When Reebok first announced its sponsorship of the Ultimate Fighting Championship last year, the alliance, to me, felt reminiscent of exclusivity deals the NBA, NFL, MLB, and other global sports leagues typically sign with established fitness companies.
However, there were a few important twists that made it different, including the revenue structure and approach to apparel. Most of all, the brand’s impeccable timing made the deal really shine — both as an important marketing move for the company and as a case study on timing for the broader marketing community.
In a culture where major brands have already locked up the leading sports, Reebok was a challenger brand. It needed a sport growing in popularity — one in which it could “own the eyeballs.”
There were quite a few signals that the UFC was growing in popularity and would be a good option. Where boxing’s popularity has waned in the past 20 years due to its established structure, UFC is seen as being edgier and unorthodox. That makes for more interesting viewing and sharing via social media.
The mixed martial arts audience skews to social- and tech-savvy young males looking for an unconventional sport, which complements Reebok’s scrappy brand persona. A recent Scarborough survey reported that more than 5% of the U.S. population identifies as avid UFC fans, and MMA is among the fastest-growing fan sports.
With UFC’s recent explosion in popularity and a growing fan base that aligns with Reebok’s brand values, the timing of this union couldn’t have been better. The company’s approach can teach marketers in all industries a lesson about spotting the right sponsorship opportunity at the right time: Jump in before it becomes too expensive, but also while a lot of promise still exists for growth.
Here are four lessons all marketers can learn from Reebok’s sponsorship of UFC:
1. Nontraditional activities provide the best opportunities. Reebok capitalized on UFC’s influence at the crescendo of its popularity. The brand recognized that a growing, engaged fan base is more important than ubiquity. Today, video game competitors are starting to line up sponsors, much like UFC fighters did. Who knows if this will grow into an opportunity for a brand to sponsor that league?
2. Culture fit is key. A sport’s attributes, style of play, and athletes must be good cultural fits for the brand’s positioning. Reebok was an edgy, challenger brand, and it sought out a similarly gritty sport.
3. It has to be the right deal. Because of this sponsorship, Reebok now owns all fighter real estate and merchandise sales, so it also owns the
attention of fans and fighters. Fighter clothing will no longer feature personal sponsors but will, instead, be shockingly similar and all one brand.
Much like Red Bull, Nike, adidas, and now Reebok, brands should seek out a sponsorship deal that gives ownership of as much of the fan experience as possible. This extends beyond a logo on a shirt and goes into competition attire, merchandise sales, the competition venues, and the broadcasting rights.
4. Sponsorship should extend beyond the league. Brands would be wise to consider how they can leverage deals beyond the league. Since Reebok also sponsors cutting-edge sports like CrossFit and Spartan, these alliances further its brand perception of pushing customers to the cutting edge of performance.
Like most things in life, timing is everything when it comes to sponsorship opportunities. Reebok played it right, biding its time until UFC’s popularity and fan base were exactly where the brand needed them to be.
Its approach has much to teach marketers in all industries about the importance of waiting for the right deal — one that aligns from a branding perspective and presents a sizable opportunity for revenue and growth.