MMA Packs Punch With Young Adult Guys

August 8, 2008

What’s the highest-grossing event in the history of Target Center in Minneapolis?  The T-Wolves/Lakers Western Conference Finals, U2, Prince or Hannah Montana all would be excellent guesses. But I’m hearing all of those high-profile events are expected to be knocked out tomorrow night by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Once viewed as a barbaric activity that took place at dingy old venues like the local armory, mixed martial arts (MMA) is far more regulated than in its early days and has gained serious momentum as a legitimate sport.  If you haven’t noticed, or are simply too squeamish to look, it has become quite popular, particularly with the important 18-49 male demographic.

The Target Center event is sold out locally and will be watched by thousands of fans around the country via pay-per-view at a cost of $45. I’ve been paying attention for a while, but even I’m blown away by the ticket prices – main floor seating is $600 (before Ticketmaster’s “convenience charges”) and most upper level seats are in the $250 range. 

So how did MMA make such a leap? 

Well, MMA bouts are perfect in an age of short attention spans – usually three, five-minute rounds of incredibly fast-paced action instead of 10 or 12 rounds in a boxing match – but the real magic has been solid marketing efforts, a ton of TV exposure and a growing sponsor base.

It’s hard to flip through the channels without seeing MMA on TV and ratings have been strong.  UFC fights on Spike TV are routinely among the most-watched programs on cable and CBS recently began broadcasting events from Elite XC (a rival organization of the UFC) during primetime on Saturday nights.  In addition, you can see fights on Versus, FOX Sports Net and Showtime, among others. 

And, “The Ultimate Fighter” has become a hit reality show – providing big ratings for Spike TV and huge exposure for the UFC as it enters its 8th season of searching for the best unsigned fighters.  Some of the sport’s top stars also have been showing up where you’d least expect them.  For example, Tito Ortiz had a lengthy stint on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell starred in an episode of HBO’s “Entourage” and heavyweight Kimbo Slice became a phenomenon on YouTube before ever turning professional. Highlights of some title fights are even being covered by ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

As the fan base has grown, the sponsors have become bigger and more sophisticated.  It’s not just blood from some poor fighter’s head wound covering the mat, but logos for brands like Budweiser and Harley-Davidson.  MMA is never going to be a mainstream sport, but if you’re a marketer looking to reach young, blue collar guys, you ought to be paying attention and jump in while it’s still on the rise.

We’re always kicking around ideas, so we couldn’t help but take five minutes to have fun with a little brainstorming.  Thought we’d share a few:

1) Hershey’s Extra Dark “Shot in the Dark Match” – staged with the lights turned out in the arena and the fighters wearing glow-in-the dark gloves, trunks and body paint.

2) Ford Trucks “Built Ford Tough Mobile Matches” – fashion a makeshift cage in the back of a new extended cab pickup truck and create a guerrilla marketing spectacle by traveling to high-traffic events with fighters brawling in the back.

3) Bud Light “Tough Guy Tap Out” – A lighthearted event featuring celebrities entering the cage with some of the world’s toughest MMA fighters and money going to charity for every second they last before “tapping out” from a submission hold.  Of course, plenty of free Bud Light would be on tap for spectators.

4) “Search For America’s Ugliest Cauliflower Ear” – Cauliflower Ear is a badge of honor for some guys, while others just look at it and cringe.  I say let’s create an online contest judged by MMA fighter James Thompson, the man with the most outrageous ear I’ve ever seen. 

Which idea do you think would create the most buzz?