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Sports Marketing: Forget the NFL — Try Surfing Instead

Issie Lapowsky, INC
Tuesday, 29 May 2012 | 10:23 AM ET
Silvestre Machado | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Of all the peculiar places businesses advertise, a man's backside may top the list. But in the world of mixed martial arts, it's the most visible space on a fighter's shorts. For sponsors, that makes it the money spot, and, according to Bobby Harris, founder and CEO of BlueGrace Logistics, it's worth every penny.

Sponsoring a Nascar team or having the company logo on the Green Monster in Fenway Park may be the dream of every sports-loving business owner. But for most, the hefty price tag for a major sports sponsorship is out of reach. Niche sports, by contrast, can offer a worthwhile marketing experience at a fraction of the price. "Dollar for dollar, you just can't compare the value," says Harris.

Since it was founded in 2009, BlueGrace Logistics, based in Riverview, Florida, has sponsored more than 20 fighters. Why MMA? Harris got the idea to sponsor fighters after a chance meeting with Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight Jon ("Bones") Jones in a hotel lobby in Las Vegas. Not yet a big fan of the UFC, Harris didn't know what to expect from someone who gets kicked in the head for a living. So he was pleasantly surprised to find that Jones was a smart, charismatic guy, who, Harris says, "holds himself like a champ."

Starting Price: $10,000

That got him thinking. "I wondered how much it costs to endorse someone in the UFC," he says. As it turns out, not all that much—at least compared with other sports. According to Jones's agent, Malki Kawa, CEO of First Round Management in Doral, Florida, it can cost as little as $10,000 to sponsor a fighter for one night, and an annual contract starts in the low six figures. That's not pocket change, but it's a fraction of what a Nascar deal would cost.

Of course, nontraditional sponsorships aren't for every business. UFC fights can be shockingly violent and may not project an image businesses want to be associated with. Larry Rothstein, president of the New York City-based sports marketing firm Source Communications, says business owners need to consider worst-case scenarios.

For instance, when Rothstein took over Amtrak's sports sponsorships, he pulled the company's Nascar deal. "I never wanted to see a crash happen with Amtrak's name on it," he says. "MMA sponsorships are for companies with the ability to tolerate the violence."

For BlueGrace, which manages freight hauling and shipping for companies, MMA was a perfect fit. The company's marketing department did some research and learned not only that UFC fans are predominantly male, like BlueGrace's clients, but also that shipping managers in particular are highly likely to be UFC fans. What's more, UFC fighters' bonuses depend on their social-media activity, which makes them some of the most Facebook- and Twitter-savvy athletes around—and great ambassadors for your brand.

Kawa, who works mostly with clothing and fight equipment sponsors, had never signed a logistics partner. "I thought, Considering this isn't a sport where FedEx wants to be, why not take a chance on BlueGrace?" he says. In April 2011, he set up BlueGrace's first sponsorship deal, with Ben ("Smooth") Henderson. Since then, BlueGrace has sponsored all of Henderson's fights and signed annual contracts with two of Kawa's other UFC clients, Carlos ("Natural Born Killer") Condit and Thiago ("Pitbull") Alves.

Extra Payoffs

Those deals guarantee BlueGrace logo placement during a certain number of fights, but they actually deliver much more than that. BlueGrace's fighters, for example, have appeared on Fox and in the pages of Maxim magazine, all while sporting the company's logo. "That secondary marketing was completely unexpected," Harris says.

The newness of the sport also enables sponsors to have more personal relationships with their fighters. Each of BlueGrace's fighters promotes the company and interacts with its customers on Twitter and Facebook . Athletes with an annual contract do even more. Last year, Alves not only wore a Santa hat for the photo on BlueGrace's Christmas card but also held a meet and greet at a BlueGrace career fair and hosted Harris and 75 BlueGrace clients in his hotel suite the night before a fight. "He was so gracious," Harris says. "He created great memories for a lot of our customers."

The sponsorship is fun for employees, too. For some, it's even been a deciding factor in choosing to work for BlueGrace. KJ McMasters, an avid UFC fan, was choosing between a position at BlueGrace and a rival when he learned of the sponsorship. Not only did McMasters feel it was a smart marketing strategy, but, he says, "culturally, I knew I'd fit in." He's now VP of corporate development and marketing.

The attention the company gets from the sponsorships surprises even Harris. "We do so many things to provide value, but you want to do business with us because we're sponsoring fighters?" he says. "Whatever works."

Wide World of Sports Marketing

Costs vary depending on the athlete, venue, and amount of media coverage, but even niche-sports sponsorships can top the million-dollar mark. Below, Larry Rothstein of sports marketing firm Source Communications offers some advice on four hot but affordable niches and the demographics they can help you reach.

Bowling: "It's an excellent fit for blue-collar men, 50 and over. It's on ESPN , but it's a much lower cost of entry than other televised sports." (Cost: $20,000 and up for local events)

Equestrian: "This demographic would be 35 to 54, skewing female, with a household income well over $150,000. It's very suburban." (Cost: $15,000 and up per event)

Women's Golf: "It's enormous in Europe and Asia, so it's great for companies that are thinking globally." (Cost: $50,000 and up for local events)

Surfing: "It's very niche, very young, and it doesn't get much TV exposure, so it's better for guerrilla marketing, where you're promoting on-site." (Cost: $25,000 and up per event)

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