Inside Sponsorship and Marketing Surrounding UFC’s International Fight Week

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The world of mixed martial arts descends upon Las Vegas each July in search of high-caliber fights. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, now celebrating its 25th year as a promotion, honors the sport each summer with a plethora of events along the Vegas strip.

The action inside the octagon may be the main draw, however, the brands that piece together the weeklong festivities play a significant role. By leveraging real-time interactions with its core demographics, these companies are provided with instant feedback from consumers, while delivering their message.

Leading up to each fight night, MMA purists are rewarded with the UFC Fan Experience, a two-day fan expo in Sin City where athletes, coaches, television hosts, and ring girls were on-hand to meet their dedicated fan base.

SPONSORSHIPS

While the company provides a surplus of happenings, its brand sponsors and partnerships play a large role in activating these free opportunities made available to the public.

Modelo, the official beer sponsor of the UFC within the United States, inked a deal in 2018 after Anheuser-Busch’s longtime presence with Bud Light.

“When Bud Light signed on to be our sponsor, it sent a significant message that UFC was a real player in the sports landscape,” UFC Chief Operating Officer Ike Lawrence Epstein said. “It gave us a tremendous amount of credibility with other sponsors. Television networks and venues, anybody involved in the business of sports entertainment around the world.”

The nature of the Modelo deal allows the UFC to partner with other beer companies in international markets.

“Our Bud Light deal was a global deal so it prevented us from doing activation and creating sponsorship relationships with local beer companies in really important markets around the world,” Epstein said.

The U.S. beer sponsor has prime real estate on the octagon’s canvas where fighters stand before each contest begins. The company also made a short film leading up to UFC 226, featuring Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.

MARKETING

While the UFC does a valiant effort in promoting its athletes and live events, the business of sports marketing provides an opportunity for brands to increase their return on investment.

The most popular activation on-site was created by BodyArmor, UFC’s official sports drink. Combat sports fans tested their strength on a punching machine, while taking photos and getting autographs from current athletes on the roster.

BodyArmor co-founder Mike Repole, who helped found Vitamin Water and SmartWater, said he sees parallels between the drink and the sport.

“UFC is to boxing what BodyArmor is to Gatorade,” he said. “People are looking for newer and better.”

The sports drink company, backed by NBA champion Kobe Bryant, has a large presence at all UFC events.

Another partner with a unique spin on fan engagement comes from MetroPCS, the exclusive wireless provider of the UFC.

For each pay-per-view event, current and former fighters sit on the ‘Purple Couch’ and participate in Reddit AMA’s, along with live commentary on-site during broadcasts.

Utilizing social media is a key component to their delivery according to Brand Marketing Manager Lauren McCann.

“Twitter offers brands the opportunity to be in the moment and engage in real time with fans as they are talking about events. We’re able to get people from all over in on the action and build personal relationships with our audience,” she said.

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If sports documentaries are your forte, Toyo Tires provides fans in-depth coverage with its “Embedded” series. During fight week, UFC cameras get unprecedented access, traveling with athletes as they prepare for battle in this behind-the-scenes style cinema.

“We are very proud of our exclusive, longtime partnership with UFC,” said Amy Coleman, senior director of marketing, Toyo Tire U.S.A. Corp. “We reach millions of passionate UFC fans globally, exposing them to our brand and attitude.”

With the new UFC-ESPN broadcasting deal set to take place in 2019, the stakes have never been higher for the fight promotion. Its OTT streaming service (ESPN+) has been growing since its launch in April, with original content added specifically for MMA fans, such as “Ariel & The Bad Guy.”

International Fight Week was billed as a platform to showcase and celebrate the best of mixed martial arts. By all accounts, it exceeded expectations and hyped up the fastest growing sport in the world.

The UFC, unlike the traditional big four American sports, has no off-season. Once the pay-per-view goes dark, they shift gears to the next city, state, or host country. The global sport has untapped potential with key markets looking to capitalize on its popularity. The challenge is for sponsors and brand partners to create exciting deliverable content that fight fans can connect with.