October 30, 2012

The Money Model: Forget Mike, MMA's Top Stars Should Be Like Mayweather

By Raphael Garcia

It often angers hardcore mixed martial arts fans to see boxing compared to MMA in any shape or form. The conventional wisdom is that boxing is “dying” or is a “fading sport” to mainstream sports fans. Whether that notion is true or not, there are still a number of different things that mixed martial artists could learn from their contemporaries in the other combat sport. MMA athletes would love to be paid like the top boxers, but in order to get to that point, the top MMA fighters, including UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, may have to take lessons from one of the most polarizing personalities in sports today.

Each year, the financial magazine Forbes releases its list of highest paid athletes. Every time that happens, we generally see the same names and sports on the list: Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Leo Messi; basketball, golf, football, baseball, and so forth. How long do you think it will be before we see a mixed martial artist on that list? At the current rate, it probably won’t happen. However, if fighters want to change that, they should take notes from a fighter who is also mainstay on that annual list: Floyd Mayweather.

In 2012, Mayweather was ranked as the highest-paid athlete that year, bringing in 85 million dollars. This number included purses, bonuses, salaries, appearance fees, licensing, and endorsement payouts. And the second person ranked was Manny Pacquiao, whose revenue came from similar sources. What is amazing, however, is that these athletes do not compete nearly as much as anyone else on that list, or even their MMA counterparts. In 2011 Mayweather was ranked number two on the list, with total earnings of 65 million dollars. Guess how many times he fought within those 12 months (May 2010 through May 2011)? Rather than you searching Wikipedia or Box Rec, I’ll just give you the answer: Zero. He didn’t set one foot into the ring and still outpaced everyone but Tiger Woods. It would be ridiculous to think that mixed martial artists could not benefit from studying the marketing tactics and promotional strategies that Mayweather has employed since changing from the “Pretty Boy” to “Money.”

While most will not agree with the way Mayweather presents himself to the public, i.e., throwing large sums of money around, or just making an outright scene whenever he can, the fact remains that Mayweather ALWAYS presents his image to the media, rather than letting sports outlets or reporters do the work for him. And anytime he is involved in a news story, you can expect Mayweather to release some form of statement giving his side of the situation. We’ve seen it over the course of his dealings with Bob Arum, and even during his recent legal troubles and subsequent jail time -- Floyd always does all that he can to control how his image is presented to the public. He always gives himself an outlet or a platform through which fight fans can see the so-called “unfiltered” version of Floyd, and while this translates to either love or hate by mainstream sports fans, there is always a financial reward at the end.

Even beyond the self-promotion, Mayweather has created a revenue structure that allows him to keep close to 100 percent of the profit each and every time he competes. No other personality in sports has been able to create a similar platform. When Mayweather competes at an event, he fronts all of the operating expenses for said event at the start of planning – he even covers his opponent’s purse. This means, that once the event is over, the total profit goes into his pockets because no one else has to be paid. These business practices, along with his ability to draw eyes to the boxing ring, is exactly why he remains among the richest athletes in sports history. Jones is far off from attaining that type of financial and drawing power, but it would be hard to deny the potential learning experience from emulating “Money” Mayweather.

Mayweather's ability to market himself and garner media attention has a positive financial effect on everyone who competes during events that he headlines. Look at Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who is being built up as the next Golden Boy prospect. He fought on the May 5th card that featured Mayweather versus Miguel Cotto, and made 1.2 million dollars for that performance. Jessie Vargas, who fought on the undercard as well, made $125,000. Those numbers dwarf what undercard MMA athletes make, and much of that is attributable to Floyd’s drawing power. And while the trickle-down effect may not always work as national economic policy, it does in the combat sports world.

When you look at their back stories, Jones and Mayweather have a lot more in common than most would notice upon first glance. Both individuals come from highly-athletic families with members who were successful throughout sports. Mayweather’s father competed against world champion boxers, while his uncle is a two-time champion. Jones’s family tree includes two professional football players who became established college football standouts before the middle Jones brother achieved championship success in his MMA career. Personality-wise, they have both been characterized as “awkward” in front of the camera at times, or faulted for not being able to come off as sincere to their fan base. If he promotes himself correctly, Jones could also have a lot in common with Mayweather when it comes to the sheer power that he maintains in his professional sport of choice.

Jon Jones could definitely stand to take a few pointers from the Mayweather Model. The fiasco that surrounded him after UFC 151 will probably never go away. Yet despite the recognition that like Mayweather, his presence on the card was integral to the financial success of both the PPV event and all the other fighters on the card, the fighters turned their back on him, and UFC President Dana White publicly burned his star. Could you ever imagine this happening to Floyd? Never. And although Jones may not want to be hated as much as he is, he has gone on record in saying that he is trying to make as much money as possible during his professional career. So imagine the boost in mainstream notoriety (and potential marketability) that he would obtain if he somehow linked up with Mayweather.

This doesn’t mean that he has to change his nickname, throw wads of money at people, or engage in other ridiculous stunts. We’ve seen that Mayweather’s “villain” persona has hurt his ability to garner big name endorsements elsewhere in the entertainment industry, but because he makes so much money in his sport that is of little concern to him. This is an idea that Jones could take to heart and use to build his brand in a more effective matter.

Does this mean that Jones has to become a personality that draws extreme hate from just about anyone who watches MMA? No, not at all. But most of the fans who have decided to hate Jones are going to hate him no matter what. And those that love him will likely continue to love him throughout his career, especially as he continues to dominate inside in the Octagon. It would be Jones’s job, along with a crack marketing team, to take advantage of both of those facts and build his brand and leverage it into a platform that would continue to fatten his pockets even when he is outside the cage.

Instead of relying upon the so called “UFC Machine,” he should take control of developing a marketing and branding strategy that takes advantage of the existing fan hate and love, while pushing his name to the masses in multiple ways. People hate Mayweather for the actions they see him take in front of the camera. (Yes, his recent stint in jail for domestic abuse has exacerbated the negative attitude towards him, but he was widely hated well before that.) But that hate still translates into Pay-Per-View buys any time he steps into the ring, and financial rewards even when he does not, as Forbes’ reports show. Even if they eschew a direct relationship or affiliation with Mayweather himself, Jones' team should still be leaping at the opportunity to create a Mayweather-esque brand around their prized fighter, one which would allow Jones to set the foundation for the amassing of the kind of wealth that he desires. We've seen how Chael Sonnen has been able to turn his career around through self-promotion and trash-talking, and his record is nothing in comparison to Jones, so what would happen if you paired a great fighter with a great marketing plan?

The transition from mixed martial artists to professional athletes is going to be a long and tumultuous road...especially when you have promoters who need them to stay in their current positions to maintain their control over the sport. However, if these athletes take notes from boxers -- Mayweather in particular -- they can start to build a financial foundation that will benefit fighters in future generations.



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