UFC Advertising Backlash An Important Lesson For Zuffa

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 16: UFC President Dana White speaks during a press conference promoting UFC 145: Jones v Evans at Philips Arena on February 16, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Bloody Elbow's Ben Thapa took a look at a Business Insider article by Jim Edwards concerning the UFC's relationship with sponsors. That article built off of the recent public statement by Anheuser-Busch that they did not support some recent remarks made by those associated with the UFC. Edwards took this statement a step further, examining various cases of UFC and Strikeforce personnel acting in a questionable manner, from Dana White to Forrest Griffin to Rampage Jackson. Ben argues that Edwards's article had issues with an obvious anti-MMA bias, some questionable facts, and a clear agenda. And he's right, the article did have all of those things.

It was also absolutely right.

While Edwards did not present his case in the best way (and the comments on the BI site do not help), his central point stands: the UFC needs to be wary of its public image. You don't need to take Edwards's word on that - take Anheuser-Busch's. They are one of the major sponsors of the UFC, and for them to come out in public with a statement like this absolutely should raise some eyebrows. As Edwards notes:

That kind of open statement is almost unheard of in sports sponsorship, where advertiser displeasure is usually delivered to media partners behind closed doors.


UFC Advertiser Backlash Story Marred By Factual Errors And Axe Grinding | Anheuser-Busch Warns UFC Over Fighter's Comments, UFC Responds


This is an issue that the UFC needs to address, for the simple reason of economics. Anheuser-Busch's statement sends a strong message: if the UFC does not address the issue and clean up their image, they run the risk of losing a huge sponsor. And if they lose this sponsor, it potentially opens the door for more to follow suit.

The argument that is often made is that the UFC and MMA are being singled out here. Look at the negative press surrounding various NFL or NBA players - why aren't those companies receiving this same warning? That's a fair point, but it's also irrelevant. Like it or not, the UFC has an image issue. It always has. When Dana and Zuffa took over the company, they also took over a very tainted public perception, based largely on some terrible short-sighted marketing strategies from the early days. As Zuffa has grown, they've moved away from the early "No Holds Barred!" marketing, and with that move they have seen their public image improve. But there remains a significant portion of the population that still views MMA as "human cockfighting" as John McCain so famously once described it. And if Dana and company want to reach their long-stated goal of becoming a sport on the level of other major sports, they need to fully rid themselves of that stigma. A very public president who uses derogatory language, numerous anti-gay and anti-woman slurs, hiring a convicted sex offender - these incidents don't help that cause one bit.

Unfortuantely, I suspect the message from Edwards is going to get lost due to the way it was presented. Many MMA fans, and quite possible Zuffa itself, will look at this article and say, "This guy just has it out for us!" And maybe that's true. But that shouldn't cause anyone to lose sight of his very accurate message.

For the UFC to keep growing, they need to clean up their act. This whole situation is a warning bell reminding them of this truth. Let's hope it's heard.

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