Recently, Ranger Up has been talked about due to the fact that they won't be in the cage this weekend from Strikeforce's card in Chicago because of the sponsor tax. The long time sponsor of Tim Kennedy, Brian Stann, and Jorge Rivera among others, the ban came out of nowhere and many were caught off guard when the news broke. I had an opportunity to speak with Nick Palmisciano about the company from their humble beginnings making shirts for the Duke ROTC program to major MMA sponsor of title contenders. I wanted to get a better look at what it takes to be a successful sponsor in MMA and why Ranger Up is one of the few companies turning a profit annually without the help of any financial burden or support.
Ranger Up was founded when Nick returned from Military service and was enrolled in Duke University's MBA program. A West Point graduate and Army Ranger, he found his experiences overseas in combat situations weren't well received by the extremely liberal student body. To get his mind off of the student body claiming "no blood for oil!", he offered to help train those in the ROTC program. It was at this time that he noticed that when it came to apparel for the military, the only options were shirts with slogans such as "Death before Dishonor" and usually filled with skulls and other Americana. He decided to make small batches of shirts and was surprised at how quickly they sold. Fast forward a couple of years and he was working for a Fortune 100 company in Mergers and Acquisitions on the brink of a promotion that would make it impossible to leave a job that was making him miserable. Ranger Up was running in the background and showing growth monthly. Nick made the decision to quit his corporate job and pursue Ranger Up full time.
The company made its first impact in the military community in 2006 when they were introduced to Tim Kennedy through the Wounded Warrior project, who reached out for help with a fundraising campaign. The guys at Fort Bragg recommended Tim Kennedy as the face of the campaign. The two hit it off and Ranger Up sponsored him for the Army Combatives tournament later that year. Since this tournament Tim has become one of the owners of the company and every year they sponsor the Combatives tournament.
When it comes to sponsoring fighters, the first thing they look for is if there was any military service. Their philosophy is to give anyone a chance once, it is how the fighter responds that will dictate a future relationship. If the fighter just takes the money and t-shirts and doesn't do any work to promote the brand, that will be the end of the relationship. Another thing they consider is how the person represents the military. Do they carry their service with pride or do they consider it the worst time of their lives? This matters for a brand that doesn't see itself as a MMA apparel company; instead Ranger Up views itself as a military clothing company. Everyone who works for the company has a military background and at the most basic of levels, they support those who have shared the same experiences of deployment.
The brand has found success by just being themselves. They aren't trying to create an image of being tough guys or wearing make up and wigs. By being the goofy guys who have served in the military they've found they appeal to not just those in active or inactive service, but also fans of t-shirts that don't feature the MMA standard metallic foil and bedazzled designs. As Nick told me, his audience isn't the douchebag fans, it's the people who don't take themselves seriously. In this, they've found growth in a market where many companies are failing. They contribute to the MMA community by sponsoring events at a smaller level which have proven to have a realer impact on the bottom line.
Much was said about the Zuffa sponsor tax but it really came down to cost benefit analysis. Currently with only six fighters under Zuffa contract, it really didn't seem fiscally responsible to pay the tax when the brand wasn't seeing much of a return in t-shirt sales. Unlike other brands who sponsor many Zuffa fighters, Ranger Up has found greater success by sponsoring guys on the regional level who will work to build the brand and the relationship with the company in hopes of becoming the next Brian Stann or Tim Kennedy.
In a sponsorship environment where brands are being forced to find investors or sell off to a conglomerate to avoid closing shop, Ranger Up is one of the few to continuously find growth. Having an MBA and Fortune 100 experience, Nick doesn't want to be the brand that has an ego. If he doesn't have the funds to do something, he won't do it. By avoiding loans and being in debt to an outside party, the guys at Ranger Up can keep control of the brand and make sure that it stays as genuine as possible. Recently this year there was a major offer made on the brand that would have set the owners up nicely. Most owners would take the money and walk away. However, as a group they decided to continue their gradual growth, ensuring that the company remains for the military by the military. It is this overall attitude that has Ranger Up one of the few brands in the industry that has an actual identity.