This past Thursday may have been one of the busiest sports days of the year in New York. The Mets hosted the Miami Marlins and their ex-star Jose Reyes, the Rangers and Devils played Game 7′s against the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers, respectively, the Knicks were closing out the regular season and looking to send the Charlotte Bobcats to the worst record in NBA history, and then there was that little event, called the NBA Draft. On top of that, the Yankees had an off day and superstar Mariano Rivera was doing an autograph signing at Macy’s. Yet with all that, and despite the cold temps and drizzle, one of the biggest draws came from an athlete who has been injured, won’t compete again until November, and plies is trade in a sport still not legal in New York State on the professional level. His name is Georges St-Pierre, and he remains the UFC welterweight champion.
Despite all the competition, close to 1,000 fans lined up at a SoHo Sports Authority to get a photo and an autograph with the Canadian star, who was there because of his work with MISSION AthleteCare and the launch of their new ENDURACOOL towel (I was there because of Mission). The fact that so many, with little advertising on such a crowded sports day and at dinner time (6 p.m.), and that the crowd was so diverse, small kids, Wall Street types, moms, people from all races and backgrounds, continues to speak volumes as to the drawing power of the UFC in the key younger demo. While Rivera had the benefit of a large media buy from Macy’s as well as advertising all over the outside of the World’s Largest Department store in midtown, GSP had his twitter and Facebook followers, the followers of the UFC, and some help from marketing and The Sports Authority to come to a SoHo corner. The result, with just a little targeted social media push, was a huge outpouring of support that was respectful and very orderly as well.
Now many may still be opposed to the spectacle of MMA and what happens in the ring. However one cannot knock the entertainment business that the UFC has built and grown around such marketable and personable stars as St-Pierre, especially in a State where no fans can still watch him compete live. He never wavered on a photo, never complained about the location, welcomed the questions, and probably added even more fans who were just casually strolling by. There may be some brands that still consider fighting in a cage barbaric, or may think that the UFC as a draw may have plateaued, but that has little to do with the charismatic and viral draw of the athletes who do compete, and also train to stay in top shape, using the different disciplines of MMA.
St-Pierre’s following is global, as is the UFC’s, so its hard to say even with the social push how many people would have seen and then been able to come in the New York metro area. That really makes the outreach even more impressive. If he were in town promoting a specific event…for example this coming week’s UFC fight in New Jersey, a naysayer could say that was the draw. However here is a guy who has had knee surgery, is not from the area (although he spends a great amount of time training in NY with superstar Renzo Gracie) and will not compete again until probably November. He was also there working with a new product, not a mainstream sponsor like a Budweiser or even Harley Davidson and there was no requirement to purchase anything to attend the meet and greet. If he were an NFL player with no ties to New York or a NASCAR driver on an off weeknight, the impact would have been nowhere near as big given the same marketing spend. It was simple, effective, viral and social marketing at its best, and spoke very loud volumes as to how to pick an athlete and then draw a crowd, on the most crowded of days, to get grassroots exposure.
Certainly worth noting for brands looking to draw as to who to partner with. The UFC athlete, and their ability to connect with fans, is still very, very impressive.