In an atmosphere where women’s sports leagues are just barely keeping their heads above water, the UFC has found a formula which makes them the exception to the rule. Since 2001, the UFC has maintained a steady growth by showing respect for the MMA disciplines while demonstrating a highly effective marketing strategy. Partnerships with sponsors who have adopted the same approach have proven to be the means for exponential growth.
The women’s side has taken just a little longer to build a dedicated fan base, but the growing popularity of fighters like Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate has proven that the women athletes within a sport can be as much of a draw as the men when they show the same commitment to the craft. Sponsors, particularly those who have recognized that the way to a woman athlete’s heart and pocketbook is through products which focus on the performance and not just the fashion of their offerings, have found a perfect partner in the UFC. These sponsors have caught on to the fact that for these fans, their support of the fighters goes beyond just wanting to watch them compete. Martial arts have always crossed gender lines, far earlier in fact than many other sports. Sponsors promoting a fitness lifestyle which recognizes that their customers are not just wanting to look good on the couch, but actually get into the gym and train, are finding that they have struck a resonant chord. Gone are the days of one pretty, pink v-neck version of the dozens of men’s offerings for the women wanting fight gear.
The Fan Expo event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas went on all day July 5 and 6 and showcased the celebrities and sponsors of the sport at the tail end of UFC Fight Week. Dana White, in comments made to both the fans and the press was abundant in his praise for the women fighters in general and for Rousey in particular. He was clear to say that the focus of the UFC has always been to find and promote the best fighters in the world, regardless of gender.
He has put his money where his mouth is more than most commissioners and league presidents. Rousey is one of the biggest draws for the sport, and has been given top billing. Tate is another top fighter, with a huge following of her own. Both are sponsored by apparel companies which are thriving by virtue of not just their alignment with the fighters, but with the level of quality they bring to their products. A representative from Venum, the apparel company who sponsors Tate and an entire stable of male fighters, attributed a lot of their success to their focus on function and performance in the gear they sell. The considerable growth of their company as opposed to some with products which are primarily decorative, would seem to support that assertion.
Given that this approach has been a proven recipe for success with male consumers of fitness apparel, it seems fairly intuitive that the same would apply with the women. It has not, however, been the case for years. There are a number of companies who have never caught on, and seen their profits diminish over the last few years despite the success of women’s MMA. Companies like Fight Chix and Venum, however, are seeing the benefits of catering to their female customers rather than patronizing them. Given the passion and loyalty of the UFC fans, and the marketing platform which the association with them provides, the growth trajectory for these companies projects to mirror that of the sport. The ceiling is nowhere in sight.
Commentary By Jim Malone