Just a few short years ago, there was a debate about the image being portrayed by the NBA. Some felt that the image that the players exuded was not consistent with what was expected by the league's primary business-oriented customer base. Interestingly, the highest profile aspect of the actions taken by the NBA turned out to be the dress code. The union reps at the time famously demanded some sort of stipend for purchasing dress clothes. I can understand how the media would have chosen to cover the hilarity of these claims about millionaires needing assistance to afford a suit. But, what went largely unnoticed at the time was the other element of the attempt at addressing this image concern: The NBA Cares.
Launched in 2005, the program's mission is as follows:
"NBA Cares is the league’s global community outreach initiative that addresses important social issues such as education, youth and family development, and health and wellness. The NBA, its teams, and players support a range of programs, partners and initiatives that strive to positively impact children and families worldwide."
Most impressive are the quantifiable results of the program's efforts:
"Since October 2005 when NBA Cares was launched, the league, players and teams have raised more than $145 million for charity, provided more than 1.4 million hours of hands-on service, and built more than 525 places where kids and families can live, learn or play in communities around the world."
As fans of basketball, we may not think about it very often, but the efforts of the NBA cares program have become an expected element of our favorite teams' broadcast. Most fans can recall images of recognizable stars reading books to children in their local communities or handing out presents around Christmas time. I would argue that such efforts are far more influential to the brand perception than the more highly publicized dress code.
So, how does this apply to the UFC? No, I'm not suggesting the UFC has an image problem. In fact, the interesting paradox about the brand is that mass acceptance would actually harm its value in the long run. There needs to be a sense of rebellion associate with the sport of MMA, or it loses a lot of its appeal. But, I do feel very strongly that the UFC is missing out on an excellent chance to reach out to the communities it entertains in very meaningful ways.
More about potential action steps after the jump...
The UFC's upcoming "Fight for the Troops 2" event on Spike TV is a wonderful example of what the UFC is capable of. The first "Fight for the Troops" event took place in North Carolina in December of 2008 and raised over $4 million for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a leader in the support of the men and women of the armed forces. The funds donated by the UFC specifically addressed a division of the Fallen Heroes Fund dedicated to the treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The second iteration of this event takes place this Saturday January 22nd live from Fort Hood, Texas and is supported by an auction featuring a UFC VIP Experience, a UFC Custom Camaro, and Dinner with the Octagon Girls.
Clearly, the UFC understands that the choice of how to contribute to their community is crucial. Given that a number of fighters under contract with UFC have military experience, Fight for the Troops has been a very good fit. Conversely, I just don't see an image of Rampage Jackson reading to children at his local grade school as being all that constructive for the brand. The other trick is in how to display these efforts in a more prominent and cohesive fashion. An example of this is the NFL's partnership with the United Way 'NFL Play 60.' The idea behind this program is that the NFL wants to take action in addressing childhood obesity by encouraging kids to be active for at least sixty minutes per day. I like the tie-in with this program to the active nature of the sport the NFL promotes. Commercials are ran in prominent time slots during their games.
The question the UFC has to ask itself is, what do we have to offer the community? One possible answer, I would argue, is a built-in talent pool of self-defense instructors. Such a program could easily be tied into UFC Gym located in various parts of California with plans to expand. But, could just as easily be part of a traveling road show of emerging markets around the world where events are soon to be scheduled. Another interesting element would be to incorporate the growing female fan base. Think of how powerful a strong stance by the UFC against violence to women could be. Even the biggest male MMA fan has a girlfriend or loved one who he worries about. Self defense training, even in its most basic form, is a proven weapon against violence towards women. And, like the NBA, these images could be captured in the form of 15 to 30 second commercials to be viewed by live audiences and PPV buyers alike.
Another possibility could come in the form of support for the Wrestling community. As it stands today, college wrestling programs continue to be important feeder programs into the sport of Mixed Marital Arts. The sad reality, however is that many of our country's college wrestling programs are in danger of being cut. Organizations like Wrestlers in Business have mounted strong advocacy programs to assist in the preservation of these athletic programs which they hold so dear:
As we continue to build a strong, vibrant community, Wrestlers in Business aims to become a leading advocate for the sport of wrestling throughout the United States. We aim to sustain and grow the sport through in any way that we can.
Funding to Initiate Wrestling Programs in Underprivileged Communities
Assist Wrestling Programs in Need With the Purchase of Equipment
Provide Financial Assistance to College Programs in Danger of Losing Their Program
Facilitate Scholarship Opportunities
Provide Financial Assistance to Olympic Wrestlers
Help Former Wrestlers in Need of Financial Assistance
This type of organization would be an ideal fit for the UFC and their community outreach efforts. In the process, they would be solidifying a crucial source of future athletes for years to come.
Does the UFC Care? Their generous efforts in raising money to support the Intrepid Fallen Heroes suggests to me that the answer is a resounding yes. But, to impact the brand equity in positive ways the masses need to know about the UFC's charitable efforts. I would argue that the UFC needs to follow the lead of major sports organizations like the NBA and NFL and establish a division dedicated to organizing and advertising these contributions to the community. The other challenge is in finding the most natural fit to frame its outreach efforts. I have suggested two possibilities, but many more exist. The results could be just what the UFC needs to be respected as a legitimate sports organization rivaling the likes of the NBA and NFL.