Businessweek's decision to rank Fedor Emelianenko ahead of Brock Lesnar in the power 100 ranking of athletes has spurred a lot of discussion. On its face, it's absurd. Both men compete in American promotions, and Brock Lesnar is a far bigger star. He makes more money, his name drives much more media interest, and his record on PPV is second to none.
Before I go further, I should note that I don't believe Businessweek considered any of the points I am about to mention. I think the person who made the list probably knows very little about MMA. Still, there are a few points to make on behalf of Fedor Emelianenko's marketability.
Everything you can say about Fedor's marketability has to be characterized in future terms, because it is yet to be realized. Since he's not in the UFC, it is a big uphill battle to be a big mixed martial arts star. We all saw the buyrate Brock Lesnar drew for K-1 Dynamite, and then the number he did in the UFC just a few months later. The combination of the UFC brand and a big star is a powerful thing. Who knows how big of a deal Fedor would be if he had the UFC machine behind him?
From a sports marketing perspective, Fedor and Brock both have significant strengths and limitations. For Brock, his name is so well-known and he's such an obvious draw that certain companies would love to have him connected to their brand. At the same time, his outspoken political views and his post-fight interview at UFC 100 might scare some blue chip companies away from working with him. These companies are already skeptical about working with fighters, let alone fighters perceived as volatile.
An icy Russian undefeated knockout artist has a lot of marketing appeal. A chubby guy in a sweater doesn't. Fedor could be very marketable if he was portrayed and built a certain way, but nobody has pulled it off yet. I think a good sports marketing firm could do a world of good for Fedor, especially in terms of monetizing him in Russia. I haven't seen his people pursue certain obvious routes though.
Another thing to consider is uncertainty. Both men's fame rests on a shaky premise. If Fedor loses, a lot of that aura he has will go away. Will he still be a big star if he loses? Of course. Will he lose more than Brock Lesnar? Yes. At the same time, we don't know what Lesnar we will see next time he fights. Will he be timid coming off the injury? I don't think so, but what if he isn't the same guy? People would figure it out in a hurry and all that marketability might disappear.
I believe Brock Lesnar should be ranked above Fedor Emelianenko if you're talking about powerful sports marketing brands in 2009. But it's not crazy to think Fedor could be extraordinarily marketable if he had the UFC branding machine behind him and a savvy sports management team. Similarly, I think Brock could become a complete marketing phenomenon in 2010 if he comes back victorious and actively pursues a few major deals.