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UFC Uniforms: The Good, the Bad, the Money

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UFC Uniforms

by Jan Louis Gaetjens

On Tuesday morning the UFC rolled out its long-awaited “athlete outfitting policy”. Effective July 2015, Reebok will be the exclusive clothing sponsor of the promotion and its roster of fighters. Let’s take a look at what this means for fighters, fans, and the fashion police.

UFC Uniforms: The Good

Although the UFC has not disclosed the financial details of the partnership, broad revenue distribution seems to be a cornerstone of deal’s structure. According to Lorenzo Fertitta, the UFC will be distributing “the vast majority, if not all, of the revenues that are coming from this deal” directly to fighters. Compensation will be based on a fighter’s rank leading into an Octagon appearance, and, in theory, the new structure serves as an added source of guaranteed income that also incentivizes performance. The abolition of outside sponsorship on fighter apparel also relieves some of the pressure on lesser-known fighters to secure individual corporate sponsors, a process that can be tedious at best, downright nightmarish at worst.

In his Tuesday press conference, Fertitta also alluded to a philanthropic component of the deal, which would see an unspecific percentage of Reebok-branded UFC product sales going to Fight for Peace. Founded in 2000, the non-profit organization brings martial arts and youth support services to underserved communities worldwide.

The introduction of a promotion-wide clothing sponsor and uniform policy also represents another chapter in the UFC’s push for professionalization of the sport. MMA fans have known for years that the Tank Abbott days are well behind us; mixed martial artists are athletes on par with their colleagues in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Nevertheless, the McCain-ian “human cockfighting” adage is still the dominant narrative among those unfamiliar with the sport. Every additional degree of standardization that the UFC can introduce helps further the organization’s commitment to making MMA a sport held in the same regard as America’s big four. In many ways this is little more than a logical extension of the 2012 policy change that saw firearm, knife, and ammunition sponsors banned from the promotion.

UFC Uniforms: The Bad

XFO 51It’s somewhat of a misnomer to call this “The Bad,” simply because concrete numbers don’t yet exist on how this will affect individual fighters financially, but the new deal has not been wholly free of criticism.

The biggest losers in this new playing field are MMA-specific apparel brands. Companies like Hayabusa, Venum and Bad Boy are now effectively left out in the cold. While fighters will be able to continue their personal endorsement deals outside of official UFC events, the loss of televised exposure will force a shift in marketing strategy on the part of companies whose main inroads to casual consumers came from in-Octagon apparel. Equally barred from market exposure are fledgling brands, which will now have fewer initial entry points into the MMA lifestyle apparel niche.

Beyond the business ramifications, there is the ever-present question of loyalty. Let’s not forget that Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis, co-founder of Tapout, is an inductee to the hall of fame of the organization from which his clothing is now barred. So engrained is branding in MMA that even caricatures of the sport’s fans, pulled from ignorance as they may be, include specific references to certain unnamed companies’ propensities for flaming skulls and tattoo script. It will be interesting to see how this plays with brands that have stood by the promotion from its infancy.

UFC Uniforms: The Rest

Dennis Hallman Speedo in UFC The most pressing question in the wake of this announcement is what exactly these new digs are going to look like. It’s hard to picture Reebok unveiling any Hallman-cut fight shorts or Aoki Technicolor WonderSpats any time soon, so the jury is still out on what this means for individual expression in the Octagon, although UFC brass has assured fans that there will be a high degree of design autonomy involved.

This most likely also means that fighter-owned apparel lines will be a thing of the past. Without the UFC’s audience reach there would be no Death Clutch, no Punishment Athletics, no Xtreme Couture. While personal taste and the bounds of conventionally acceptable style may largely weigh some of that as a positive, it nonetheless changes the landscape of individual fighter branding opportunities.

And please, please, please don’t forget Nick Diaz in all of this. Again, financial details of the new deal have yet to be disclosed, so much of this is early speculation, but how will this restructuring affect fighters who are unranked yet command impressive followings? Unranked fan favorites, though few in number, will be unable to rely on their PPV draw potential and will have to settle for the sum allotted by the new tiered appropriation system. We’ll see how the numbers parse out, but it’d be a shame on the off chance this materializes as a point of contractual contention for anyone.

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