NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sen. John McCain once called it "repugnant" and labeled it no better than "human cockfighting."
Now marketers that once steered clear of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting because of its brutality can't get enough of a sport that has grown, cleaned up its act and become one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
Blue-chip brands such as Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Sony Pictures, Burger King, Harley-Davidson, Schick and even the U.S. Navy all vie for ad time on telecasts of the popular Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) series, a booming $2.5 billion business that is holding another of its popular events, UFC 119, on Saturday night.
"I know I've converted," says David Goodrich, senior VP-digital communications director at Universal McCann, Los Angeles.
Mr. Goodrich handles the media account for Sony Pictures Entertainment, which has used UFC telecasts on Spike TV and on its pay-per-view events to advertise its action and horror films such as "Resident Evil: Afterlife."
"I think a lot of it has to do with live programming being the best way to aggregate an audience," Mr. Goodrich said. "MMA has come around and implemented changes to make the sport a lot more spectator-friendly. A lot of brands need to reach a large audience, and this is one way to do it."
Since 1998, when Mr. McCain first made his remarks, perception of the sport has gradually changed. Many who viewed it as a no-holds-barred, blood-fest brawl more commonly seen in a bar parking lot have come to see it as an evolved version of fighting that incorporates boxing and elements of karate, judo, jujitsu, wrestling and more.
David Cohn, senior VP-sales for CraveOnline, the parent company of MMA news destination site Sherdog.com, said the sport has become more upscale.
"People are willing to pay thousands of dollars to sit ringside at UFC events, just like they used to do for boxing in its heyday," Mr. Cohn said. "Marketers are looking at this and saying, 'Hey, there's something going on here.'"
Mr. Cohn was instrumental in working with Schick's Edge Shaving Gel to create a microsite on Sherdog.com called the Schick Training Corner.
"Edge is a sponsor of UFC, so we worked with them on developing some concepts that were broader than just running a home-page block," Mr. Cohn said. "So we created a whole training center where users can get advice, even from people outside the MMA world, like sports medicine folks who talk about how to recover from a workout. We're trying to give our users some great content."
"When we took over the brand from SC Johnson, we wanted put more of a focus on brand-building," said Jeffrey Wolf, senior brand manager for Edge, which was recently purchased by Energizer Holdings. "The first way out of the gate was to link up with passion points for our target . One of the great ways was looking at MMA and something that Gillette didn't own. We know this is a growing arena, and we could start from the ground floor and continue to build with it."
It's one way that Edge has set itself apart from its market-leading competitor. Where Gillette uses upscale sports stars such as Roger Federer and Derek Jeter, Edge has leveraged its association with MMA and initiatives such as teaming up with Funny or Die to create the Edge Anti-Irritation website, where it has comedian Jon Caparulo riffing on whatever seems to be irritating him at the moment.
Mr. Wolf said Edge plans on committing more advertising dollars to MMA when its new fiscal year budget goes into effect next month.
"Look, I'll tell you my perspective on the whole thing," he said. "When UFC first came out, I was like, 'What is this thing?' But it's grown, and now I hear the buzz. I have kids. I go to Toys R Us, and I see the UFC [action figure] dolls. It's a sport that's organic and different. It's not really grassroots anymore."