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UFC 100: Buyers Beware

July 12, 2009

UFC 100 should have ended with the entire UFC family in smiles (except for the guys who lost of course…) The sport had just completed it’s largest pay-per-view, brought home huge revenue dollars and provided its fans with a great card of fights.

But there were definitely some HUGE groans from those in the UFC camp in charge of corporate sponsorship.

In the interviews following the headline match, Heavyweight Champ Brock Lesnar yells out, “I’m gonna go have a Coor’s Light, because Bud Light won’t pay me any money.”

Just after the fight, Lesnar was a chastened man, as UFC Commish Dana White lit into him for that comment. According to Sport’s Illustrated’s Arash Markazi, he was drinking a Bud Light, and said he “loves Bud Light, and must have caught a knee to the head.” (Read the entire SI article here.)

Now Lesnar’s beer preference doesn’t really matter. But what does matter is that Bud Light was the alcohol sponsor for the event. And if I work for Anheuser Busch, I’m calling up UFC first thing Monday morning and asking for a discount.

“I was blown away,” White said to Markazi. “I don’t think in the history of the UFC we’ve ever had someone do something like that. It’s not who we are and it’s not who he is.”

But that is who they are. At least to a large portion of their fans. And that’s the problem with UFC that will make it hard for big corporate sponsors to line up, even as the sports popularity continues to skyrocket.

The sport is unpredictable. You have no code-of-conduct, no dress code, and I doubt Lesnar will receive a huge fine the way that he would have if he played in a major sports league. And that is why every bar I walked past Saturday night was packed. It’s a great event for the fans.

But, since it’s unpredictable, you have no control over the message your sponsorship might send. Do you really want to pay big money to have a guy bash your company on TV?

UFC Commissioner Dana White knows this, which is why he chewed Lesnar out after the fight. But there may be more problems than just Lesnar’s antics.

The main events are all Pay-Per-View, so your presence is to a degree lost on most viewers. To watch a PPV fight, you’re probably going to a bar or a house party. And no one is going to this bar or throwing down 50 bucks for the PPV and not turning into an event. Which means there is alcohol.

So your sponsorship dollars are basically you betting (or hoping) that the beer-soaked viewers will pick up on your presence from the two ringside ads you have. Probably not the greatest choice ever, but again, you could say the same about a big NFL game as well. Even though you get commercials, you have to pay to produce them, and most people are channel-surfing or fixing a sandwich or otherwise avoiding your commercial.

And that’s why it all comes back to Lesnar’s comments. At least in the NFL, the players are not going to stand up at the end of a game and bash the title sponsor. Can you imagine at the end of the NCAA Tournament, the winning coach says he’s going to go have a Diet Pepsi Max instead of a Coke Zero?

The unpredictability, and the “real” factor of UFC’s athletes are what fans love about it. But until they get a better handle on their athletes, sponsorship will still remain a real gamble and a better target for niche brands, such as Jack Link’s or Cazadores, then a major target for the corporate world’s sponsorship dollars.

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Devin Kunysz watched Lesnar beat Mir while drinking Shocktop, his new favorite wheat beer, in Pacific Beach.

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