While every professional sport correctly says it is “nothing without the fans,” there’s another critical component for success and longevity: the development, health and happiness of the athletes thrilling those fans.
UFC, now under the WME | IMG umbrella, is redoubling efforts to take care of its vital and growing talent base. This was demonstrated this past weekend when 300 UFC athletes assembled in Las Vegas to participate in the UFC Athlete Retreat.
Fighters from 29 countries came together for networking, inspiration, informational sessions. The gathering felt like a UN meeting with translators in glass booths streaming the discussion to head-set wearing athletes in Brazilian, Russian, Spanish and Korean.
The fighters also got a tour of the new UFC Performance Institute, a state-of-the-art 184,000 square foot facility devoted to training and development. The futuristic gym and its staff of experts with deep experience including at the highest level of college and Olympic sports, is available free to all UFC athletes.
UFC partner Reebok provided opportunities for fellowship, fun and relaxation. At the Reebok Recharge Lounge, athletes played UFC video games, got chair massages, customized their sneakers, and participated in a graffiti installation. The official outfitter of the world’s premier combat sports organization provided each fighter with a gift box including sneakers and workout apparel.
With five million Americans now participating in combat sports training, the brand saw a strong opportunity to get into “a very unique space,” according to Kenny Gamble, Director of Partnerships at Reebok. “UFC gives us a great platform to speak to the combat training community in a natural and effective way.” UFC’s Reebok deal marks the largest non-broadcast partnership in the history of the global sport.
In their new Reebok gear, the athletes toured the new UFC Performance Institute. Met by a statue of legendary boxer Joe Louis, fighters saw a mission statement declaring an intention to “accelerate the evolution of MMA by delivering interdisciplinary services, science, innovation, and technology while sharing best practices for performance and optimization with athletes and coaches around the world.”
The fighters saw the accoutrements of a top gym as well as avant garde means of recovery such as cryotherapy, an altitude chamber, laser light therapy, an underwater treadmill, and hot and cold dunking pools.
Athletes using the Institute get a bone density and skeletal-muscular scan, providing the basis for a custom nutrition plan based on their physiology. This is especially valuable for fighters who may struggle to make weight.
UFC is the world’s top pay-per-view organization. Fighters sometimes have to drop out of fights due to training injuries. That can hurt the promotion’s PPV audience. If UFC can prevent just a few training injuries, the organization reasons that the Institute will pay for itself. WME | IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel welcomed the athletes by telling them the entire organization “cares deeply about every UFC athlete, and we want to help you take the sport for the next level.”
A coterie of A-list speakers, including WME clients Kobe Bryant, Michael Strahan and Brandon Marshall shared practical advice to help the fighters build their brands, develop their own authentic voice, and plan for life after fighting. IMG co-president Mark Shapiro took the fighters into a deep dive into the operations, reach, capabilities and resources of WME | IMG, while Lawrence Epstein, COO of UFC reviewed the organization’s operating philosophy and strategy with special emphasis on athlete development, health and well being.
WME client Snoop Dogg, introduced by the ever-present face of UFC, Dana White, performed a private outdoor concert for the athletes on Sunday night to close out the retreat. UFC now has 274 million fans worldwide. By the end of 2017, the organization will have traveled to 120 cities in 20 countries in bringing 393 events to fans across the globe. WME | IMG, which acquired UFC for a reported $4.2 billion, believes this combat sport with its simple rules transcending cultures and borders, and action pitting top females as a draw that as big or sometimes bigger then the men, has additional room for growth. For the UFC to continue to expand and prove WME | IMG made the right bet, the ramped-up emphasis on developing, communicating with, listening to, and keeping safe the men and women stepping into the Octagon is a smart strategy.