UFC entry to spirits ring has lessons for industry and its celebrity infatuation - Comment

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September was a big month for spirits and the combat sport known as mixed-martial arts, or MMA. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest promoter in MMA, signed its first vodka partnership, with Nemiroff. A few days later Heaven Hill Brands came onboard with UFC through a partnership for its Blackheart Premium Spiced Rum.

MMA star Conor McGregor launched Proper No. Twelve Irish whiskey in September

MMA star Conor McGregor launched Proper No. Twelve Irish whiskey in September

Both of these deals were announced just before the entry into the spirits category by UFC's and MMA's biggest star, Conor McGregor, who launched his own Irish whisky called Proper No. Twelve (the name refers to the part of Dublin McGregor grew up in).

This year could well be even bigger for spirits and the often brutal and bloody world of MMA. According to filings in the US and UK, the UFC is in the process of trademarking the name "UFC Ultimate Spirits", suggesting that the promoter is working on its own alcohol range. 

UFC did not respond to a request for confirmation of its intentions behind the trademarking application. But, if the group were to enter spirits in its own right, it would be a smart move from a company that has done more than any other to cement MMA as a legitimate sports entertainment business, regularly bringing in more than a million viewers to its profitable pay-per-view event nights.

Just how successful a spirits tie-up can be for MMA was underlined last year by McGregor's Proper No. Twelve. Released in September, the whiskey was out of stock in the US and Ireland less than two months later, according to owners Eire Born Spirits.

This could be put down to typical supplier hyperbole for a new launch, but the distiller confirmed to just-drinks that it had sold "hundreds of thousands" of bottles in a month. To put that in perspective, in fiscal-2018, Pernod Ricard's Jameson extension, Jameson Caskmates, sold an average of 300,000 bottles a month. Considering Caskmates has the power of both the Jameson name and Pernod's distribution behind it, Proper No. Twelve's performance stacks up favourably.

UFC likely wants a slice of this for itself. Beer has long been a part of UFC - Anheuser-Busch InBev's Bud Light started sponsoring fights more than a decade ago and was replaced in the US by Constellation Brands' Modelo Especial last year. But, spirits have until now has largely stayed away. That's a surprise, as UFC audience demographics fit with spirits companies looking to capture young males who make up the bulk of MMA's audience. And, as with other sports, there's no issue with age-gating. To put it in perhaps overly-simple terms, if you're old enough to watch two men (or women) smash each other in the face, then you're probably old enough to drink.

However, the success of McGregor's Proper No. Twelve, and the success of UFC itself, should act as a lesson for the spirits industry increasingly looking to profit from celebrity attachments.

As Proper No. Twelve proved, if you put the right name on the right product (and dowse it in the correct dosage of heritage and authenticity), you have the ingredients for a major hit. Diageo tried it - with qualified success - with David Beckham and Haig Club, and again with the reportedly US$1bn acquisition of George Clooney's Casamigos Tequila.

The trend for celebrity endorsements of spirits that started with musicians in vodka is now firmly entrenched in more premium categories. Last year, director Steven Soderburgh ramped up global distribution of his Singani 63 South American spirit, while Sex and the City star Chris Noth bought into ultra-premium Ambhar Tequila. Brown spirits are now as likely to build a brand on the back of an actor or sports personality as on a long-dead distiller from the American south.

There's danger in this approach, however, which is where UFC's lessons come in. The promoter's audience grew massively on the back of fights featuring a handful of well-known fighters; McGregor himself, and also Ronda Rousey, who became a global name after her string of lightning-quick knock-downs in the female division. But, Rousey's star fell quickly after she was beaten for a second time at the end of 2016. Meanwhile, McGregor has had a strained relationship with UFC ever since he decided to fight boxer Floyd Mayweather in a mixed-code fight in 2017. In October last year, a month after he launched his whiskey, he was soundly defeated by Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Bereft of major stars, viewing figures for UFC have fallen.

Similarly, a spirits brand backed by a current famous face leans heavily on his or her fame. Today, more than ever, that equity can disappear fast. Those long-dead brown spirits names may have been bootleggers (or even actual pirates) in their time. But, at least brand owners can be sure they won't turn up on Entertainment Tonight on sexual misconduct charges.

Of course, the rise and fall of a star's power is less of a worry for UFC - indeed, that's the very nature of combat sport. When one champion is sent to the canvas, there's always another waiting to take their place.

UFC will hope its revolving stable will help keep it fresh for the fight in the combative premium spirits arena.

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