A Once No-Holds-Barred Slugfest Becomes Marketer Friendly

Founder of New Fight League Goes Legit With William Morris Agency

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NEW YORK -- Mark Burnett was able to turn his new boxing league into a magnet for marketers with "The Contender," luring the likes of Toyota and Home Depot into the ring. But will Gareb Shamus be able to do the same for the International Fight League and turn it into a viable branded-entertainment vehicle?
A comic book mogul wants to turn the IFL into a legitimate sports league, with teams of fighters in different cities, and has Hollywood representation to help attract marketers.

The co-founder of the International Fight League, Mr. Shamus is trying to build a legitimate professional sport based on mixed fighting styles -- a combination of boxing, wrestling, karate, judo and other martial arts -- and part of his marketing message is to "change people's perception that it's a no-holds-barred fighting," he said.

Cleaning up the brutality

"The sport is sanctioned in 32 states, so the states regulate heavily what the guys can and can't do," said Mr. Shamus, who founded and is the chairman of Wizard Entertainment, a publishing company of five magazines geared toward fans of comic books, super-hero figures and video games, and is the second largest producer of fan-related shows, behind Comic-Con. "What we've done is taken the rules and made them even more strict to create a safer environment. We've moved it out of a cage and into an oversized boxing ring. We've eliminated elbow strikes to the head, which eliminates 95% of the blood."

Now Mr. Shamus and his partner, Kurt Otto, appear to be finding that legitimacy. With plans to take the company public and a formal launch in 2007 of a 16-team IFL league, several major sponsors are on board and the IFL has just signed two deals, hiring Dan Klores Communications to assist in a wide-ranging branding and awareness campaign for the launch and signing with the William Morris Agency for representation in Hollywood.

WMA will focus on securing new, expansive TV and venue opportunities for the IFL and its athletes.

"We are very excited about this partnership with the International Fight League," WMA's Marc Geiger said in a statement. Mixed martial arts "is one of the fastest-growing properties in sports and entertainment, and we think that the IFL has put together a solid, strategic plan to be successful as both a sports property and a business entity for the long term."

Marketing a team concept

What the IFL is doing different than its two chief rivals (Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride) is creating a team concept in what has been an individual sport. Fighters will be placed with one of 16 teams in cities across the U.S., as well as in Toronto and Tokyo, and will compete over a six-month season. Each event will have five bouts in different weight classes.

The idea of the team concept, Mr. Shamus said, was to further fan interest in the franchise cities and better leverage the IFL with potential sponsors.

"I think those are aspects that make it very interesting for us as a sponsor, and I think they have a lot of potential," Bill Nielsen, senior director for global partnerships for Microsoft's Xbox gaming unit, told the Bergen Record in New Jersey. Microsoft, along with Coca-Cola and Sandals Resorts, have signed on as sponsors of the IFL. "If it keeps developing at the pace it has been, we're going to be really excited that we got in early."

The deal with WMA will then try to put the IFL and its fighters into the psyche of the mainstream sports fan.

TV deals and concert co-promotions

"There are two components to the deal with William Morris," Mr. Shamus said. "We're working with their TV group, both domestic and international. Right now we're on Fox Sports Net [and are currently negotiating for the 2007 TV rights]. The other part is working with their concert and venue group. William Morris is one of the largest representation firms out there and not only handles musicians, but their concert tours. They've put together some of the biggest tours in the world. If we could do a co-promotion of one of our shows with a concert, it would be fabulous. We're walking in with the weight and the power of the William Morris Agency behind us."

Up first: a deal with model Janice Dickinson's show on Oxygen. Potential ring-card girls for the IFL will compete on Ms. Dickinson's show.

Mr. Shamus also benefits by having the marketing power of Wizard Entertainment as a cross-platform with the IFL. At his last comics convention, Wizard drew 60,000 fans to a show in Chicago -- and Mr. Shamus trotted out several of his IFL fighters and put on several demonstrations.

Marketing machine in place

"I have a marketing machine in place where I already reach over 3 million guys a month with magazines in 40 countries and in 10 languages," he said. "I understand the licensing and merchandising end of it. I understand how to promote. I think being able to leverage a lot of the assets of Wizard -- from marketing to office space to accounting to production -- helps with the IFL."

It also helps to have key people in place, and Mr. Shamus has brought on Joel Ehrlich, the former senior VP-consumer products at Warner Bros., and former Marvel Entertainment chief Bill Jemas to the IFL's board of advisors.

"We're building a tremendous organization," Mr. Shamus said. "I think it's going to work."
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