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Inside The Octagon: UFC’s Performance Institute

The 30,000 sq. foot high-performance training center was part of the ambition, not just to position UFC as the leader in combat sports performance, but in global sports performance.

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Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

‘Do you want to be a fighter?’ The notorious question by UFC President Dana White aired during the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. It sparked a fire in reality television and introduced the sport of Mixed Martial Arts to the American masses.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the premier combat sports league worldwide. Beginning in 1993, the organization would be purchased in 2001 for $2 million by White and business partners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

Fast-forward to 2017 where the trio sold a majority of its enterprise to WME-IMG, a talent agency in Los Angeles, for a staggering $4 billion. Currently, this is the richest sale in the history of professional sports.

With momentum on its side, the UFC (based in Las Vegas) decided to double-down on its roots and construct a new global headquarters in Sin City.

Opening its doors in May of 2017, the corporate campus houses 250+ employees on 15 acres of land, costing $14 million to build. It’s also home to the Performance Institute, the world’s first Mixed Martial Arts multi-disciplinary research, innovation, and training center.

Front Office Sports was invited to the ‘Fight Capital of the World’ and given an exclusive tour of the property. We first met with James Kimball, VP of Operations and learned about the company’s vision.

“The UFC Performance Institute was conceptualized in 2014. With over 500 athletes under contract, each is considered independent contractors. It’s also a global sport so many of the fighters live outside of the United States. Nearly half of the roster has come to visit the new facility and any given week around 20 athletes will be in Las Vegas training for an upcoming competition,” Kimball noted.

Back in 2014, the company did an internal audit of what was working (and what wasn’t) for its athletes.

“The culmination was this 30,000 sq. foot high-performance training center built for the UFC athlete,” said Kimball.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

“The whole project took 2 ½ years; we’ve been open now for 7 months and most importantly you can have the best facility in the world, but if you don’t have the right operators in place to manage it then you won’t be able to accomplish what you really set out to do,” Kimball explained.

Walking around the complex you get a sense of how big the sport has grown, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

“Our recruitment for staff was a year long, Duncan French was our first hire. He oversees our entire performance team. Our staff is pretty lean, around 10 people. As VP of Performance, Duncan is in charge of our strength & conditioning, nutrition, physical therapy and support staff,” Kimball informed.

Having a world-class doctor seems imperative for a sports organization, but how about former athletes? Enter UFC Hall of Famer, Forrest Griffin.

Winner of the first season on The Ultimate Fighter, Griffin is widely regarded as one of the men who elevated the platform for MMA’s current success and popularity. Griffin went on to have a successful UFC career, capturing the light heavyweight championship before retiring in 2012. He is now the VP of Athletic Development.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

Kimball and Griffin traveled to 50+ facilities around the globe, consulting with NBA, NFL, MLB and English Premier League clubs to identify what currently are the best practices in the market, and to find out what is important to MMA athlete training. They used this research before breaking ground on the new HQ.

The tour began where athletes go after long days and nights of training.

“The recovery and regeneration area gets used after workouts. Recovery is a very personal approach and strategy. Some people like getting into the water, others don’t,” French demonstrated. “We have a full body cryotherapy chamber that goes up to 170 degrees, all the way down to -320 degrees. On average you stand inside for three to six minutes. It rests the brain, the Nero stimulus of pain and muscle damage, and helps rejuvenate blood cells,” French continued.

There was also a tanning bed device that I had never seen before. “This full body laser light therapy pod uses infrared light to promote circulation and removes inflammation,” French said.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

Next were the wet areas, offering a hot spa, cold pool, steam room and sauna. There’s also an underwater treadmill with four cameras synced to capture progress.

“Working out in water reduces body weight and ensures no heavy impact when rehabbing an injury,” French pointed out.

As we moved along, you could tell no stone was left unturned.

“Body management, body composition, and nutrition are crucial aspects of our athlete population. We’ve got some pretty cool tech in this space such as the full body scanner, it’s a big x-ray machine,” French displayed.

There is also a nutrition consultation room as needed for this weight classification sport.

While passing through the gym a handful of athletes were seen working out. Longtime veteran featherweight Gray Maynard was lifting weights, and up-and-coming bantamweight, Gina Mazany, was doing cardio.

“Most of the roster, 90–95% of them do not have a dedicated support staff year round. They all have MMA coaches and are encouraged to bring them here, where we then plug in to where the needs are,” Kimball emphasized. “Even a guy like Conor McGregor year-round doesn’t have a full performance team. He has an MMA combat team, but this is a support staff that most athletes have never seen or been exposed to.”

What does it cost, one may ask, to access the complex and specialists in-house?

“The P.I. is available at no cost to the athletes, 24/7/365, and no two days are alike. Some may stop by for a couple days, others hold their entire fight camp on the property. Francis Ngannou, who is fought for the Heavyweight championship, relocated to Las Vegas to train here,” according to Kimball.

The first floor of the P.I. is all performance services and the second floor is sports specific. There’s an indoor turf track and outdoor sprint track on the property that gets plenty of usage.

“When it came to the design of the facility, it wasn’t just about the services under one roof but the efficiency in which they’re delivered,” Kimball elaborated.

One area, in particular, caught my eye, with treadmills and gas masks attached.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

“A very unique room is our altitude chamber. We can take the whole room up to 22,000 feet, which is the equivalent of Mt. Everest’s base camp, so we can train in hypoxia,” Duncan would clarify. “Conor McGregor used it extensively, changing his physiology while training for the Mayweather fight. It’s a great tool for us when there are bouts in Denver or Mexico City, simulating workouts in altitude is very useful. To have this here in proximity to our gym is truly unique.”

Down the hall is a fueling station and nutrition bar manned by a dietician and offers shakes, vitamins, and snacks. Whatever an athlete needs for pre and post workouts. Adjacent to that is the physical therapy clinic, which has two therapists on staff, both recruited from Team USA in Colorado.

“I blew my left knee out and I had 2.1 lbs more muscle in my right knee after the injury. From that [information] our physical trainers can create a program to get you back on track,” Griffin told me.

Walking up the second floor, the walls are dedicated to the UFC Hall of Fame and I noticed the stairs had aspirational branding.

“The idea is that as you ascend to the next floor, you’re also in your career trying to ascend and be at the pinnacle which these [Hall of Famers] made,” Kimball reiterated.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

The sports specific floor offers different types of bags for various striking skills and there are matted reinforced walls, so you can practice grappling in the first section.

The most prominent feature in the entire building has to be the octagon. The 30-foot wide cage is identical to what fighters compete in on television. It’s also rigged with lighting and cameras to replicate the feel of an arena.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

“Film study, every sport does it. Our guys are starting to record their sparring sessions,” Griffin exclaims.

Griffin, also a UFC Hall of Fame member, takes me to a massive LCD screen outside the octagon and begins breaking down film. He demonstrates how one fighter’s hands were in a good position and how the other’s footwork needed proper spacing.

“Fighters can record themselves and take footage home on a flash drive. They also can access UFC Fight Pass (digital streaming network) and watch any fight in the company’s history. The big thing is to identify the good and bad things, finding what to improve on with their coaches,” Griffin emphasizes.

There’s also a full-sized boxing ring in the gym. President Dana White had it installed, even before McGregor’s famous bout last summer.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

While the Performance Institute was built and created for fighters, non-MMA athletes have visited and trained here as well. The list includes NBA players during Summer League action, plus NFL and MLB players who live in Las Vegas.

“That was part of the ambition, not just to position ourselves as the leader in combat sports performance, but in global sports performance,” Kimball said.

Overlooking the courtyard is the relaxation lounge or player’s lounge. “A true destination for UFC athletes. After an early training or late night sparring, they can come here and relax.

These vibrating sleep pods provide massages, ambient lighting, and music. It’s timed to get louder and brighter at the 26-minute mark to wake up based on a NASA study for optimal power naps,” Kimball demonstrated.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

The grand finale was the multimedia purpose center with stadium seating for 60. It’s used for formal press events, corporate partners, athlete meetings and big reveals. A 15-foot LED board retracts from the roof and behind the curtains is a front row view of the octagon inside the gym.

“We also do athlete summits which involve media training and financial planning. Typically we host them quarterly, sometimes twice a year,” Kimball informed.

The UFC is also celebrating its 25-year anniversary in 2018 with a special logo and will feature unique events throughout the calendar year.

Photo by Zuffa, LLC.

For a sport so young, there are no traditional high school or college courses being offered for mixed martial arts. It’s still a relatively new practice across the map. Athlete summits are designed to educate new fighters joining the organization.

“It’s helpful for fighters transitioning into the sport. Now you’re a professional athlete. I’ve personally had a lot of guys call me and reach out. I try to help and guide, introduce them to people for when their careers come to an end as well,” Griffin added.

Asked if fighters have resisted or prefer training on their own, Griffin was candid.

“We want to give them one or two things, maybe it’s nutrition. Sure, we don’t want to overhaul an athlete’s training. No matter how resistant there’s something that they’re having trouble with, something we can help them with. There’s literally something here for everyone.”

Michael Silver is a journalist and photographer covering the NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS, Action & Combat sports. A TV-Radio-Film Master’s grad from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, he resides in Southern California. Tips and pitches: Michael@frntofficesport.com

Innovation

St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup victory breaks Fanatics sales record in 12 hours

It took only 12 hours for Blues fans celebrating the first Cup in the franchise’s 52-year history to shatter the previous sales record set by the Washington Capitals in 2018.

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Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing like the first taste of a championship. After winning their maiden Stanley Cup title, the St. Louis Blues are generating record sales for merchandising giant Fanatics. With the Toronto Raptors poised to possibly win Canada’s first NBA Championship tonight, Fanatics could be in for two record-setting days in a row.

It took only 12 hours for Blues fans celebrating the first Cup in the franchise’s 52-year history to shatter the previous sales record set by the Washington Capitals in 2018. Within 14 hours, sales of licensed Blues t-shirts and jerseys were pacing 10% ahead of last year, according to Jack Boyle, co-president of direct-to-consumer retail for Fanatics.

“I think it’s a great way for fans to be part of the team and part of the championship,” says Boyle. “They can’t hoist the Cup in the air…but they can buy items.”

These moments of victory are glorious — but fleeting. Sports fans are willing to shell out big bucks within seconds or minutes of winning the Big One. But the urge passes quickly. It’s vital for leagues, teams and online retailers such as Fanatics to have the right product ready to go.

Within minutes of the Blues beating the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the Cup-clinching Game 7, fans went directly to their smartphones to order merchandise. Around 80% of Fanatics’ Blues volume, according to Boyle, came from people ordering via their mobile devices.

The most popular sales items? Try the championship caps and t-shirts (retail price $34.99) worn by Blues players and coaches celebrating on the ice Wednesday night, says Boyle.

If fans shop the Blues’ “Winning Never Felt So Good” Cup Collection” at Fanatics, they can also purchase miniature Cups with the Blues logo ($69.99) and framed pictures of players hoisting the most iconic trophy in sports ($189.99).

Fanatics was not the only corporate winner Wednesday night. NBC Sports says Blues-Bruins Game 7 was the most-watched NHL game in 25 years. The game drew a total audience delivery of 8.914 million viewers, according to Nielsen and Adobe Analytics. St. Louis popped a 41.8 local TV rating — making it the highest-rated Blues game ever in that market.

It was also the most-streamed NHL game ever, delivering an average minute audience of 191,5000. NBC’s seven-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick rose to the occasion.

“It is the last chapter in an incomparable storybook finish for the St. Louis Blues, and an incredibly disappointing finish for the Boston Bruins,” Emrick said as the Blues celebrated on the Bruins’ home ice.

Meanwhile, Boyle and Fanatics are ready to roll tonight if the Raptors win the NBA championship.

Fanatics both manufactures and sells licensed sports gear for the major U.S. sports leagues. Similar to the Blues, Fanatics’ factories will instantly churn out Raptors championship gear if Kawhi Leonard and teammates can get by Steph Curry and the powerful Golden State Warriors.

The Blues and Raptors have one thing in common: Neither club had ever won a championship.

The “high” of finally winning after years of playoff heartbreak and near-misses is intoxicating to their fans, says Dr. Norman Wyloge, a New York-based psychoanalyst who treats athletes and celebrities.

At the moment of victory, money’s no object. But it’s a temporary state that wears off quickly. If consumers aren’t careful, they can end up with a financial hangover, warns Wyloge.

It used to be fan demand for team/player gear would come and go before retailers could capitalize. Exhibit A was the “Lin-sanity” craze in 2012, according to the New York Times.

When New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin became an instant star, fans searched for his t-shirt or jersey to no avail. By the time retailers stocked up, Lin-sanity was already waning.

Those days are over. Fanatics has changed the game by making fan merchandise available when and how customers want it.

Social media giants such as Instagram are getting in on the action too.

The NBA, Instagram and New Era caps are teaming up to offer a “Shoppable Moment” the instant the NBA Finals are decided in either Game 6 or 7. The minute the buzzer sounds anointing the 2019 champion, Instagram will offer a $50 cap /T-shirt bundle to the 37.7 million followers of its NBA account.

The “tap to shop” promotion will be exclusive to Instagram for 24 hours after the game and will give Raptors or Warriors fans the opportunity to complete the purchase without ever leaving the app.

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MiLB’s FIELD Program Aims To Diversify Baseball Leadership

In its fourth year, Minor League Baseball’s FIELD Program welcomes 32 participants to its immersive week of professional development.

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MiLB FIELD Program
Photo Courtesy MiLB

Vince Pierson stepped on a plane for the first time in 2010 as he journeyed to Colorado Springs for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere program. That trip changed his life, propelling him into a career in sports business.

Now, in his role as Minor League Baseball’s director of diversity and inclusion, Pierson is overseeing a program that aims to foster in the next generation of sports business leaders, as well as introduce the idea of working in baseball to more minorities. This week, MiLB will host the fourth annual Fostering Inclusion through Education and Leadership Development, or FIELD, at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida.

The week-long, full-immersion program for college students and recent graduates is a direct result of Pierson’s experiences in Colorado nine years ago.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Connects Women to Help ‘Lift’ Careers

“I spent that week in Colorado Springs and my eyes were opened up, so when we started thinking about how we can engage that same age group, something similar was in line,” Pierson said. “It’s the type of thing we wish was around when we were going through this. Last year, there were hugs and tears when we left and the biggest thing for me is that’s 32 new people I get to connect with when they begin their careers. That’s fun and fulfilling for me.”

There were 25 people in the first FIELD class, and Pierson said 20 of them had never been to a baseball game prior to their participation in the program. This year’s class has 32 participants, and Pierson hopes to achieve the 60% placement rate from last year. He considers placement as anywhere in the baseball industry, whether it’s working for MiLB — there are two alumni at the league office — or ticket operations with the New York Yankees.

“There’s an awareness gap. There’s thousands of sports management majors and many aren’t engaging with baseball,” Pierson said. “These are the future leaders of our industry, these are people taking out tons of student loan debts to prepare for their careers and this segment of sports wasn’t on their radar. This program addresses that.”

Pierson said the participants will be running through a schedule simulating their first homestand, from early morning to late nights, and they’ll leave knowing whether they are fit for a career in baseball. Each day starts with a short diversity workshop, leading participants through a series of “bite-sized” exercises addressing topics like stereotypes and microaggressions.

FIELD also welcomes women and minority leaders from across the baseball industry, including Katie Davison, MiLB senior vice president of digital and business development, and Paris Freeman, Oakland Athletics group sales executive.

There’s also a group project throughout the week, a women in baseball panel and a resume and interview workshop with human resource representatives from the Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.

On Tuesday, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp General Manager Harold Craw spoke to the group about the duties and rigors of being a general manager. Craw was the first African-American to win MiLB’s Executive of the Year Award, and hopes to have a near future with multiple African-American general managers.

“For me, ever since this program began, I want to help because it’s one of the things that will help Minor League Baseball continue to diversify from a front office standpoint,” Craw said. “It’s bringing the youngest and brightest talent together to have a full week to share experiences and learn and engage and for them to form relationships.”

Craw hopes to forge enough contacts and stay connected with alumni with potential position openings in mind. He couldn’t stick around beyond Tuesday and was disappointed he’d miss the alumni panel to hear about their experiences and where they’ve ended up.

The program is hosted at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, a fitting setting for a program developing a diverse set of future leaders.  

READ MORE: NASCAR Diversity Program and Rev Racing Team Up to Shape Next Generation

“It’s cool to be here with the history that lives here,” Pierson said. “It’s the same place Jackie trained.”

The entire FIELD Program costs a participant a $250 registration fee and the travel to Vero Beach. The rest is covered by MiLB, including registration to the Baseball Winter Meetings. Pierson said he hopes to keep the placement rate at more than 60% before expanding the program, but that there’s space as currently set up for upwards of 50 participants. He said it’d be tough to program another minute into the week, but hopes to keep thinking creatively and outside-the-box to curate a better experience.

“This is a money where your mouth is program,” Pierson said. “It’s an opportunity for Minor League Baseball to take the bull by the horns in how we’re addressing diversity. It’s one thing to have great conversations, but it’s another to intentionally create the hiring process for 32 young professionals.”

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World Armwrestling League Hopes To Cash In On Everyman Approach

Whether it’s an investment banker against a plumber or a priest, Steve Kaplan believes the World Armwrestling League has global appeal.

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Photo Courtesy: World Armwrestling League

Steve Kaplan was drawn to the commitment of the athletes in the arm wrestling circuit. He’s convinced the rest of the world will be too.

“You have this preconceived notion of what it was, but I was blown away – I couldn’t believe it,” said Kaplan, an entrepreneur and former advertising executive. “I expected out of shape dudes, but [instead I saw] NFL tight end-caliber athletes – fully committed athletes.”

Kaplan launched the World Armwrestling League in 2014 with an aim to grow the sport globally.

READ MORE: Brutal Business: How WLC is Selling Lethwei to the World

Now, with a streaming deal with B/R Live, as well as media partnerships with Anthem Sports and Fanseat, he thinks the time for the niche sport is now.

“It’s perfect for today’s market,” Kaplan said. “The ability to build a sport from scratch, that was exciting for me. The cross-section of the world of people who compete, it brings people together, it’s a cool culture and got me hooked.”

When the league launched, Kaplan found a willing partner in ESPN for broadcasts, which he said recognized the competition as more World Series of Poker, less UFC.

But similar to other niche sports – with a passionate yet small core audience willing to consume that content on mobile platforms  – doing a deal with over-the-top provider became more appealing for the league as it looks to lean into that digital-first fanbase.

Last year, the World Armwrestling League signed a deal with B/R Live to broadcast its events, which has continued through 2019. It costs $2.99 to stream one of the live matches.

Recently announced broadcast partners Anthem Sports & Entertainment and Fanseat will further help to reach that goal, Kaplan believes. With Anthem, World Armwrestling League events will air on the Fight Network and Game+, while Fanseat will stream all the league’s events in more than 140 countries — the league has welcome wrestlers from more than 40 countries.

“[World Armwrestling League] has many competitors from Europe, where the sport is highly evolved, as well as around the globe. This partnership will allow our company to continue exploring new and relevant content for our subscribers while providing sports fans around the globe with a never-seen-before level of live WAL coverage,” Fanseat Managing Director Jean-Maël Gineste said.

The league’s YouTube channel has generated more than 185 million impressions and 100 million viewed minutes the past year, according to a release.

Right now, B/R Live broadcasts 20 events a year, with six being elite major events for a total of 50 hours. Kaplan said he hopes to have a formal announcement with substantial sponsors for a qualifier tour and likewise hopes to broadcast two elite events from Europe and one from Asia next year.

READ MORE: Gauntlet of Polo Aims to Add Relevance to Niche Sport

Kaplan, who first encountered the idea on a tour around Afghanistan with the U.S. Army seeing how many troops were arm wrestling in their limited space across the country, was intrigued by the fact that these committed athletes can come from every walk of life – to have a plumber go against an investment banker or priest against a guy who makes tires, all creating unique storyline lines. Kaplan believes the sport can be a draw for participatory athletes, those same people who helped grow organizations like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race.

Conveying that everyman aspect and concentrating on making sure visuals were there to bottle the energy and excitement of the community that shows up to events is a key part of these new media deals, things that Kaplan believes are crucial to the property’s success.

“For us, it’s all about exposing this to more and more people,” Kaplan said. “Not everything we do is purely economic, some of it is about getting the best partners for where we want to go tomorrow, not just today. We are a global sport, so we’re trying to build the brand in a global context.”

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