Mixed martial arts, in the form of the UFC, is no different. In the late 1990s, the UFC reformed itself to allow for more regulation, leaving behind Rorion Gracie’s original vision of open-weight tournaments and minimalist rules. At the height of the reality TV craze, the UFC used “The Ultimate Fighter” to gain attention, culminating in the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight that is routinely hailed as the UFC’s breakout moment. To this day, the UFC uses performance bonuses (“Knockout of the Night,” “Fight of the Night”) to promote entertaining bouts.
The UFC owes no apologies for these moves: The company abandoned a product with a very limited future in favor of what has become one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet. Recently, however, the UFC announced a decision that prompts the question, How much is too much?
|Chael Sonnen (above) and Jon Jones, coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter,” will fight on April 27.
From a marketing standpoint, the pairing could be a masterstroke. The UFC’s reality show has delivered disappointing ratings in its first year on FX (it had been on Spike TV prior to this year), and while the show’s new Friday night time slot has been a major factor, it’s not the only one. FX will move “The Ultimate Fighter” to a weeknight in 2013, and the Jones-Sonnen pairing is expected to boost ratings.
Jones, meanwhile, has had his own issues. With many of the UFC’s top names retired or nearing retirement, the 25-year-old champion should be a marketer’s dream. Young, talented and blessed with an impressive array of skills, Jones has rocketed to the top of the sport, capturing the title less than three years after his pro debut, and he’s a natural top figure to help the UFC grow in the African-American market. In August, Jones became the first MMA fighter to sign a global sponsorship deal with Nike, an indication of his perceived marketing potential.
However, Jones’ actual marketability has been slow to materialize. The young champion hasn’t established himself as a pay-per-view draw, and his May 19 arrest on DUI charges rubbed fans the wrong way, contributing to an overall sentiment that Jones’ public persona is manufactured rather than genuine. Following the DUI embarrassment, Jones further damaged his credibility with UFC fans in August, just as Sonnen came into the picture.
Sonnen was the only fighter willing to step up on short notice when an injury to Dan Henderson left Jones without an opponent for UFC 151. Jones, however, refused the switch, leading to the UFC’s first cancellation of an event. While Sonnen taunted the champion, Jones moved on to defeat Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, injuring his elbow in the process. With injury rehab sidelining Jones until spring, the timing led the UFC to match Jones with Sonnen, on “The Ultimate Fighter” and in the octagon.
In this context, Sonnen is the perfect foil for Jones, as the loquacious Oregonian has evolved into one of the UFC’s most recognizable fighters. More important, Sonnen has a track record of helping an opponent rebuild his brand. When UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva was matched with Sonnen at UFC 117 two years ago, Silva’s marketability had suffered in the wake of several bizarre, disinterested performances, which left White threatening to cut him from the UFC. Sonnen, however, built up the rivalry in the media and challenged Silva in the cage, bringing out the best in one of the sport’s all-time greats. Since first encountering Sonnen, Silva has approached his fights with more gusto, cemented his reputation as an all-time great, and had his sponsorship deal with Nike elevated to the global level. Sonnen deserves much of the credit for that (not to mention the 1 million buys for their July rematch), and now he’s being tapped to help revitalize two brands: “Bones” Jones and “The Ultimate Fighter.”
The problem is that Sonnen, who has never won a UFC bout at light heavyweight, has done nothing to prove himself as a contender in the division. Until recently, White had said that Sonnen would not be allowed to talk his way into a title shot against Jones. Instead, Sonnen appears to have done exactly that, to benefit both Jones and “The Ultimate Fighter,” while more qualified contenders wait behind him. Pundits of the fight game complain that the integrity of the sport has clearly taken a back seat to the marketing of the sport, and they’re right. However, in this particular instance, that might be OK.
If Sonnen’s fast track to an unearned title shot is a one-time deal, and if it helps elevate Jones into a top draw and bring in bigger ratings for “The Ultimate Fighter,” then it would be hard to say that the move wasn’t worthwhile. However, if more title shots are handed out based more on marketability than merit, there could be trouble ahead.
Elliot Olshansky (email@example.com) is a second-year MBA student at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business and has written about mixed martial arts for SI.com, UFC.com and UltimateFighter.com.
■ Inside the NFL: Respondents have Commissioner Roger Goodell as the most influential executive in sports business; they agree with his actions on Bountygate and trying to clean up the game. The concussion issue is seen as the No. 1 threat facing the NFL, and it’s the reason why 56 percent of those who voted don’t want their children playing football. Keep an eye on the participatory trends of youth football.
On the business side, the NFL is clearly seen as the property a corporate sponsor would most want to align with, as 53 percent had the league as tops. But 29 percent said the NFL was the most overpriced sports property.
When it comes to the NFL on TV, you voted like many of the experts do, ranking NBC’s team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth as the top duo calling the games. What I found interesting was the viewer habits: The 1 p.m. ET window is largely everyone’s favorite for watching the NFL, but what surprised me most was the less-than-overwhelming interest around “Monday Night Football,” as only 7 percent cited that historic time slot as their favorite.
■ Readers nailed it on NBA Commissioner David Stern’s future. Even before he made his retirement announcement, nearly 26 percent predicted correctly that he would step down after the 2013-14 season, with 61 percent also correctly predicting that Adam Silver would be the heir.
■ MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was ranked second among the commissioners readers would most want to work for. This doesn’t surprise me when I hear time and again from staffers at MLB who declare their loyalty to him and rave about his leadership.
■ More gains for the Olympic movement. Over the years we’ve asked, in some shape or form, about the perceived value of attaching your brand to either FIFA’s World Cup or the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Previously, FIFA came out comfortably ahead of the Summer Games and far ahead of the Winter Games. But with the success of the Summer Games in London, this year respondents voted 45 percent for both the World Cup and the Summer Games, with the Winter Games getting 10 percent.
■ I’ve been watching the growth potential of UFC, and there were mixed messages in the survey. While 10 percent thought UFC had the most growth potential among properties, ranking it second after MLS, on the question of whether it’s peaked in popularity, 53 percent said yes, while 39 percent said there was room for growth.
■ Finally, this survey of insiders should dispel any questions you had about the powerful pull of Augusta National. Augusta ranked atop the most-storied venues that readers would like to visit, and it was the golf course readers would most want to play. The Masters ranked second only to the Super Bowl as the event readers most like to attend.
GOING BACK THROUGH THE ARCHIVES …
Three key news events came a year ago this week:
> One was the surprising resignation of ESPN President George Bodenheimer, with the news that he would be succeeded by John Skipper. One of the questions we added to this year’s Reader Survey was if ESPN had a different culture under Skipper. Of the 678 responses, nearly 30 percent said yes, 21 percent said no and a whopping 50 percent had no opinion. It’s a tough question to discern so early on. ESPN is still the 800-pound gorilla of the sports marketplace. With Skipper at the helm, it is still making the same kind of massive rights deals that it made under Bodenheimer. The transition really has been seamless. The only difference I see is in tone. Two different personalities publicly — and both work very effectively. Skipper is quotable, while Bodenheimer kept it close to the vest. Two examples stand out that show Skipper’s style, and both took place at our conferences. Last December, Skipper made one of his first public appearances in his new role at our Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, and he gave a forceful and passionate defense of ESPN’s editorial actions in its coverage of the story about Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine (“I do not agree we acted inappropriately.”) and its handling of the Penn State scandal (“Penn State had a problem with their institution within their chain of command. This is not about something that happened at ESPN.”). Then, just a few weeks ago, he used an industry event to quell any notion that the NBA had influenced ESPN’s decision not to hire Stan Van Gundy, sitting next to NBA Commissioner Stern and saying, “I will state categorically that the decision not to hire Stan Van Gundy was my decision and only my decision.” It’s nuance, both styles obviously work but that’s the biggest difference I see so far in the company under the two leaders.
> One year ago, the NBA ended its 149-day lockout with a 10-year CBA. It’s still too early to declare long-range winners and losers in this deal, but just one year in, the league finds itself in one of the strongest financial positions it has seen in years. Overall league revenue is projected to reach $5 billion, and team profitability, a hallmark for the league in the negotiations, will likely be on the rise. But the true impact of the CBA has yet to be seen, given that the more punitive luxury tax increases on player spending don’t begin until next season. Only when the new penalties are in place will we really see if the deal will curb a team’s willingness to spend above the cap, which was a key driver for Stern and Silver, creating more equality between high-grossing-revenue and low-grossing-revenue clubs.
> Also, one year ago marked the death of Ted Forstmann, who became a figure in the sports world in 2004 when he bought IMG for $750 million. IMG quickly named COO Mike Dolan to lead the company, and in the past year, the erudite Dolan has continued to build IMG’s presence globally with new deals in India and Turkey while letting Ben Sutton lead the way on the company’s vast college business. It will now be interesting to watch how the effective operator Dolan positions the company for a sale, an offering largely expected in the next 12 months.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women now account for 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base, according to league officials. In 2011, Nielsen’s NFL ratings climbed from 3.7 to 3.9 in the 18- to 34-year-old female demographic, and the number of women participating in fantasy football doubled. Consider further that shopper marketing data from the Boston Consulting Group points to 70 percent of household purchasing decisions being made by women, and the value of the female fan skyrockets.
So how do you get her attention?
The NFL first advertised licensed women’s apparel two years ago. Heading into the 2012-13 season the league rolled out the female-focused “It’s My Team” campaign, featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Olympic women’s tennis champion Serena Williams, sportscaster Melissa Stark and other influential women sporting stylish NFL team apparel. Having brands like Nike, 5th and Ocean, Little Earth and Cuce Shoes on board helps send the message that NFL apparel for women is fashionable, hip and perfectly acceptable to wear any day of the week, not just Sunday. Even the fashion media has taken notice, with coverage of these initiatives appearing in Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times fashion blog.
|The Chargers’ Lightning Ladies (right) and the 49ers’ Faithfulistas use branded merchandise to drive membership.
Using merchandise to cultivate this female fandom is a powerful marketing play for America’s most popular sport. From nail polish in team colors to jewelry to sunglasses, a tangible representation of your brand in the hands of your most avid supporters promotes positive brand exposure outside the stadium.
Just ask the handful of NFL teams that are in touch with their feminine side.
Women’s affinity clubs have started to spring up across the league as a way to engage the female fan. The Baltimore Ravens became the first NFL team to offer such a club when it launched Purple in 2007. Six other franchises followed suit: Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.
The Chargers partnered with new hospital sponsor UC San Diego to form the Lightning Ladies in 2011. At launch, 5 percent of the $50 membership fee proceeds went to the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign. All marketing efforts were financed by the sponsor, including focus groups with season-ticket holders, radio spots, in-stadium messaging, email blasts, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and PR outreach. The first 150 women who signed up were invited to a fashion show at Qualcomm Stadium featuring players’ wives.
The team is also using branded merchandise to drive membership. For the club’s inaugural season, my firm, BDA, worked with the Chargers to create a kit of Lightning Ladies products following a beach theme. Items included a bedazzled beach tote, hat and T-shirt, flip-flops, and a personalized membership card good for discounts at the team store. Among this season’s gifts are a military cap, distressed thermal and polished silver charm bracelet.
“Merchandise is key to fans feeling like they are getting value for their membership fee,” said Jennifer Stakiw, Chargers marketing partnerships coordinator. “We have to make sure each piece is unique and custom and that it’s a style that appeals to our female fans. The charity portion also helps sell the memberships, but these women want to wear their merchandise to games and show off their Lightning Ladies pride.”
San Francisco introduced its women’s affinity club, the Faithfulistas, this year. Along with access to VIP events and viewing parties, members receive a Faithfulistas tote bag, T-shirt, cap, koozie, football-shaped spirit beads and mirror compact.
“The Faithfulistas was the vision of our owner Denise DeBartolo York and her daughters, Jenna and Mara, to help grow our female fan base, so it’s been great to see this come to fruition,” said 49ers marketing manager Krista Olson.
The potential for growth is unmistakable. Baltimore and Washington boast memberships of more than 25,000, and Houston secured State Farm as a presenting sponsor of its Battle Red Ladies club.
The takeaway for the league, teams and sponsors is to avoid the pitfall of discounting the female fan. She not only knows the bubble screen is her team’s most underutilized weapon, but she also is typically her family’s play-caller when it comes to choosing a new car, appliance, insurance company or phone plan. She is more valuable to a marketer than a Super Bowl ad.
Let’s not keep her waiting on the sideline.
Jay Deutsch (email@example.com) is co-founder and CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates Inc. (bdainc.com). BDA is a premium soft goods and hard goods provider of the NFL and holds licensing agreements with MLB, NCAA, NHL, NASCAR and the U.S. Olympic Committee.