Ranger Up’s innovative sponsorship tactics are keeping fighters covered in and out of the cage.
Not too long ago, the MMA landscape was overflowing with sponsorship opportunities. Fighters were covered with logos of the newest clothing lines, equipment brands, and nutritional supplements. But those days are over, with many MMA companies having gone the way of the dot-com boom. We’re now in a time where the MMA sponsorship well has dried up, leading several outspoken fighters to voice their displeasure about not getting paid enough—or at all—from the few consistent sponsors they are able to secure.
One company that has maintained its staying power through this downward spiral is Ranger Up—an apparel brand focused on the unique worldview of those who serve in the Armed Forces. The company was started by military veteran-turned-entrepreneur Nick Palmisciano in 2006.
Palmisciano graduated from West Point in 1998 and served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2003. He then attended graduate school at Duke University, where he volunteered with the ROTC, teaching the “Army’s version of MMA and small unit tactics.” It was shortly after graduation when he heard a few of his students complaining about a shortage of cool military apparel, other than those of the “skull and snake” variety. Palmisciano came up with a few t-shirt designs he thought were original and cool and gave them to his students. Surprised by all the positive feedback he received for his creations, Palmisciano decided to brand an apparel line that he named Ranger Up.
Now, Ranger Up is the largest military apparel brand and has grown at such a pace that it was ranked in Internet Retailer’s Second 500 Guide as one of the top 1,000 e-commerce websites in 2012 and 2013. Palmisciano credits much of that success to a loyal Facebook following of more than 200,000—all fans and customers of Ranger Up’s military-themed clothing, which feature the company’s patriotic slogans and creative designs.
Not only has Ranger Up found a unique niche in its clothing and merchandise, the company has also taken a very interesting—and almost unheard of—stance on sponsorship and the fighters they choose to support. They are open to sponsoring any male or female fighter as long as he or she is active or retired in military, law enforcement, firefighting, or EMS capacities—it’s a leave-no-fighter-behind sponsorship philosophy.
“The number of fighters we sponsor hovers around 100,” Palmisciano says. “With only a handful of exceptions, every person has served in uniform—men and women. We invest in people that we believe in, who share our values and believe in us.”
Ranger Up’s stable of sponsored fighters who have served in the military include recognizable names such as Tim Kennedy, Brian Stann, Colton Smith, Liz Carmouche, and Jorge Rivera. The company also extends their sponsorship opportunities to fighters competing in smaller organizations and regional circuits, even though the athletes may not generate as much exposure for the company as more well-known fighters.
“Most of the fighters we sponsor won’t ever make sense monetarily, but we don’t care,” says Palmisciano. “When they go out on the local MMA circuit and perform well, it often leads to the guys who look up to them to start training. We like being a part of that—making the military stronger. That’s why we do it.”
Marine and retired mixed martial artist Jonathan Walsh, whose 10-year career was spent competing on the regional circuit in smaller shows, remembers the opportunities Ranger Up provided him, both in and out of the cage.
“During a losing streak, they didn’t drop me,” says Walsh. “They were there to help every time. I came to realize it wasn’t fighting they cared about. It was the fact that I was part of the family, repping the brand with good sportsmanship and pushing it out to everyone I knew at fights, grappling tournaments, and around the bases where I was stationed. After a year out of uniform, I was having a hard time getting ahead. So, I called Nick. We spoke about an idea—a program to help vets become entrepreneurs—that he had been kicking around. He asked if I was interested. I worked at Ranger Up for nine months, taking classes in marketing, finance, and accounting that he created for me. When the nine months were up, they invested in my business—space, mats, weights, the whole nine yards. I am now the proud owner of Five Rings MMA in Jacksonville, North Carolina.”
Most MMA companies are caught up in trying to measure the number of eyeballs that are going to see their logo on a guy’s shorts. Companies are on the record saying they hope for a long fight with their guy on top so their logo gets more exposure. That’s not the case for Palmisciano, and that’s what separates Ranger Up from other MMA brands.
“We’re in business to support those in uniform, literally,” says Palmisciano. “That’s why I started Ranger Up. I had a very lucrative job at a Fortune 100 company. It was never meant to be anything more than a hobby—a way for me to stay connected to service. Now, I’m fortunate that that hobby has grown to a substantial endeavor, but that doesn’t change the ethos or our values. The bigger we get, the more we give back. For us, sponsorship is giving back.”
So, the obvious questions become, how does Ranger Up maintain this model of sponsorship, and what type of financial impact does it have on the company?
“It’s not something that even gets discussed,” says Palmisciano. “You have to understand, we are a company made up of infantrymen, special operators, and Marines. We like a challenge. We’re not looking to make a living and be comfortable. We want to develop an enormous business across multiple product and service lines, employ a ton of veterans, and make a marked difference in the military community.”
For Tim Kennedy and Brian Stann, being Ranger Up fighters is more than having a patch on their shorts or a logo on their shirt.
“At first, they were just a sponsor, albeit a cool sponsor,” Kennedy says. “But one thing that stuck out was that they never pretended to be giant like all the other brands that no longer exist, and I liked that. Over time, they honestly became my family. And that’s why I bought into the company a few years ago. There aren’t too many good organizations anymore. I wanted to be part of something good.”
Stann echoes the same sentiments. “Ranger Up is not really a sponsor in my eyes,” he says. “They are a partner. You help them by being an ambassador for their brand, but they also help market you and your own personal brand. They support their fighters with everything they have, and regardless of the outcome, they support their athletes because of their character, sportsmanship, and effort.”
Not resting on his laurels, Palmisciano has big plans for his company in 2014. “Ranger Up is going to be a product and content powerhouse,” he says. “This past year, we have developed our own animated cartoon, our own line of American-made jeans, and our military news site—the Rhino Den—has cemented its place as the largest military blog in existence. And that pales in comparison to what we have planned for next year. As far as fighters, we plan to sponsor as many of them as apply, so long as they have served honorably, represent themselves as men and women in uniform should, and live up to their obligations.”
For more information on Ranger Up’s merchandise, apparel, and sponsorship opportunities, visit rangerup.com. To become part of the Ranger Up community, join them on Facebook at facebook.com/RangerUpFanPage and make sure to check out their military news blog Rhino Den at rhinoden.rangerup.com.