endorse the brand and no logo placement is required. This is a true sponsorship to athlete relationship.
MMA is full of great athletes with amazing stories to tell. The UFC is providing them a platform like no one ever has. It is not what you do on that platform, it is what you do with that overall opportunity that matters. How much of the interest generated will you retain?
That is what managers need to be doing for the athletes they work for. They need to build platforms that enable them to sustain revenue and sell value to brands without the UFC exposure. You cannot guarantee the exposure in the UFC but you can guarantee leveraging the relationship and the exposure that may come.
For the most part MMA sponsorships are about logo placement on televised events. The athletes and brands rarely have a connection let alone an activation strategy. Aside from a few pre and post fight mentions there is not much (if any) activation. Even the biggest names depend more on discretionary bonuses than endorsement deals. They are making more because they are at the top. When they begin to descend it will be interesting to see how many actually end up with a brand of their own that they own and can create revenue from. Very few boxers ever converted their brand as an individual and MMA has a long way yet to create an Ali or Foreman.
It is not too late and these changes from Zuffa will only force the issue more. Stop just selling logos on shorts and start selling a brand building experience.