The growth of mixed martial arts and more specifically the UFC can easily be tracked through a series of marquee deals that benefited the sport both financially and in marketability throughout the worldwide market.
In 2008, the UFC landed deals with both Anheuser-Busch and Harley Davidson, marking a major step forward in endorsement deals with ‘blue-chip’ sponsors. Then in 2011, the UFC brokered a 7-year multi-million dollar deal for broadcast rights of their shows to air on Fox television and several Fox subsidiaries.
On Wednesday, another landmark deal was announced this time for one of the UFC’s top stars as light heavyweight champion Jon ‘Bones’ Jones signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Nike, the worldwide leader in sports apparel.
Jones, along with his manager Malki Kawa and other partners, have been working on landing the Nike deal for several months, and now it has been finalized ahead of his upcoming bout at UFC 151 against Dan Henderson.
Jones and his manager had been working feverishly to try and catch the attention of Nike, and in early 2012 they received some assistance from a famous friend to help push things along.
“We’ve been trying to get this Nike deal for a while,” Kawa told MMAWeekly.com on Thursday. “We met with Ari Emanuel’s group WME back in January after Jon’s (Lyoto) Machida fight, and we started doing some business with WME and Ari Emanuel and his group, and we just told Ari we need help getting this Nike deal done and we’d like to find a way to get a meeting with them or something like that, and Ari Emanuel went and made that happen.”
Ari Emanuel is a powerful agent and the co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor (WME) and was the inspiration for the popular character Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage. Emanuel represents some of the top talent throughout Hollywood including Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake and Entourage creator Mark Wahlberg. While the casual MMA fan might not know Emanuel’s name, just about everyone in Hollywood calls him one of the most powerful players in the business.
Kawa says getting Emanuel involved was the first real step towards landing the deal with Nike, and he pays credit to the powerful Hollywood agent for helping to make Jones’ dream endorsement become a reality.
“Without him it never would have happened, I’ll tell you that right now. Because I can promise you that Nike had zero interest in MMA, as far as North America or global level, like absolutely zero interest. I know there’s a lot of other deals that are out there that they’ve done before with (Yoshihiro) Akiyama and I think they did one with Caol Uno once, they obviously have done things with Anderson (Silva), but from what I understand when it came to North America and using fighters in a lot of their marketing in North America they just really weren’t interested,” Kawa stated.
“Ari opened the doors for us, Ari set up the meeting for us, Ari told these guys basically like this is his opinion on stuff, and he’s such a well respected guy and so powerful when it comes to this business and all the influence that he has and the deals that he’s done. I mean you’ve got to understand he represents the who’s who in Hollywood.”
Emanuel has been a driving force with the UFC as he also helped broker the deal between the MMA promotion and Fox television. Now he once again uses his connections and influence to push another major deal forward for the industry.
Looking at the landscape of major endorsements, Kawa knows that Nike is as big as they come, but this agreement doesn’t only benefit Jon Jones. He believes it benefits every, single fighter in mixed martial arts.
“This was that landmark deal that shows ‘hey, Nike came into the sport’. Now that Nike’s in the sport it legitimizes these athletes more and more,” said Kawa.
“It’s a huge deal and now it allows other managers and other agents with their fighters to go to other companies and go ‘remember you were scared to come into MMA? Well, look at Nike. Nike represents all kinds of athletes’.”
Jones has been outspoken in the past about his desire to land a deal with Nike. Speaking prior to his UFC 145 bout with Rashad Evans, he says that his long term goal was to be a part of a company like Nike instead of acting as a walking billboard for a hundred different sponsors.
“For this fight, I have a goal, I’ve had a goal of being sponsored by Nike for many, many years. Part of our strategy to try and make that happen one day is to not be a billboard, and not just be sponsored by TapouT one week, and Affliction one week, and then MusclePharm next week, and all these random companies,” Jones explained in April.
“If you realize, I try to look for relationships with companies, long lasting relationships with companies. So a part of my brand is to keep it clean. Less is more in my opinion.”
Now that the UFC’s reigning light heavyweight champion joins other professional athletes like Miami Heat forward LeBron James, and golf champion Tiger Woods as part of the Nike family, the next step in the relationship will be building the Jon Jones brand.
Part of that brand will include a signature line of shoes, t-shirts, hats and other apparel, and Jones will work alongside Nike designers who have worked with athletes like Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in creating a catalog of products with his name attached to them.
Jones will wear Nike apparel to the Octagon for his upcoming fight at UFC 151 against Dan Henderson, and the Oregon based company will also be designing a pair of fight shorts for the New York native to use down the line as well.
While other ‘blue-chip’ endorsement deals have been inked in the past with regional ties like Anderson Silva in Brazil or Georges St-Pierre in Canada, Jones’ Nike sponsorship will launch on a massive, global scale. Looking at the bigger picture, Kawa knows that Jones’ deal with Nike can only serve as a launching pad for other fighters to land similar endorsements in the near future.
“I’ve always said that if we can do the right thing for Jon, and help Jon get there, it’s going to open doors for everyone else,” said Kawa. “So now Jon gets the first deal in MMA like this, well tomorrow there might be another type of guy that comes along that’s not Jon Jones, and that’s going to open up opportunities for them.”
He also knows the competitive nature of business that creates new opportunities. It’s not reaching too far to believe that other major shoe and apparel companies such as Adidas or Reebok will see what Nike has done by signing Jon Jones, and they could begin offering similar deals to other stars in the MMA world.
Now that the Nike deal has been secured, Kawa is just happy to share this with Jones, while basking in the knowledge that he worked hard to get there and deserves this opportunity.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on for a very long time and I’m just proud that it finally happened, and I’m glad that it finally happened,” said Kawa.
“You guys have no idea as a manager how proud I am of Jon, and what an accomplishment to see this happen. This is as important or even maybe more important than him winning the belt when he won it. This is such a good thing for him.”