Mark Twain coined the post-Civil War period the Gilded Age for the garish displays of wealth by the new rich who had made their fortune in that uncertain time. Those entrepreneurs saw opportunities to create, produce, and consume products that had never before been envisioned.
In much the same way, the rise of MMA from its previous stature as “human cockfi ghting” to a mainstream success has created a myriad of opportunities for new products and celebrities. While the companies and stars promoting fi ght wear and other mixed martial arts essentials prefer their bling in the form of a diamond-studded grill rather than a gold-dipped chair, their ability to maximize profi t in an uncertain time rivals that of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie.
The TapouT crew, mixed martial arts’ living comic book characters and owners of the most recognizable lifestyle merchandising brand in the MMA spectrum, are one such group of MMA entrepreneurs. They have said that, “We would hope that people appreciate and remember a company that came along believing in the sport before anyone else did and that we encouraged and pushed the fi ghters to do their best and supported them through hard times and stayed true to the end.”
Mask, Punk Ass, and Skyscrape have been friends for over fi fteen years, bonded by a searing love for the sport and all things bad-intentioned. The crew has come a long way since their 1998 beginnings, and have since brought their brand to the small screen via a Versus channel reality show. They have turned a simple t-shirt line into a full lifestyle apparel brand, housed in over 2,000 retail locations including Champs Sports, Hibbett Sports, Tilly’s, Dillard’s, and Zumie. A quick perusal of any arena during an MMA bout will reveal a crowd covered in the TapouT logo.
Company founder Mask says, “People identify with heroes, and one way to do that is to emulate them. MMA has real-life heroes. If people are looking up to these heroes, then they’re going to want to be just like them.” From behind his ever-present dark sunglasses, Punk Ass adds, “We’re proof of that. TapouT is the fi rst company that selfcapitalized and didn’t have a lot of money to pay fi ghters. The rise of MMA has grown our sales and allowed us to pay [sponsored] fi ghters in accordance with the growth of the sport. As MMA has grown, TapouT has grown and fi ghters’ purses have grown – all at a similar rate.”
Recognition from major retail outlets has brought a second group of merchandisers to the fray – heavy hitters who are already established in other arenas. Carlsbad, California- based action sports lifestyle brand No Fear does everything from manufacture motocross protective gear to lending their name to an energy drink partnership with Pepsi. No Fear has taken an initial step into MMA by signing an endorsement deal with World Extreme Cagefi ghting Featherweight Champion Urijah Faber.
“We’ve been in business for seventeen years. Getting into the MMA game, we’ve seen the most rapid return on investment of any category we’ve participated in; we see it at the retail and wholesale levels, on the internet, and at the fi fty retail stores we own and operate. For the fi rst time in our company’s history we took a part of another category and inserted it into our DNA,” says Britt Galland, VP of Marketing for No Fear. “Part of the reason we did our deal with the WEC is because of their desire for us to bring to the table sort of a transcending opportunity. We have athletes in many other sports, and they are all interested in MMA. That was part of the research, because we wanted it to fi t well with all of our other platforms; we will look to bring those to each other. We are in places that MMA isn’t, and if we can bring our MMA play to those areas, we most defi nitely will.”
Internationally, retail has never been so accommodating to MMA buyers. Online retail giant MMAWarehouse.com leads the charge, as the only online MMA specialty store in a pool of major retailers carrying a limited MMA product selection. Run by CEO Mika Casey, out of a 6,000 square foot facility in Illinois, the staff of ten ships products from almost 40 vendors. Casey started the company after fi nding it diffi cult to acquire TapouT shirts and Fairtex gear in 2004. Today, customers are only a click away from Stagr, Hostility, or Warrior Wear brands that might otherwise be diffi cult to acquire. His brilliance and foresight has yielded annual growth of 100% to 200% since day one.
Casey says, “You are seeing styles and brands that you wouldn’t readily identify as MMA if you didn’t know it, very similar to surf and skate. That means a culture is evolving around this sport. It’s actually really exciting as a consumer right now, because these companies are constantly outdoing themselves and coming out with awesome product.”
Mike DiSabato of MMA Authentics, creator of the Cage Fighter and Familia Gladiatoria brands, would agree. However, he is pushing for the next frontier, the license. A former NCAA wrestler, who attended Ohio State University at the same time as buddies and UFC veterans Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, DiSabato understands how to use licensing to create idols. Having worked for major sports licensing companies for over ten years, DiSabato realizes that the future of MMA merchandising lies in licensing fi ghters’ images for apparel and novelties, much like NFL, NASCAR, and NBA athletes. DiSabato came to this conclusion after Randy Couture took the UFC Heavyweight title from Tim Sylvia in his home town of Columbus, Ohio at UFC 68. Now, Cage Fighter, his most recognizable brand, is attempting to corner the training market. He hopes that his brand can be as ingrained in MMA as Everlast is into boxing. But that is only step one.
He tells us, “In NASCAR, 80% of the business is done by 20% of the drivers, like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. My immediate thought was, if I could secure the top, the Earnhardts and Gordons, I should have a business model that I could move forward with immediately. What astounded me was that Chuck Liddell is this huge star, and no one had ever shipped a Chuck Liddell shirt to Wal-Mart. Now Tom Brady is the biggest star in the NFL, you can rest assured that there’s a Tom Brady t-shirt in just about every Wal- Mart store across the country. In two months, we were able to secure Chuck in an exclusive licensing arrangement with every one of the retailers I had been working with for ten years. In the next six to twelve months, you’ll see Wal-Mart get into the sport in a pretty aggressive way.”
This level of merchandising is a sign that MMA has truly arrived. These products create a deeper connection with the sport for its many fans, and allow them to taste the excitement experienced by its fi ghters. Here’s to the gilded age of the cage!