OZY Exclusive: Why UFC Stars and Reebok Are Co-Designing Gear
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your favorite fighter might design your next shirt.
By Matt Foley
On September 9, when 24-year-old Ray Borg marches into the Octagon in Edmonton, Alberta, for UFC 215 and the biggest fight of his life, the “Tazmexican Devil” will wear his heart on his sleeve. Or at least his co-designed artwork.
“The [Reebok] designers captured my lifestyle perfectly,” Borg tells OZY about his involvement in the launch of a new retail collection by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and apparel maker Reebok. “I’m not a flashy guy, but I’ll catch your eye.”
Borg — along with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes and women’s bantamweight contender Valentina Shevchenko — is one of four fighters who worked on the UFC Legacy Series, which launches today alongside the UFC Fight Night Collection at the company’s online store.
The Fight Night Collection is a revamped release of fighter kits and gear that was, to put it lightly, poorly received at the onset of the two companies’ six-year, $70 million outfitting partnership in July 2015. By pairing UFC fighters with its in-house design team to co-design personalized Fight Night Walkout Jerseys, Reebok hopes to build goodwill within the mixed martial arts (MMA) community while learning more about and better serving that demographic.
The Fight Night collection will outfit every UFC fighter who enters an Octagon, but the Legacy Series is more selective. Only fighters who headline Pay-Per-View events or compete in championship bouts will co-design a jersey, and the UFC is calling this opportunity a way for its top fighters to build their own retail lines within the group. UFC representatives tell OZY that participating fighters will receive royalties from the sales of their co-designed lines, though, as a private company, they have declined to provide exact figures.
We’ve taken some harsh criticism at times, but we feel much stronger for it.
Matt Bilodeau, Director of Reebok’s Combat Training Business Unit
UFC Senior Vice President of Global Consumer Products Tracey Bleczinski calls it a “total game-changer,” but the opportunity for athletes to co-design league-sponsored retail lines does have precedent. In 2010, the Major League Baseball Players Association created the Player’s Choice Signature Series, a line of licensed apparel designed by players. Still, the UFC has built on this by offering royalties for the gear. Athletes in most major leagues typically see no revenue from licensed retail lines. So why, and how, did UFC choose to develop such a generous offering? The answer likely relates to two years of negativity that have dogged the Reebok partnership.
According to Director of the Combat Training Business Unit Matt Bilodeau, Reebok’s point man for the partnership, the goal of both the Legacy Series and the new Fight Night Collection is to encourage fighters to become involved in the design process and “to be excited and proud about the product we create” while improving upon the deficiencies of Reebok’s first attempt at fight kits. “It hasn’t been easy,” he continues. “We’ve taken some harsh criticism at times, but we feel much stronger for it.”
And to be sure, in July 2015, complaints were many. MMA fans hated the bland aesthetic of the kits, noting that the look felt muted and reserved — an insufficient reflection of the tenacity found in rowdy MMA gyms around the globe. Fighters complained of slippage, poor flexibility and shoddy material. Even casual testers of the product noticed a difference. “They were way too slippery,” says John Cannata, a coach at Stratford BJJ, a jujitsu academy in Connecticut. “Flexibility is key, and those kits didn’t move right.”
Research and plans for the Fight Night Collection, Bilodeau says, began almost immediately after the 2015 launch. “We’ve been collecting insight since we launched that first kit,” he notes. “Our team has ingrained itself in the culture of combat sports, and this is the culmination of that.”
All of this, of course, doesn’t even mention the public-relations nightmare that arose after fighters realized they would no longer control their own sponsorship income — an issue for which Reebok absorbed many undeserved blows. Since then, the UFC has required fighters to wear Reebok gear before, during and after a fight, whereas athletes were previously allowed to wear gear from any sponsor. Now, absent the promise of in-ring visibility, that extra revenue stream has vanished. “That’s where the fans and the fighters get upset,” Johnson tells OZY. “Before the Reebok deal, there was no limit on what you could make.”
It’s important to note that Reebok has no control over the UFC’s rules concerning athlete sponsors or current payout from the Reebok deal. To offset some of the sponsorship money lost in 2015, the UFC instituted a scaled payout system based on tenure with the company. Fighters with one to five fights with the organization receive $2,500 per fight, escalating to $20,000 for fighters with 21 or more company bouts. Title challengers receive $30,000 bonuses, while champions earn $40,000 guaranteed. Still, even the top-tier bonuses pale in comparison to what many fighters earned on the open market. “Some guys used to come in with six sponsorships,” Johnson says. “They were making $50,000 in their first UFC fight.”
The opportunity to build a retail line of personalized walkout jerseys is a good one for athletes like Johnson, who boasts one of the largest followings in the sport and is one of its all-time greats. Still, roadblocks exist. “I wanted to use my logo,” says the man known as Mighty Mouse. “But at the same time, I don’t want to give my logo rights to Reebok.” Instead, Johnson chose to emphasize the “Mighty” part of his nickname, eliminating reminders of “that fucking cartoon mouse.” Should Johnson send Borg tumbling back down the list of flyweight contenders, the 125-pound king will no doubt look to extend his title defense record in 2018. Another shirt will be designed, and arenas filled with his black and gold jerseys would signal clear success for the Legacy Series.
But what about fighters like Borg, or others who never even achieve title contention? “I worked hard and practiced what I preached,” says Borg, who has long been a proponent of the UFC’s tenure-based bonus system. “Now I have a title shot.”
These days, though, riches take more than one shot.
For a closer look at the UFC Fight Night Collection, check here.