When compared to the salaries of professional athletes in other sports, most professional MMA fighters, including those in the UFC, seem to come up short. Salaries released by the various Athletic Commissions and "Fight of the Night" bonuses only reveal part of the story, most MMA fighters make their living through sponsorships. Those products advertised on the shirts or shorts of a fighter are often what pays the bills between fights.
Examiner.com spoke with John Fosco, Managing Director of VFD Marketing. VFD Marketing is a full service marketing agency that specializes in driving brand awareness in the Sports and Entertainment industries. VFD has grown into an industry powerhouse in a very short time, bringing in sponsorships for the UFC's top talent and bringing companies unrelated to the fight scene in to be a part of the fastest growing sport in the world.
John, give me a little background on your history with MMA?
In early 2006 I took the little money I had and with my good friend and partner Dan Schoonover built a MMA retail website called mmastop.com selling gear and clothing. The business immediately took off and within a short amount of time we began sponsoring UFC fighters. Through relationships that were built through sponsorship the door was opened to help out fighters in a larger way through management and marketing support. Our first client was Clay Guida (still a client today). Through success with Clay, other fighters started to take notice and we began to have our services requested. The problem was that I was running the management/marketing as more of a day job and not a real business, so after thoroughly evaluating the potential of the management and marketing business I decided to take it to the next level and form a company with smart partners and legal professionals.
Was this at the amateur level or did you see the big picture back then and go straight to the top?
We did a few at the amateur level but our first big name fighter was Clay Guida in the UFC. We built a relationship with Clay and he asked us to help him out with the business side of things. When he initially inquired about me helping him out on the management/marketing side of things I told him, 'Hey I'm a businessman, not a lawyer', but I went on to explain that I may not be a professional sports agent right now, but if he gave me the chance I would show him that my aggressive nature would lead me to figure out this business so we could thrive as a team. He understood & respected that and he has been with us ever since.
That was a good move, getting in with the UFC, especially with a fighter like Clay.
It was; we took sports marketing to the pinnacle of this sport and MMA still represents the best value in sports marketing.
I am sure it has changed since then, but what was the cost to sponsor someone like Clay 5 or 6 years ago?
It was $1,000 worth of gear and $2,000 in cash.
It truly is, because that little investment put our brand out there in front of millions of people. The TV ratings show only a small part of the picture when it comes to MMA. Independent studies have shown that the average viewer of an MMA event has between 9 and 12 people in the household watching the fights. When people watch a UFC event, especially pay-per-view, they usually do it with a group of friends or go to a bar or a casino and watch with hundreds of other people. Like I said it is the best value in sports marketing.
How did you make that leap from retailing fight gear to the marketing powerhouse that VFD Media is?
In 2011 I brought in a valuable partner, a legal team and invested some capital. My partner Elie Deshe came on board and he has completely taken our business in different directions outside of MMA including a modeling agency, promotions, media, production and marketing. We take a broader approach and have brought in companies like Playstation, MusclePharm, Bodybuilding.com, Grey Goose Vodka and others. Every dollar that comes through from these sponsors is handled by us.
You really brought the mainstream advertisers into the sport aside from the typical gear and apparel companies
Yes. We brought in SafeAuto insurance back in 2010, which was huge for us, because the UFC wasn't even able to bring a conservative institution like a insurance company into one of their sponsorship programs until we brought SA to them. I am extremely proud of that.
Why do you think that was?
Well a lot of companies have a problem with "getting blood on their logo" and insurance companies are notoriously very conservative and not willing to go that route, but when we laid out the numbers for them, SafeAuto saw past the ignorant uneducated opinions of this great sport and decided that they wanted to invest in supporting many young athletes that are under-appreciated.
Who are some of the fighters you have on your roster
Well of course there's Clay "The Carpenter" Guida, but we also have Diego "Boom" Brandao, Travis "Hapa" Browne, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, Nate Diaz, Nick Diaz, Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia, Bart Palaszewski, Erik "Goyito" Perez, Landon Vannata and Coach Mike Winkeljohn. We have a fabulous partnership with Jackson-Winkeljon MMA and couldn't be happier to be teamed up with 2 amazing people that represent this sport in such a positive manner.
That's some list. Quite a few Jackson guys in there. Greg has a phenomenal program
He does and he is a great guy to work with. Greg Jackson is a great coach but he is a better man.
So are there any other fighters on the horizon?
Well that's just it. We have great relationships with all the top management teams and great visibility. If a potential sponsor is interested in a fighter outside of our stable, we can make it happen with another fighter. We have done deals with all the top UFC fighters like Anderson Silva, Tito Ortiz and many more.
The big question is how big a role is sponsorship in fighter's pay? I am sure it varies, but can you give a ballpark figure?
OK, you have to follow me on this because of the variance. There is the "show and win pay" which is reported to the State Athletic Commissions and fight of the night, knockout of the night and submission bonuses. Then there are locker room bonuses which the UFC pays out to fighters who fight well. This is unreported publicly because it's not necessarily public record. These can vary between a television event, a prelim event, FuelTV and Pay PerView. So on top of that depending on who the sponsor is and the type of event a fighter can make anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 in sponsorships for a fight. Of course if the fighter is Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva or Jon Jones those numbers can go even higher.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming fighters to increase their marketability and visibility?
Yes. Too many of them are caught up in trying to do that on their own. They need to simplify and walk away from the hype. They need to focus on training and winning. Get out there and win and that will produce the leverage they need. Nobody wants to sponsor a loser and you don't need to dye your hair pink to get attention. You get attention by winning.