Joining the Fight: Marketers Start Sponsoring Mixed Martial Arts

IFL Experiments With Patches on Fighters' Shorts

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NEW YORK -- Rory Markham looks at it this way.

"Kobe Bryant has a $12 million home," said Mr. Markham, a mixed-martial-arts fighter in the International Fight League. "He didn't get that from his NBA contract—at least not alone. He got it from his [former] endorsement with Sprite; he got it from [Nike]."
Just below the blood stains is an ad for a dojo.

Looking to cash in

Now Mr. Markham and the rest of the IFL are looking to cash in on the growing wave of sports sponsorship and endorsements. The IFL last week began experimenting with patches worn on fighters' shorts, and Mr. Markham -- one of the IFL's best fighters -- was the guinea pig, wearing a patch for a dojo, or teaching gym.

Mr. Markham is used to putting other people on their butts, not wearing advertising on his own. But he and IFL co-founder Gareb Shamus believe there is a growing, untapped market of mixed-martial-arts fans that will accept the fighters as endorsers.

"What we want to do is create amazing opportunities for our athletes," Mr. Shamus said. "By using our leverage in the marketplace, we can provide these benefits to them. It's a way for them to make extra money, and I believe there are companies out there that want our guys. We can control all the integration of sponsors."

Mixed martial arts is a team sport in the IFL. Although the fighters go mano a mano in the ring, they belong to eight teams scattered throughout the country. Each match consists of several fights, and the team with the most wins in head-to-head matchups earns the overall victory.

Sponsor patches and temporary tattoos

Unlike the leagues for team sports such as baseball and football, which do not allow athletes with individual endorsements to put sponsor patches on their uniforms, the IFL is a single entity that controls all inventory in the arena, in the ring and on apparel. It can negotiate traditional signage but can also tailor a program for sponsor patches and even temporary tattoos on the athletes' backs. The fighters themselves are free to negotiate their own sponsorship deals, within taste and reason.

The IFL, which is seen weekly on Fox Sports Net on Fridays and on My Network TV on Mondays, is also working on live ads for its TV partners that would include advertising on apparel for the between-round ring girls and on the turnbuckles in the four corners of the ring.

So far, Mr. Shamus is pleased with what he's seen. The program "IFL Battleground" has attracted more than 7 million viewers in the first four weeks of the IFL on the fledgling, year-old My Network TV.

"It really is open to anything," Mr. Shamus said. "If we have a regional sponsor that wants to get on a local event, we'll create that opportunity. If a national sponsor is interested in a single guy, we can make that happen too. If a national sponsor wants to lock up a team, that's great."

Toned-down violence

Mr. Shamus and his peers at other mixed-martial-arts entities such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting Championships have toned down the violence considerably from the sport's early days in the 1990s, where blood and broken bones were common. Now rules are in place to prevent such incidents, and mixed martial arts is more widely accepted.

Mr. Markham likens the opportunity to when ESPN started broadcasting its X Games about 10 years ago and brought extreme sports such as skateboarding and cycling into the forefront.

"I couldn't think of a better metaphor," he said. "You look at their helmets and their bikes and their patches, and it's a whole new venue for people to reach these markets. You don't have to seek a new demographic. This is a brand-new sport for people to get in on. There are a lot of new markets, and there is the potential to have great new ad campaigns."
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