So Long and Thanks for All the Kicks: Time to Pull the Plug on UFC-Reebok Fiasco

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterOctober 22, 2015

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 07:   UFC featherweight Conor McGregor poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 7, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Look, we tried.

Everybody did their best to get this awkward partnership between the UFC and Reebok to sprout wings and fly, but at this point it’s obviously just not going to work out.

The UFC’s exclusive apparel deal with the struggling athletic company has been on life support since the moment Reebok unveiled the disappointing product designs five months ago. Wednesday’s blunder—where Reebok mistakenly infuriated the fight company’s most fervent new fanbase with a T-shirt meant to celebrate it—felt like the definitive diagnosis.

This thing is doomed. A doornail just waiting to be knocked dead. Our only hope now is that it goes quickly and peacefully, with what little dignity it might have left.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

It’s time for the UFC and Reebok to terminate this deal for the good of all involved. There has to be language somewhere in the contract—a Dumpster Fire Clause, if you will—that allows both parties to walk away when a slam-dunk, can't-miss business venture proves to be an unmitigated disaster.

And folks? This one is Crystal Pepsi.

Trouble started even before launch. From the word go, the Reebok deal has been one slip-and-fall accident after another.

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When the UFC announced the “landmark” six-year, $70 million arrangement last December, it seemed as though many important details were yet to be worked out. Among them, how fighters were supposed to make ends meet.

We understood Reebok’s arrival meant the end of third-party sponsors in the Octagon—and with them, one of the athletes’ primary revenue streams. Understandably, this made a lot of people very nervous.

We cringed when rumored per-fight payout numbers leaked early on, thinking they looked lower than expected.

When the real numbers came out, they were even lower than that.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 04:  (L-R) UFC fighters Conor McGregor, Paige VanZant and Jon Jones attend Reebok's launch of the revolutionary new ZPump Fusion at Spring Studios on March 4, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Reebok
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Initially, the pay scale—such as it was—was to be based on the UFC’s hilariously bad official rankings. After that idea got thoroughly deflated on social media and elsewhere, the payouts switched to an only slightly less flawed seniority system. There we currently sit, with most everyone claiming they stand to make just a fraction of what they did before.

Nearly every fighter who has spoken out publicly about switching from third-party sponsors to Reebok payouts has said he stands to lose a boatload of money. Most of them have been unbelievably good sports about it in public, though you have to imagine tensions are high behind the scenes.

Some made a bigger stink in front of the world. Featherweight contender Myles Jury posted an Instagram picture of a trash can stuffed full of Reebok sneakers. Middleweight Tim Kennedy politely wrote on Twitter that the sneaker company could go ahead and keep the money, if the payouts were going to be so low.

Phil Davis (h/t Fight Hub TV) and Josh Thomson both cited preserving their sponsorship dollars as a reason for crossing the aisle to Bellator MMA this year (h/t MMA Mania). Other big-name fighters—such as Benson Henderson, via Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter—are rumored to be intent on testing their value on the open market as soon as their current deals expire.

Along with the firing of longtime cut man Jacob “Stitch” Duran in July, the furor got so bad that Reebok ultimately took to Twitter to distance itself:

Reebok @Reebok

UFC fans: We have no input on decisions of UFC employment or fighter compensation. Our focus is providing the best gear for fighters & fans.

That tweet was published less than a month after Reebok held a gala press conference in New York City to unveil the actual threads it had cooked up for UFC fighters to wear.

Without exaggeration, it was surely one of the worst product launches ever staged by a well-known, multimillion dollar corporate entity.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 11: Kim Dong-Hyun aka Dong Hyun Kim teaches during the UFC Reebok FitFest 2015 - MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) Class on October 11, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Han Myung-Gu / Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Han Myung-Gu / Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

For starters, Reebok misspelled the word “flexibility” on a large on-stage video monitor. It bungled many of the fighter names on the back of the personalized “replica kits” as they went up for sale in the online shop. It touted customization and individuality, even as all the outfits proved to look—as UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg might say—virtually identical.

Reebok was, rightfully, lambasted for it all on social media.

Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Reebok’s actual fight shorts were so simple (read: half-assed?) that they failed to even offer UFC fighters a choice of color. Instead, they simply offered the absence of color—black or white. In an era of oversaturation and a bloated UFC roster of roughly 500 fighters, it made them look more homogenous than ever.

There have also been questions about whom Reebok has chosen to sponsor, which to date is not a very diverse group of athletes:

Despite Reebok's claims of increased functionality—and particularly of focusing on innovating fightwear for female athletes—bantamweight Elizabeth Phillips suffered an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction during her victory over Jessamyn Duke in July.

Around the same time, featherweight champion Jose Aldo said he thought the kits “sucked” and quipped that UFC fighters now all look like the Power Rangers.

In all, it’s been a long, slow slog through public relations hell for Reebok and calamitous for UFC brass—who come out looking less popular than ever with their own workforce.

MMA Fighting video screenshot

It’s difficult to gauge what Reebok thought it was getting into when it signed on for this. Perhaps it misjudged MMA fans as similar to cultish Crossfitters, who would be so overjoyed that a “mainstream” brand was paying them any attention at all that their standards of quality would be next to nonexistent.

Perhaps it thought spectators would fall in line with whatever the UFC told them was cool.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 27:  Head coach Conor McGregor speaks to his team during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs Team Faber at the UFC TUF Gym on July 27, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Whatever Reebok’s expectations, however, the company can’t be pleased with the results. Something tells me nobody would be happier than the poor folks at the embattled shoe company if we could just make this deal go away.

This week may end up representing rock bottom, as a new shirt designed to appeal to the UFC’s burgeoning crop of fans in Ireland backfired in the worst way. Reebok unwittingly cleaved Northern Ireland off a map on its new shirtfront and then tried to sell the garment using the cringe-inducing slogan: “Show your UFC territorial allegiance."

To say this was boneheaded qualifies as an understatement, and it drew the fury of not only fans on social media but of influential Irish fight coach John Kavanagh. His Straight Blast Gym—which has given the UFC Conor McGregor, among others—had recently signed a partnership with Reebok.

The shirt seemed to put that at risk:

Coach Kavanagh @John_Kavanagh

An incredibly insensitive stupid divisive idea. Its removed by the end of the day or SBG is gone. I expect a sincere apology to Irish fans.

Reebok quickly issued an apology. It called the gaffe a “design error” (jeez, ya think?) and withdrew the shirt from its website.

Still, this felt like the last straw.

Has a single step in the UFC-Reebok partnership been a success?

Is anybody happy with it?

The very consumers Reebok hoped to win over have roundly mocked the shoe company for its efforts. Fighters—at least those who haven’t netted individual endorsement deals—are near unanimous in the opinion they’re getting fleeced. The UFC looks ever more callous, not to mention suddenly bland to the point of being completely colorless.

There is no way to tell if the arrangement has been profitable or not. Clearly, though, this partnership with the UFC is doing more harm than good in Reebok’s quest to remarket itself as some sort of extreme fitness lifestyle brand.

Give both organizations credit for trying something new. They showed initiative here—as well as a modicum of corporate bravery—if not, you know, much good sense.

But despite everyone’s best efforts, the UFC-Reebok partnership is a fiasco. At this point, there is no amount of money worth keeping it around for the interminable six-year contract length.

Everybody tried. Maybe at times they even tried hard. But they failed.

Now, the two companies should show some real FLEXIBILTY and let this one go.


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