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UFC, mixed martial arts could score a knockout and find growth in New Jersey

mma010110_optBY JOE FAVORITO
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
ON N.J. SPORTS MARKETING

There is still more than a little contention over how "hot" professional Mixed Martial Arts is as a sport. One thing is for sure, the UFC as an experiential brand, is certainly very hot and very active for the men's demo, and that experience will be brought back to New Jersey to the Prudential Center on March 27.

Many believe that the sport has limited shelf life outside of the UFC, although the regional promotion run by Californian Scott Coker, Strikeforce, certainly has more than held its own in Northern California and in other locations. The problem with professional MMA is two-fold - the high injury risk for elite athletes, which force them out of cards, and the high cost of putting on events. Those two elements have caused a host of promotions, some with very big budgets, to collapse under the weight of bad business planning and the feeling that the "hot" sport will lead to big bucks right away.

Many forget that even the UFC lost millions before Zuffa Inc., owned by Station Casinos, and the hard-working promoter Dana White found a willing partner in Spike TV to launch their reality show "The Ultimate Fighter," which began the UFC turnaround. From there the experiential brand the UFC has created for professional fighting remains very strong, as evidenced in their pay per view and attendance gates, much of which is fueled by the free cable TV model that Spike has created with the UFC for promotion of their athletes.

Their branding is consistent. And unlike many sports they know how to speak right to their core fan and keep him and her motivated and engaged. And when the UFC show goes on the road from their Las Vegas stronghold, they are able to pull in the casual fan to come and see what the excitement is all about. How many of those casual fans, which help them achieve their large numbers, are repeat buyers? Still hard to say. So what does this have to do with New Jersey, other than eyes for the MMA world will be looking toward the Pru in late March?

One of the core areas for growth of Mixed Martial Arts as a conditioning and lifestyle sport, much of which is away from the actual striking that goes on at the professional level, lies in the local gyms. And outside of Iowa, Portland and Southern California, there is probably no more fertile grassroots area for the sport than New Jersey. From Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie and his chain of gyms, to the marketing savvy New Jersey-brand of Tiger Schulman, the amount of people, from young children to adults, who partake in some form of MMA is very large.

Schulman's chain, based in Northern New Jersey but very strong throughout the Northeast, moved from just karate to a more fertile MMA base several years ago, and continues to have a growing following for those looking to use the sport for conditioning. Their followers are strong devotees to the brand, and show up in mass numbers at events, both amateur and professional, all supporting Tiger Schulman competitors.

On top of those groups, factor in the hundreds of small mom and pop gyms and studios, a very fertile wrestling community and the fact that New York State has yet to approve MMA as a competitive professional sport, and New Jersey has huge potential for brands looking to access that athletic, loyal core participant and fan of the sport.

The question is, how can brands find a way to make a cohesive tie to the grassroots while also drawing attention from the followers of the UFC? That is one of the issues that the sport needs to figure out if it is to continue to grow.

The conversion of young participants in a lifestyle sport to be followers of the professional side is generational and, in today's world of instant ROI, can be difficult to find. Soccer, with its well organized millions of kids, still is making the transition to have those young people watch and follow the professional side after 15 years, and it may take MMA at least that long to do the same.

There is also the issue of violence. While many may argue that MMA is no more violent than football or hockey, the amount of bloody injuries in an average MMA event is still much higher than any other sport - and to be honest, the blood gives MMA its edgy appeal for most of its core. The appeal has also caused some potential sponsors still to not move off the edge and into the sport, for fear of brand damage. Yes that is slowly changing, in great part due to the UFC and their TV partner in Spike, but it is a slow conversion, especially in challenging times.

So can New Jersey be a great conduit for the continued growth of MMA? For the most part professional events have not done well from a business perspective in places like Newark and Atlantic City, again because of the high cost of staging events vs. the limited draw of a box office with no other revenue coming in (limited sponsors, no TV money, little value of digital rights). However, New Jersey has the unique combination that many sports need to succeed... a growing grassroots presence with the appeal of two major metropolitan areas in Philly and New York, so the potential for brand success for the sport overall, not just for the UFC, is strong.

Will it work for the State? There is little doubt the UFC event in Newark will be a success, and maybe that can continue the draw that would translate across the river to Madison Avenue, as well as into the local gyms. 2010 for MMA will be all about realizing potential that has been developing, and if it is to be realized, New Jersey is as good as a starting point as anywhere.

Joe Favorito has over 23 years of strategic communications/marketing, business development and public relations expertise in sports, entertainment, brand building, media training, television, athletic administration and business. Visit him at JoeFavorito.com.

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