If ever the UFC had an Achilles heel, it’s the much maligned Reebok sponsorship deal. Criticism of the deal has been a constant thorn in the UFC’s side ever since it was announced in late 2014 (the outfitting policy, under which fighters wear exclusively Reebok gear and have no other visible sponsors, took effect July 2015). Forbes referred to the UFC-Reebok deal as “exploiting UFC fighters” and many UFC athletes past and present have cited the deal as a major detriment to fighting with the promotion.
Some have even used it as justification to leave the promotion for greener pastures.
Yet if criticism of the financial side of the deal has been harsh (while some fighters saw a bump in sponsorship money or at least broke even, others took a major hit), reaction to the Reebok gear itself has been one of near-universal disappointment. It’s easy to point to the foibles of the deal, like the infamous Giblert Melendez mishap that has become a popular MMA meme. Beyond that, however, the fight kits just looked… bad. Bland, generic, and overpriced. When the Reebok deal was announced, outside of the financials, expectations were high that UFC athletes would look stunning. Custom walkout shirts, logos, but professional and without some tired, cliched tribal design.
Well, Reebok got the tribal part right. Everything else? When every fighter has essentially their name, a couple of color bands, and the letters UFC on them, there’s not much to attract fans. Despite how the UFC often puts the promotion over the athletes in terms of marketing, it’s not a sports franchise. You don’t root for the UFC the way you root for (or against) the Dallas Cowboys, so having a UFC “jersey” that happens to have someone’s name on it isn’t much of a selling point.
What should have happened was fighter-specific designs, worn to, if not in, the cage, from day one. Which is now happening, according to this week’s press release from the UFC and Reebok, introducing new Fight Night outfits and a “Legacy” series that will highlight fighter’s personalities.
“With the new UFC Fight Night Collection, we wanted to give athletes a product that meets the quality and performance demands that they depend on in the Octagon, but also offer them an opportunity to let their unique confidence and personalities shine through. Our design, product and research teams have spent countless hours talking to and working with the UFC athletes and MMA community to do just that” said Corinna Werkle, General Manager of Training at Reebok via a press release published to the UFC’s official website.
How much research was really required to figure out that bland, generic designs were not the way to go? When the most eye-popping aspect of your fight kit is a color scheme loosely aligned with an athlete’s nationality (Canadians get red and white, Brazilians get green and yellow, and America seems to get just about whatever color a fighter feels like), you have a major design flaw.
Still, these new fight kits are a step in the right direction, right? The Legacy series, which will allow “for any athlete competing in the main event of a UFC PPV event or competing in a championship bout to co-design and wear a UFC Walkout Jersey that is customized to their specifications” should go over like gangbusters, no?
Well, maybe, but over a third of the way through the Reebok deal, this screams of too little, too late. Ponder for a moment the decision to apply this to only title holders and challengers. Color me crazy, but I’d rather wear a custom Mark Hunt shirt than a Ray Borg one. That’s not a knock on Borg, but Hunt is just a favorite, and most fans will want to wear shirts from their favorite fighters — not just who happens to be challenging for a title this month.
Rankings might have been a better way to go for this, and it is still early — maybe it could be expanded to, say, fighters who have remained in the top ten for the past year.
As for the new UFC Fight Night Kits, well, they look marginally better than what came before. Given how dull the old outfits were, however, that’s not saying much.
Not to mention that at $50 for a Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson legacy series T-shirt, it’s still overpriced. So yes, too little, too late, for too much. At this point, Reebok is going to need to dazzle to win over that “MMA community” they say the consulted with. Average just isn’t going to cut it.
The new duds will make their debut at this coming weekend’s UFC 215. You can see more of them in the gallery below.