Opinion

Will brands pull their ad dollars from the UFC following Conor McGregor’s latest debacle?

Can advertisers such as Beats by Dre, Monster Energy, Reebok and Bud Light continue – in good conscience – to invest their sponsorship dollars into the UFC following the disgraceful scenes in New York, asks IPG Mediabrand's Naomi Michael

From the first time I heard the opening notes of Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo in Martin Scorsese’s classic boxing film Raging Bull, I was fascinated by the beauty and brutality of competitive fighting.

A platform that provides a level playing field for the underdog – whose school of hard knocks ill prepares them for the sudden influx of wealth, notoriety and manipulation that can quickly follow success – is a gripping story repeatedly played out through history, and a common thread in the mixed martial arts industry.

I have followed the Ultimate Fighting Championship from its conceptual days of identifying the most effective martial art through competitors born of different fight disciplines. I’ve watched with interest as it exploded into the multi-billion dollar advertising franchise it is today, enjoying immense mainstream media coverage across pay-per-view, subscription and network television.

Heroes are created overnight in the UFC, but their skills in the Octagon don’t necessarily equip them with maturity and experience to navigate being public figures of cultural influence. From humble Irish roots, Conor McGregor’s explosive confidence and self-belief facilitated a meteoric rise to the top; quickly earning him a position as the UFC’s most bankable star.

A natural entertainer McGregor has courted and curated the media circus that surrounds him. Each incident more outlandish than the last, but surely the latest was a leap too far?

McGregor’s explosive confidence facilitated a meteoric rise to the top of the UFC

In an alleged retaliation attack, he targeted the newly-crowned lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov – an undefeated Dagestan fighter famed for his wrestling abilities and for fighting a bear as a child (seriously, it’s on YouTube) – who a few days earlier had been involved in an altercation with the Irishman’s team-mate Artem Lobov.

McGregor and his entourage allegedly stormed a bus full of UFC fighters and execs at the Barclays Centre in New York, throwing a hand truck through the window. The rampage saw four injured victims sent to hospital for treatment including UFC lightweight Michael Chiesa and UFC flyweight Ray Borg. Both of whom had to withdraw from the card and cancel their fights.

President of the UFC Dana White publicly announced he was appalled by the situation, calling it “disgusting” and a “dumb career move”. However he also chose to publish the mobile footage of the incident (from multiple angles). Is this really the act of an appalled manager?

You might argue that the UFC should indeed be transparent about what happened rather than try to sweep the matter under the carpet. Yet you cannot help but suspect that the published footage will serve as excellent promotional material for a big money ‘McGregor v Nurmagomedov‘ bout. It will undoubtedly be scheduled in the not too distant future. Marketing 101 folks.

This is a dangerous precedent. And it is disappointingly one of those situations that highlights the unequal application of justice in the UFC. Had this been any other fighter, such behaviour would undoubtedly incite a case of immediate termination. But McGregor’s ability to attract PPV audiences has made him immune to consequences and he knows it. McGregor is yet to apologise or show real remorse for his alleged actions.

What are the wider repercussions of the UFC tolerating this behaviour through a lack of action? Will we witness any fallout as brands withdraw their support? Can advertisers such as Beats by Dre, Monster Energy, Reebok and Bud Light continue, in good conscience, to invest their sponsorship dollars into McGregor?

You cannot help but compare the Western status quo to the Asian market, where such a disgraceful incident would spell the end of a fighter’s career – if not the end of the entire sporting franchise.

Chatri Sityodtong, chief executive officer of ONE Championship – Asia’s largest martial arts franchise – was quoted as saying: “If Conor McGregor was a free agent, ONE Championship wouldn’t sign him”. He actively seeks to differentiate the ONE Championship from the UFC focusing on it being steeped in Asian tradition with his fighters demonstrating humility, honour and respect.

Sityodtong would not go near McGregor due to his behaviour

As for the future of McGregor and his irrepressible media antics, I can’t help but be transported back to DeNiro’s portrayal of the tough boxer turned entertainer/poet, Jake LaMotta, in Raging Bull. Having hung up his gloves, he tells the audience: “And although I can fight, I’d much rather recite: That’s entertainment.”

Naomi Michael is Asia-Pacific head of marketing and communications at IPG Mediabrands and is based in Singapore

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