The mixed martial arts industry has seen its ups and downs over the years. What began as a fringe sport outlawed all over the country is now mainstream and a big part of that success is due to the world’s foremost MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, who first began promoting fights back in 1993.
The bloodsport attracted hardcore martial arts fans and wide-eyed spectators right from the beginning but due to the limited rule sets and regulations government bodies began getting involved and outlawing what was seen by many to be nothing more than “human cockfighting”.
This of course negatively affected pay-per-view sales and the limited sponsorships the sport had been able to acquire up until that point. The fledgling sport was on its deathbed until the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC in 2001 and put promoter Dana White at the helm as president. The billionaire brothers sunk a lot of money into the promotion and worked hard at getting the sport regulated by state athletic commissions around the country.
In 2005 The Ultimate Fighter premiered on Spike TV. It was an MMA reality show where the participants would train and then fight each other in a tournament-style format with winners receiving a UFC contract. The light heavyweight finale between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin is now credited with being the blockbuster fight that saved the UFC. Millions upon millions tuned into that fight, the mixed martial arts industry was forever changed and it paved the way for future stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.
There was a time when you would see fighters walk into the octagon and their team would hold a banner filled with different sponsor logos all over it. They would also have their own style of clothing and different brands could sponsor what they wore into the octagon. That all changed when the UFC partnered with Reebok in 2015. Fighters were no longer able to wear anything they wanted, and not only that, but the UFC also had to approve fighter sponsorships and even got a cut of the money in some cases.
Most would agree the Reebok deal with UFC really hurt the MMA industry as a whole. At least it hurt the amount of money that was going into the pockets of these professional athletes. However, MMA fighters are a creative and ingenious bunch and they have found other ways to capitalize and make the best of the situation.
Casinos promoting fighters is becoming more popular and lucrative for business. Fighters like UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson and former light heavyweight champ Rampage Jackson make a good income from live game streaming. Fighters who have a large social media following are able to leverage that exposure with new sponsorship opportunities, and the list goes on.
Of course, outside the UFC it’s fair play for all. Fighters are allowed to have banners and the clothing sponsors of their choice. They can get sponsorships from who they choose and there is still a lot of exposure for brands available online, on network television and even pay-per-view.
The UFC has always put the brand first and while it has allowed them the mega-success they have achieved and revolutionized the industry as a whole, it often seems that the athletes are the ones in there paying the price with their blood and brains. Everyone has to make their own choices though and weigh the risks with the rewards. But the mixed martial arts industry is apparently here to stay. The hope is it will be as lucrative and safe as possible for all the athletes involved.