Jun 25, 2009 at 03:20 PM
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UFC Zigs as Leagues Zag on Sponsorship Policy

While many sports organizations are relaxing restrictions on in-game sponsor assets and warming up to previously banned categories like casinos, state lotteries and alcohol, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is headed the other direction it appears. According to MMA site, fiveouncesofpain.com, the UFC has started imposing a $100k minimum fee (to UFC) for the right of brands to sponsor a fighter in UFC-sanctioned events. An email distributed to fighters and agents also expands the "unnaceptable sponsors" list to include brands like Dethrone, One More Round, Rolling Stone and online Poker sponsors such as Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Party Poker.

For instance, take the journey of Full Tilt Poker. Full Tilt Poker in the past has heavily supported both fighters and the organization. However, the UFC then took a harsher stance towards online gaming (according to MMAnews.com because of conflicts with casinos where fights were hosted and the legal issues around online gambling). Like other leagues looking for revenue in a soft economy, the UFC recently changed their informal policy and brought in Full Tilt as a top shelf sponsor at which time they became a major sponsor of fighters, with their logo being omnipresent on fighter hats, shorts, and T-shirts. But then the saga took another turn when just one month later UFC television partner Spike TV nixed Full Tilt from being a sponsor on its’ broadcasts and now UFC has announced that "Full Tilt will not be allowed for any upcoming UFC events." Whatever the impetus, the UFC is clearly not afraid to shuffle their stance on sponsorships. This is in direct contrast to other sports leagues who seek out long term partnerships and change sponsorship policies once a year, if that.

Now reports are circulating about a minimum fee for the right to endorse, which could stir a whole lot more controversy. Like most mature leagues, media (in the octagon and on TV) is a major component of official sponsorship and in a sport so deeply rooted in individual personalities, fighter endorsements have the potential to erode the league's sponsorship pricing power. Nevertheless, could you ever see the WTA or ATP Tour going so far as to set the market price for player patches? Secondly, the constant influx of new fighters, frequent variation in hierarchy and uncertainty of upcoming fight cards could make sponsors reticent to take the risk of sponsoring fighters who are not guaranteed UFC fights (and thus media/airtime). Finally, while not likely some have speculated that in a sport with fluctuating schedules, an athlete/org sponsor conflict could have the potential to influence the fight card itself.

The UFC has raised the profile of both MMA as an entertainment property and its fighters (as marketable athletes) and while I haven't seen any formal studies to the effect, I would argue that UFC sponsors/licensors like Tapout have fan loyalty that ranks up with any major sports league's sponsors. UFC has the right to protect their sponsor equity, but this is a decision that is sure to cause some angst among the leagues' greatest assets - it's fighters.

Will this new strategy work? Do you agree with the UFC's stance on sponsorship?