Reebok has had a little damage control to do lately. Although to hear them tell it, not through much fault of its own. Since entering their partnership with the UFC, The Reebok uniform deal has been something of an enigmatic force in the MMA world. For a while, fighters had no idea just what the deal would mean for them. More money, less money, less control, less worry? As the deal became clearer and it became clear that many fighters were losing some amount of money on it, other questions have arisen. Why do some fighters have extra sponsors, just who is getting individual Reebok deals, what's up with the seeming lack of quality control?
Representing Reebok's Combat Training department, Director Michael Lunardelli recently appeared on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani to answer some of the pressing questions the MMA community has had about Reebok's partnership with the UFC. One of the main keys that Lunardelli touched on in the interview was just how little time Reebok had to prepare their product roll out (transcription via MMAFighting):
"I think, again, we signed a deal in December. It's August. Call it eight, nine months later. Our normal process to build products is 18 months to two years. You want to talk about having to fast break this thing. We had design, develop, produce and deliver products in the shortest time frame we've ever tried to do for some of the best athletes in the world. You don't want to screw that up.
"So, our focus, to be quite honest with you, has been just on get the product right, get it to the fighters, get it on them on time for all these events that are happening, now until the end of the year," he said. "That's it. There's not a lot outside of that we've really been doing."
Of course, perhaps more important than any other point in the still young partnership with the apparel company, the backlash against the UFC's firing of Stitch Duran over his comments about Reebok were front and center as a topic of discussion:
"We never even had a conversation about what the stitch men are wearing, whether they were losing their sponsors or not. It wasn't like we forgot about them, but that was going to be phase 2 of this deal. We didn't have enough time to think about the Octagon girls, to be quite honest, or the referees or the cut man or what Joe Rogan's wearing on stage at the weigh-ins.
"We haven't even had time to talk about any of that stuff. We haven't gotten there yet because we spent our first seven months desperately trying to get fight kits to fighters and training gear to fighters and all the product to get this deal kicked off. We didn't have 18 months to two years.
Lunardelli even revealed that he spoke personally do Duran about his firing (although he maintained that Reebok had no part in it), but he wanted to make it clear to Duran that Reebok would have and will take care of the cutmen sometime down the road.
And it wouldn't have been a discussion about the UFC's Reebok roll out without a healthy dose of Gilbert and just what the hell happened with the list of names Reebok used when the whole thing went live back in July:
"The game plan very simply for us was, we decided very relatively close to the launch date that we were going to try to go live with every fighter in the UFC - which is a good thing - so we could offer every single fighter's jersey.
"The UFC came to us and asked us if we could do it. We said we could try. So, we were moving very quickly to get to that PR launch. The way it works is, we get a list from the organization. The organization provides the list. I don't know who the 560th fighter is in the UFC. How would I know that? How would my team know that?
Lunardelli made it clear that the list of names they were given and that they used were vetted by the UFC and transferred onto the website as quickly as possible. That then suggests it was the UFC themselves that were responsible for the numerous spelling and naming errors present in the text, although it also sounds like Reebok didn't double check the list and was unaware that of the UFC's website or other resources that could have given them a better idea of preferred nomenclature.
In general, however, the tone of the conversation seems to be one with an eye to long term growth and development. At no point did Lunardelli seem to suggest that Reebok had a foot out the door in case things went wrong. Instead he suggested that Reebok had a multi-layered approach that would be looking to roll out different phases of integration with into the UFC's business model as time goes on. Lunardelli even talked about developing deals with gyms as well as fighters. If they stick to that, it will be interesting to see just how much the MMA landscape changes around long term Reebok branding and investment.