Two weeks ago I had a chance to speak to Mike Lunardelli, the Business Unit Director for Reebok Combat Training and ask him a few questions about their new apparel deal with the UFC. I decided against posting it last week, not wanting it lost in all the Mayweather-Pacquiao news. How much a difference one week makes.
My questions in bold.
Mike Lunardelli answers in italics.
What was it about the UFC that led you to becoming their exclusive apparel sponsor?
We were researching the combat space, essentially, and looking at different fitness and training activities that would fit into our core belief system. And that is there is a social, mental, and physical side to getting fit in order to be the best version of ourselves. If you've seen our BE MORE HUMAN campaign, that pretty much frames what we are about. Part of that, we were looking at the space and saying what are some of the fitness activities that we can move to that are different than our competitors. And while we were researching this we found that in the key global key markets, there are approximately 35 million people out there that are training like fighters. They are taking boxing classes, they are doing MMA, or maybe they are doing kickboxing. We saw this and said "Whoa, lets learn a little more about this space." And as we delved into it a little more, we found that one common thread for these 35 million people is that 90% of them are UFC fans.
So we said, this is a huge opportunity to speak to fitness consumers and training consumers in a way that nobody else is. And listen, to be honest, we weren't really relevant to the space of combat sport training prior to this, but we were very relevant in fitness and training, and in order to get there more quickly, we need an authenticator. That's when we started talking to the UFC. They were coming to us as much as we were coming to them, it was a perfect partnership.
To answer why Reebok made this deal: our goal is to become the number one fitness and training brand in the world and we see combat training as one of the toughest and most effective fitness regimens in general that is out there. So we see this deal with the UFC as giving us validation in a space we view as having perfect synergy with our brand goals.
So was the appeal of the UFC to you more the lifestyle and training aspect than the sport side?
It's both. When you look at the NFL and MLB for example, those are mainly U.S. centric sports. But when you talk about the UFC you're talking about a true global sport. You've heard Dana White's quote: fighting is in people's DNA. We talked to people in different markets and different countries, and everybody gets that. The fans who lives and breathe MMA and the UFC, they live their life around this sport. It truly is a lifestyle for them. Part of that lifestyle is following the intense training these athletes endure and having a real respect and admiration for that. We want to connect as much to that training aspect in the gym as we do out of the gym.
And then there was the merchandise side too that attracted us. There are millions and millions of UFC fans globally, and they want to wear products that speak to their favorite sport. So we look at it that everything we make product-wise is all a part of the lifestyle of the UFC and combat sports.
So what is the deal you have with the UFC?
You probably know most of it. We made the partnership announcement back on December 2nd. The deal is essentially a minimum of a six year deal, to 2020, where we are the official UFC apparel and footwear supplier for fight week. Fight week encompasses the initial press conference, open workouts, the fighter weigh-in, the fight night walkout, the in octagon fight, and the post-fight press conference. The fighters will be wearing Reebok throughout this entire process. So there will be tremendous exposure for the Reebok brand in all aspects of this deal. We also get to do what we do best and make products that excite people, like Fight Night Kits, for fighters to wear on fight night. So there will be a whole kit system, and I can't give too much away on that because it'll ruin the fun of the unveiling,
From a merchandising standpoint, our deal encompasses all UFC apparel, headwear, and accessories globally - including authentic UFC event products. Additionally, we'll be outfitting all the participants of The Ultimate Fighter TV shows, including all of their training gear.
That is the apparel deal. Do you have any other deals with the UFC separate from the apparel deal? Like will there be other sponsor deals with them, like putting your logo on the cage or different advertising or is only going to be the apparel deal?
Yeah there are certain things we are working on. Again it's a partnership so we're coming together on a lot of different aspects. I can't really comment too much on all the sponsorship related items at this juncture, but there are certain works in progress.
And does the apparel deal include the UFC gyms?
Yes, that is part of the deal, and we are still working on some of it. They own some UFC gyms and we'll be outfitting their coaches and trainers in those gyms. They franchise others out, so it is more of a question for them on the franchises. But this is something we are working on together.
How much input do the fighters have with these kits?
Well certain things I can speak about and certain things I can't. But if we are talking about a male UFC fighter, when he walks into the cage, they will have an authentic octagon short as part of their official fight night kit that they'll fight in. There will be different types of shorts for the fighters to wear of different silhouettes, lengths and sizes. Fighters will have some say in color and other unique identifiers as well. For female fighters, we'll have the same silhouette offerings on in-octagon fight shorts in women's cuts. For tops, women will have several selections to choose from there as well from a silhouette perspective with uniqueness created via color and other identifiers as well.
How many individual looks for fighters will be available for fans to buy?
In pro sports, you don't offer something for every athlete; you focus on the athletes in high demand obviously. And with the UFC, since it is an individual sport and not a team sport, it's probably more so focused on these top athletes. We will be offering up all the big stars, and there will be some customization allowed as well thru certain channels with regards to being able to get an authentic item of any UFC fighter a fan demands. The public will be able to buy any general style of the fight kit we're building for retail sale. That said, we said a fighter has different options in styles, but some specific styles that are being built for promo athlete use only, we don't believe would be in demand to the level a more wearable version of that style would be.
Does it worry Reebok that there is so much apprehension amongst fighters and their managers over this deal right now?
We are never going to be able to tell someone how they should feel about something, but for us we aren't nervous. We are really excited to work with these fighters. We've already signed certain fighters to be Reebok brand ambassadors and are looking to add a couple to this already stacked roster. And at the same time we want the fighters to be excited and put on the fight night gear as a badge of honor, to be proud of what they're wearing and feel great about it. But we've done this before with NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, a large host of NCAA schools, so we're very confident we can do a great job with this deal and do things nobody has ever done before.
But isn't MMA different, with sponsorship having long been considered part of the pay package? It's been compared to NASCAR that way.
I can understand the nervousness, but we are excited to work with the fighters. The end game is to make the fighters perform better and be their best selves.
Do you have any say in how the compensation is split up?
The UFC would have to comment on that.
For fighters that wear Adidas will they still be allowed to wear that into the Octagon because you're corporate relationship?
We are all part of one great company and we share ideas and platforms, but in this case this deal is centered solely on the Reebok brand and what we doing in the realm of fitness and training to help athletes get to their most fit state and perform at their best. Only Reebok gear will be allowed in the octagon or during UFC fight week sanctioned events.
Those individual sponsored fighters are they part of the UFC's apparel deal?
To clarify, the individual endorsement agreements are made by Reebok with the individual fighters. These are separate from the main UFC sponsorship deal.
How do you go about choosing them?
If you're speaking about our Reebok sponsored athletes, there is a process in place.
But how do you go about picking these fighters? Do you work with the UFC in picking them or do you see something in that fighter that makes you think they'll be a good fit with your brand?
I'll be honest, my sports marketing head Kevin Brochu and myself are big fans so we had a list of fighters we wanted before the deal officially kicked in. Anthony Pettis, Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor, Johny Hendricks, Paige VanZant, we find them exciting. If we had a bigger budget we would sign more but money on the sponsorship side isn't limitless. We definitely pick the fighters we want at our discretion based on a number of factors that include their training regimens, their overall MMA talent level, their marketability, etc.
Those fighters that get upset and complain they don't have an individual Reebok deal, it's you they should be calling to complain to then?
Hahaha. There are so many talented fighters out there it's not an easy process of selecting just a handful to work with. But it's really exciting to work with these athletes, and they are incredible athletes who train as hard as any athlete in any sport on the planet. These are the people we want to surround ourselves and grow with as we become the #1 fitness brand in the world.
Since our interview Reebok stopped sponsoring former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and the details for what the apparel deal would pay fighters was released. I emailed them earlier this week to ask them "What was the official reason Reebok dropped their sponsorship with Jones and is there any chance you could renew the deal in the future?"
They emailed me the following statement:
'In light of recent events, we have made the decision to terminate our contract with Jon Jones, effective immediately.'
I also asked them about the six year 70 million dollar price for the apparel deal that is often repeated but was informed that they would not be discussing the financial terms of the deal.