As MMA's sponsorship market dries up, crowdfunding doesn't look so bad
Thereâ€™s a lot of wistful talk out there about the golden age of MMA sponsorship revenue. Those were the days, managers will tell you. Back then just about any fighter on a UFC card could double his money by pulling a gaudy T-shirt over his sweaty torso after each bout and parading around the cage in logo-tastic shorts that resembled a NASCAR paint job.
Regardless of whether those days were ever really as good or as lucrative as people remember them, the one thing everyone seems to agree on now is that theyâ€™re long gone. Blame the UFCâ€™s â€œsponsor tax.â€ Blame the natural ebb and flow of the market. Blame the defunct companies once naive enough to think that splashing a logo on some fighterâ€™s shorts was the surest path to instant riches.
As Jon Bier, a public relations professional who works with several MMA-related companies, put it: â€œIn-cage sponsorships didn’t return much value to sponsors when people wanted apparel associated with MMA and there was no UFC tax. Now that the bubble has burst, fighters are getting a fraction of what they received in sponsorship money just a few years ago.â€
The point is, times have changed in the MMA economy. Robbie Stein, CEO of FundaFighter â€“Â the crowdfunding website where fans can give money directly to fighters â€“Â says that itâ€™s high time the fighters changed with it.
â€œThe advice I give to most fighters is, you have to be selfish,â€ Stein told MMAjunkie. â€œThereâ€™s a short shelf-life in this sport. Get every penny you can get, when you can get it, but also make decisions for yourself that will benefit you in the long run.â€
The idea behind FundaFighter ought to be familiar to anyone with an Internet connection. Much like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, it allows fighters to appeal directly to fans for money that will help offset training or travel costs. In exchange, backers are promised â€œrewardsâ€ that range from autographs and memorabilia to private lessons and, in at least one case, the chance to be in a fighterâ€™s corner on fight night.
Itâ€™s a concept that feels right in line with the zeitgeist of the Internet era, but is it a viable solution for fighters feeling the pinch of a dreary sponsorship market? Better yet, is it something fighters will be willing to try?
Those are two of the questions FundaFighter is searching for answers to. While Stein doesnâ€™t deny that theyâ€™re both potential barriers, he also doesnâ€™t think theyâ€™re insurmountable ones.
â€œI remember at the beginning we were talking to one fighter who was put off by the idea, and he said something along the lines of, â€˜That sounds like fighter welfare,â€™â€ said Stein, who has partnered with MMA trainer Firas Zahabi on the venture, and also owns the building that houses Montrealâ€™s Tristar gym.
â€œWeâ€™re still dealing with the issue that fighters feel like theyâ€™re asking for a handout, and I think we will forever,” Stein said. “But this isnâ€™t all about money. Itâ€™s about a way to connect that isnâ€™t really possible right now. Itâ€™s about a way to get to know that fighter, to back that fighter, and weâ€™re providing that platform.”
But even if fighters are still hesitant to ask their fans for money, the dwindling alternatives have some rethinking their approach. As sponsorship dollars have continued to dry up, Stein said, many fighters who were once firmly against the concept are now coming around to it.
â€œWeâ€™re definitely getting a lot of calls and emails and questions now, probably more than ever,â€ said Stein, who estimates he gets â€œtwo or three emails a dayâ€ from fighters inquiring about the program.
Since FundaFighter started in July 2012, several high-profile fighters have gotten involved, from UFC fighters such asÂ Brian Ebersole and Dan Miller, to fighters on the smaller scene, such as Invicta FCâ€™s Charmaine Tweet.
Tweet got interested in the idea after hearing positive reviews from other fighters, she said. After her husband and manager, Cord Crowthers, checked it out, she set up a profile that promised everything from signed walkout shirts to personal training sessions and logo space on her fight gear.
â€œAs we all know, MMA isnâ€™t something where you can make a lot of money in the lower ranks,â€ Tweet said. â€œSo it was a great way to tell people, â€˜Hey, if you want to help me, hereâ€™s how you can.’ Even that little bit of extra money makes a huge difference.â€
As for whom the money comes from, Tweet said her first campaign ended with 18 donors, 16 of whom she had never met and had no contact with outside of social media. According to Stein, that breakdown is not unusual for FundaFighter, though the up-and-coming fighters on local fight cards tend to rely more on donations from family and friends.
â€œOne fighter put it this way,â€ Stein said. â€œâ€˜Iâ€™m never going to sit there in the gym with a cup for people to put money in, but if I put up this profile, then maybe that person who always says hi to me at the gym will chip in five bucks to help me grow.â€™ Hey, thatâ€™s five bucks youâ€™d otherwise never get your hands on.â€
But with the average campaign on FundaFighter pulling in about $2,100, according to Stein, is it enough to replace the money that many sponsors are no longer shelling out?
Probably not, but as Ranger Up CEO Nick Palmisciano put it, what it lacks in the dollar amount category it might make up for with the increased reliability of the more personal relationship between fighter and fan.
â€œI’ve been in this industry for almost a decade,â€ said Palmisciano, whose military-themed clothing line has sponsored fighters such asÂ Tim Kennedy and Liz Carmouche.Â â€œMost MMA companies don’t live up to their agreements, don’t pay fighters on time or at all, or compensate their lack of payment with merchandise.Â I’ve had multiple fighters tell me that they only expect to receive 50-75 percent of the money they’re promised for fights.Â I’ve personally seen fighters get no money except what we paid them, despite having been promised thousands of additional dollars.Â These guys need money to train full-time, and having money absolutely beats not having money, regardless of who cuts the check.â€
Still, Palmisciano added, the goal for most fighters remains finding â€œlike-minded companiesâ€ that will invest in and help market them. And asking for money doesnâ€™t come easy to many in the professional cage fighting world, he admitted.
â€œI do believe there will be a certain stigma to crowdsourcing funds rather than having true sponsors,â€ Palmisciano said. â€œHowever, realistically, and especially given the receding sponsor marketplace, not everyone can do that.Â In that instance, crowdsourcing is perfect.â€
As Audie Attar of Paradigm Sports Management put it, itâ€™s the kind of solution thatâ€™s likely to remain a lot more popular on the smaller scene, where fighters can appeal for funding that helps them with everything from gym fees and nutritional supplements to food and gas.
â€œHowever, at the higher levels, it does show that sponsorships are not as lucrative as many believe,â€ Attar said. â€œI think it may be a fad here, and a sign of a depressed sponsorship market thatâ€™s being cautious at the lay of the land is constantly changing.â€
At least so far, according to Stein, those changes have only made fighters more open to using alternative means, such as FundaFighter. Especially recently, Stein said, as speculation has heated up regarding the possibility of UFC â€œuniforms,â€ heâ€™s been seeing more interest from established sponsors.
â€œEither they know more, or theyâ€™re assuming more because thatâ€™s their business,â€ Stein said. â€œBut existing sponsors are reacting to that.â€
But even FundaFighter isnâ€™t just a funnel from fansâ€™ wallets straight to fightersâ€™ pockets. It charges a commission of 15 percent of each fighterâ€™s funding total, Stein said, making it, in his words, â€œprobably the most expensive crowd-funding website thatâ€™s out there.â€
â€œIn defense of that, Iâ€™d say we have an incredible team that will get behind you,â€ Stein said. â€œWith other funding sites, you do it yourself and you cross your fingers.â€
Then again, thatâ€™s not so different from how many fighters on the lower end of the spectrum approach sponsorships via the traditional channels. They let their managers sign the deals, take their cut, and hope thereâ€™s enough left over to defray some training costs.
As Stein put it: â€œYou have managers who say, â€˜You worry about training and fighting, and Iâ€™ll worry about everything else.â€™ I think when fighters do that, they lose sight of the fact that this is a career, and itâ€™s based in part on your personality, your following, your appeal. If you leave all that in the hands of someone who may manage 20 or 30 other fighters, you better think twice.â€
Because the days when you could get paid big money to throw on a ball cap and a shiny T-shirt covered in skulls and chains? Theyâ€™re long gone. And no one seems all that hopeful that theyâ€™ll come back any time soon.