MMA sponsorship talk seems to be all the rage these days. Fans are beginning to wonder about the business side of MMA and what a fighter can actually make after every fight. With new companies starting up almost every day, it seems like everyone is looking for a piece of that proverbial MMA fat cash.
While in San Diego, I had the opportunity to speak with the head of one of the most recognizable brands. It was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up as I've been interested in learning more about the company for a couple of years now.
With a breakfast burrito slowly digesting, I drove to the Bad Boy offices and sat down to speak with CEO Robin Offner.
The conversation got off to a bit of a slow start. I didn't want to jump in and show off all my knowledge of the brand and scare him off. Looking back, I doubt he would have flinched. But we discussed the humble beginnings of the brand and how it got started.
“We acquired the brand in 1991 but we started working with the brand in ’88. The way we got into the business was when that 'surf shore' craze happened. We had some guys we grew up with who were great marketers and great idea guys. They started a company called Life’s A Beach. Bad Boy was originally a subline under Life’s A Beach," CEO Robin Offner explained to me. "In ’91 we went our separate ways and we acquired the brand from them and they went off with their offshoot brand called No Fear.”
The brand would get ahead of the MMA boom by connecting with a Brazilian company that had connections to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community. Whereas MMA only became popular in the United States with the success of the UFC, combat sports had been thriving in Brazil with both Jiu Jitsu competition and Vale Tudo fights.
“We were one of the first brands that became very involved in sponsoring and supporting athletes. It wasn’t just giving them money. It’s helping them in all aspects of their lives and really bringing them into the Bad Boy family."
Offner would explain, "Where we were formerly a manufacturer, we transitioned to a licensing model, which is what we are now our first licensee was a Brazilian company and we signed that license in 1992. They became the great idea people of the brand. They still are. They got into sponsoring Jiu Jitsu with Rickson Gracie in 1993.”
This connection would lead to Bad Boy sponsoring some very prominent members of the Jiu Jitsu community including Wallid Ismael and Vitor Belfort. It also allowed the company to build up a relationship with Brazilian fighters which ultimately created a brand identity.
At this point in the conversation, Offner changed the subject from MMA history to their involvement in other sports. I expected him to discuss surfing or skateboarding or maybe even football, I mean they did just sign DeMarco Murray. Instead, he brings up the 1994 baseball strike.
“What we did in 1994 when the baseball players went on strike, we made t-shirts that said ‘Bad Boy on Strike’ and we had the Bad Boy logo on it and we sent that t-shirt to every single baseball player. So when they went on strike that first morning, they all put on that t-shirt and it was on the cover of USA Today.”
It's an interesting story that sets the tone for the rest of the interview.
His openness discussing their business model and what they look for when signing fighters emboldens me to ask what they will do in a world without Demian Maia and Shogun Rua—the two elder statesmen of the roster.
Without missing a beat, Offner explains that over a year and a half ago they came up with a strategy to identify and sign one American, one European, and one Brazilian fighter. The criteria were that they had to be young up and coming fighters with long-term viability.
Those fighters would end up being Chris Weidman, Alex Gustafsson, and Erick Silva. The way he speaks about them is almost like a father being proud of his children. It becomes very apparent that Offner really does view the brand as a family.
It sounds a cliché and if I wasn't speaking with the man himself, I'd almost believe he was paying me lip service. However, Offner explained how the brand landed both Alex Gustafsson and Chris Weidman. Both cases to me seemed to be a bit non-traditional.
"When we were going to sponsor Chris and we had been talking, he flew out here and spent some time with us. We clicked. We felt good about him. We didn't have a signed contract with him and we had been negotiating with his former manager. So it went back and forth but we had an understanding that we would have a long term deal."
He added, "So then his new manager called me up and said 'I wanna pick it up where you left off'. I was in Brazil and was really busy and I got a call from him saying that (Chris) was on the Fox card against Demian. His manager tells me 'he's fighting in 10 days and we don't have a deal done'. Despite the fact that Chris was getting huge offers, he did the fight with us without a contract, without squeezing an extra nickel out of us."
For a company to go into a major event without a contract shows trust in the fighters and managers that they deal with on a day to day basis. And as unbelievable as the signing of Chris Weidman sounded, Offner's signing of Gustafsson was incredibly similar.
"We have a great relationship with a gym here in San Diego called Alliance and Eric Del Fierro. If one of his fighters has an issue or they want legal advice or they just want life advice, he'll bring them to me and I'll talk to them. Or if they have a legal question or something like that. We just have a really great relationship."
He continued, "So Eric called me and said, 'Robin, I want you to sponsor this kid named Alex Gustafsson.' And I said 'Eric, I don't know him. I don't sponsor people I don't know.' Eric said, 'he's fighting in five days and I need you to trust me.' He's never said that to me before. I said, 'alright, I can't give him a lot of money but if he does well and ends up on TV we'll sit down and explore a contract.' So he comes in and he's the greatest kid in the world. He's one of those special nice and humble people."
The story continued that Offner was so impressed with Gustafsson as a person that they agreed to terms almost immediately. It's how they do business. If you are a good person, they are willing to look past wins and losses.
With the interview winding down, I wanted to really get one last great story out of Offner. When given the opportunity to speak with the head of such a big company, you have to use your time wisely so I wanted to know what he thought about the UFC sponsorship tax.
The tax caught many in MMA off guard and angered many executives in the process. Here was a massive company asking for the little guy to pay for the opportunity to sponsor fighters. Offner, however, holds no ill will towards Zuffa. In fact, it almost seemed like he agreed with the policy.
"I heard companies complain about that and I think that's crazy. Maybe this is one of the reason we get along well but the Fertittas and Dana White put up tens of millions of dollars creating this platform that we get to slide in on. We get to jump on their backs and ride in their wagon for free. That's not fair for them though it's great for us. The amount of money that they want to charge for a tax is minimal compared to what we get out of it."
"The UFC created this for us and anyone who will be critical of the UFC for wanting to charge a fee is a taker and is crazy. We owe it to them. Every one of these brands wouldn't be where they are without the UFC. These other newer brands wouldn't be anything without the UFC. We all owe the UFC. We should recognize and acknowledge that."
With the interview over I walked away knowing that I was given a rare opportunity to learn a bit more about the business side of MMA. Robin constantly brought up the Bad Boy family and after returning back to my hotel, I felt like I was a part of that, if only for that one day.