UFC climbs into the sports marketing ring

The mixed martial arts organization teams up with Burger King in its first Canadian brand partnership.

It’s fitting that UFC Canada’s first brand matchup was with aggressive QSR contender Burger King featuring its pugilistic product, the Angry Whopper. They were a tag team for the UFC’s December event in Montreal. 
When mixed martial arts officially became legal in Ontario in January, the way was paved for UFC, its largest and most popular purveyor, to put a choke hold on the Canadian market. Based in Las Vegas, UFC opened an office in Toronto last summer but it has been staging bouts in Canada since 2008 – its first was in Montreal – and has built a substantial Canadian fan base. All five Canadian events are among the top 10 in the league’s history for largest gate. The fastest sellout ever for UFC was a June event in Vancouver, and its most recent event in Montreal in December saw the largest attendance with over 23,000 fans, most cheering for Georges St-Pierre, a native of the city. It’s all helped to stoke interest in cross-promotional opportunities. 
UFC director of marketing and PPV Mark Halliday says UFC Canada’s first-ever brand partnership leveraged an existing stateside relationship with Burger King. It involved a radio remote at a well-performing BK restaurant in Quebec where a UFC Octagon Girl was brought in to sign autographs and free t-shirts were given away. The first person to respond to a tweet by coming in shouting “I want an Angry Whopper” received a pair of autographed UFC fighting gloves.
“Our fan base and their customer base align perfectly,” says Halliday. “We both felt really good about how the event went and we’re looking forward to doing more with them.”
Labatt is a Canadian brand that’s been pinned down in the beer category, but that’s because Bud Light’s the long-standing global UFC beer sponsor, a partnership arranged by UFC’s head office. 
 As it moves towards its next event in April, UFC 129 in Toronto, UFC Canada is experiencing no shortage of interest from potential partners, says Halliday, adding that its focus is to work with brands that hit the same, mostly male target demo and align with the values UFC believes it embodies: discipline, fitness and commitment.
So far UFC Canada has had discussions with retail, automotive, hardware, confectionary and consumer electronics brands, mostly in the context of sponsor activations in and around event venues, the weigh-ins and a fan expo taking place the same weekend as UFC 129.
The moneymaker, of course, is pay-per-view. In January, UFC Canada named Bensimon Byrne in Toronto as its AOR, mandated to handle localized marketing creative, digital marketing, media planning and buying and promotional activities for all UFC
PPV events to raise the league’s profile in Canada.
“We think of the work we do for UFC as local area marketing. That is, what can we bring to the party [in terms of] our knowledge of the Canadian marketplace,” says David Rosenberg, CCO, Bensimon Byrne. “We will also look for creative ways to build audience habits, repeat business and thus value for pay-per-view buys in bars and at home.” 
All in all, Halliday says UFC Canada’s goal is to build the sport and the core brand, and grow the business in Canada.“We’ve got a hardcore committed audience of 18- to 34-year-olds who are very passionate, but there is a larger audience out there that we need to reach that have a [particular] perception of our sport and I think we need to educate them a little bit,” he says.

Five brands unlikely to team up with UFC
A UFC event isn’t a love-in, but there is a lot of giving and receiving.
Tampax: An unlikely partner, despite the fact that there’s usually a UFC PPV event every month (not to mention blood).
Huggies: No babies allowed in UFC – there is, however, occasionally crying and some fighters might need diapers after falling prey to a kidney shot.
Lululemon: The brand may share some of the same values as UFC (i.e., fitness and discipline), but the downward dog will not increase a fighter’s chances of survival, despite confusing his opponent.
Barbie: We don’t think they’ve added the profession of Octagon Girl to their “I Can Be” line yet.