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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

Sports

Gauntlet of Polo Aims to Add Relevance to Niche Sport

The U.S. Polo Association has consolidated three major tournaments and upped the prize pool in an effort to sustain and grow the sport.

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Gauntlet of Polo

Photo Credit: David Lominska

When was the last time you thought about polo?

For most Americans, the answer probably has something to do with the logo on a Ralph Lauren shirt. But while the U.S. Polo Association doesn’t shy away from the game’s classification as a niche sport, it’s also working to sustain and broaden polo’s reach via consolidating a trio of prestigious tournaments into one lucrative event.

The Gauntlet of Polo, held in West Palm Beach, Florida, concludes this weekend at the U.S. Open Polo Championship with a whopping $250,000 on the line. There’s also an additional $500,000 at stake for Team Pilot, who have won the first two events and can claim the half-million if they are able to earn a clean sweep. The horse-back sport is played by a small number of Americans, with 300 clubs across the country supporting 5,000 players, according to David Cummings, the chairman of USPA Global Licensing.

“The USPA is motivated to grow the sport, not only in the U.S. but internationally,” Cummings said. “Our goal is to educate and grow polo. And if you’ve ever met a polo player, there’s nothing more he likes to do than talk about polo. We want to increase the amount people who talk about it.”

READ MORE: International Swimming League Wants to Give Swimming a Permanent Audience

There is a major barrier of entry to attracting new players: money. The sport has been played since 200 B.C. in Persia and came to the U.S.  in 1876, where it has remained a sport of the nation’s wealthy. According to Cummings, it can cost up to $4.5 million to field a team for all three tournaments. Those costs include paying the players, paying their travel and lodging and the care for the horses. Each of the four players on a team brings up to 15 horses, riding an average of 10 per game.

The potential million-dollar purse doesn’t cover those costs, so Cummings said most teams underwrite with sponsors. Those are often of the big-name variety, too, like Coca Cola and Cessna, the airplane manufacturer.

But the financial reward is similarly lucrative. Elite players play globally and make in excess of $1 million annually, Cummings said. The Gauntlet of Polo is the highest potential purse for polo with the new bonus prize.

The $500,000 bonus, paid on top of a $250,000 prize for winning the Open and $125,000 for the other two tournaments, is part of a larger plan to attract younger players and fans. The plan also drops team handicaps for the Gauntlet of Polo from 26 goals to 22, the collective total by a team’s four players. A lower collective handicap theoretically would allow more novice players to help make up teams — the higher the individual handicap, the better the player. So far, the plan has worked. According to Cummings, 16 teams entered the competition this year, up from six last year.

The hope is the injection of cash prizes could help change the trajectory of polo in the U.S., said Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the Wellington Equestrian Partners and owner of the International Polo Club, the tournaments’ host site.

“In order to expand interest in the sport, it is essential that emerging players, as well as new teams, have the opportunity to participate in elite tournaments,” Bellissimo said.

The International Polo club is the hub of the polo community in West Palm Beach, the sport’s U.S. epicenter. The region has more than 75 fields in a 50-mile radius, and the Palm Beach County Sports Commission estimates an annual economic impact of more than $23 million from the sport.

With a not-for-profit base at the U.S. Polo Association, Cummings said a small staff as well as a volunteer chairman and governors keep a youth movement at the core of their mission. The organization does hold interscholastic and intercollegiate tournaments for the 30 high schools and nearly 50 colleges that field teams, a number they also hope to grow.

“Their motivation is to teach and instruct people play and get new people into the game,” Cummings said.

READ MORE: Jaguars’ Unique Arrangement Builds U.K. Audience

Likewise, in an attempt to attract more fans, the sport’s organizing bodies will continue their transformation into the digital age over the next few years through streaming more broadcasts and incorporating modern touches like Jumbotron videos and replays.

Time will tell whether polo sees in uptick in interest in the U.S., but Wellington has high hopes for the Gauntlet of Polo. He expects 12,000 people at the polo grounds on Sunday. Along with a live broadcast on USPolo.org, the tournament will be broadcast on CBS Sports on Sunday and Eurosports on Monday, potentially reaching 250 million households.

No matter the number of spectators, a team will be playing for the largest purse in polo history. It’s a bottom line everyone can agree upon.

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Sponsorship

AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

AT&T’s investment in the NBA includes the WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, representing a piece of its broader entertainment sponsorships.

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WNBA ATT Sponsorship

All 12 WNBA teams will have an extra logo on their jersey this season.

During the WNBA Draft on Wednesday, jerseys with AT&T logos were revealed at Nike’s NYHQ as part of a multiyear partnership. Along with the jersey placement, AT&T will also gain integration throughout WNBA.com, the league’s app and social channels, and broadcast partners. The telecommunications company also will be the title sponsor of the WNBA All-Star game, starting this year in Las Vegas.

It’s the latest expansion of a deepening sponsorship plan between AT&T and the NBA, as well as the telecommunication company’s overall sponsorship plan.

READ MORE: Thunder Announce Love’s As Jersey Patch Partner

“The WNBA is deeply committed to empowering and inspiring women,” said Kerry Tatlock, NBA senior vice president of marketing partnerships. “AT&T’s groundbreaking commitment to our game, which is anchored on our shared values of diversity and inclusion, make it the perfect partner for the WNBA at this exciting time.”

It will be the first non-apparel logo to be on jerseys of all 12 teams. Also announced was a “refresh” of the WNBA brand, complete with a new WNBA logo. An ESPN report noted the logo will transition onto uniforms, courts and basketballs in 2020.

The WNBA deal is part of an overall NBA partnership that includes sponsorship of the NBA, WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T assistant vice president of sponsorships & experiential marketing. The AT&T partnership with the NBA started at this year’s NBA All-Star game, as the presenting sponsor of the slam dunk contest, All-Star practice and media day.

Suzuki said the deal makes the AT&T brand across the WNBA physically and digitally, which will hopefully help engagement for both brands and create new customers and fans alike.

“The WNBA represents a brand, league, players and fan base we want to connect with and grow with as we work with them to find ways to bring fans closer to the sport, whether through an on-site activation at major events like WNBA All-Star, or to fans at home and on the go using our social media and digital platforms to deliver premium content, behind-the-scenes access and stories from across the WNBA,” Suzuki said. “By doing so, we can connect AT&T customers to the WNBA to grow fan engagement and our relationships with current and new customers.”

Within the partnership between the WNBA and AT&T, the two organizations will create programming to support women in sports. It’s a further extension of AT&T’s work to support women, support diversity and foster inclusion. The company removed gender bias from its advertising last year, two years ahead of a stated goal by the Association of National Advertisers.

READ MORE: WNBA Star Sue Bird Makes Leap to NBA Front Office With Denver Nuggets

“Together, we can create ways for basketball fans and for AT&T customers to engage in the causes and communities important to the WNBA and to AT&T,” AT&T Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter said. “Whether it’s women in sports, supporting small businesses like those owned by WNBA players, being a leading voice in LGBTQ rights, or giving back to communities in which we operate, we have much in common and many opportunities to empower these incredible athletes and their fans.”

The WNBA announcement came during a big week of sports activations for AT&T, which included the NBA 2K League’s The Tip  Off, Augusta National’s Women’s Amateur, the NCAA Final Four and The Master’s. Suzuki said the brand’s investments put fans at the heart of sports, music and other entertainment options — hoping to hit the diversity of the company’s consumer base.

“Our sponsorships strategy is about enabling growth for AT&T, by building more meaningful connections with current and with new customers,” Suzuki said. “To do that, we look to deliver moments that drive people’s love for sports, entertainment and their communities. Whether at an event, at home, or on the go, we want to bring fans closer to the moments that matter to them.

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Feature

In Its Second Year, Major League Rugby Focused On The Long Haul

Major League Rugby Commissioner Dean Howes is optimistic and focused on a long and sustained growth for the second-year league.

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Major League Rugby

Photo credit: Griff Lacey

A long, sustained growth is in the cards for Major League Rugby.

The league is avoiding a big splash before disappearing by staying close to earth with expectations, commissioner Dean Howes said.

The league started last year with a truncated, 31-game season with seven teams and has nine teams for a 75-game 2019 season, but by 2022 there’s likely to be 16 teams, Howes said. Until then, when the league hits a wide enough market reach to have true success, Howes said the league will continue to build itself slowly across the nation.

READ MORE: The US Rugby Players Association and Its Goals for the Future of the Game

“It’s in your partners and your expectations,” said Howes, who has previous management experience with Real Salt Lake and the St. Louis Blues. “You have to know what can spend and can’t spend and have realistic expectations you can and can’t drive. No league has reached its full stride in a season, or five or 10.

“Major League Soccer is extremely successful, but it is still just hitting its full stride and is 20 years into it.”

With slow and deliberate growth, Howes believes Major League Rugby can grow into another major sports league in the United States. The league already has teams in Austin, Texas; Denver; Houston; New Orleans; New York City; San Diego; Seattle; Salt Lake City; and Toronto. Teams are lined up for the next two seasons in Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Dallas, with potentially two or three to be added.

The league and teams are a single entity, like the MLS, not a franchise model. Operators of the teams are also owners within the league.

By the end of this year, Howes said each of the nation’s major media markets, save for maybe Chicago, will be filled with teams. Once all those teams are playing, he believes there will be enough market coverage for the league’s media packages to be relevant. Beyond media deals, the relevancy within markets is important in building fanbases. There is already a robust club level of rugby across the country, the middle ground soccer was missing. But unlike the base MLS had, youth rugby needs to be built up.

“You have to be balanced across the country,” he said. “We need to focus on being relevant not just in major markets, but within those markets. Ann evidence of success comes with how we penetrate those markets, how we help build the sport out that’s how it will grow.”

Currently, there are TV deals in place with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and AT&T Sports Networks. To secure those deals, Howes said he had to sell the overall vision of the league’s future.

“All of the TV partners want good content and I think this is great content,” he said. “They need inventory and we need exposure. As long as we can continue to grow with them and not overpromise and underdeliver we can stay within those partners.”

It has many of the factors Americans like in their sports, he said, like high-scoring affairs and easily countable states. And for Howes, a self-proclaimed sports fan who can find something about all sports to enjoy, rugby converts easily to TV, unlike some other sports. Unlike the necessary wide angles for some sports to track balls and pucks, rugby telecasts can get minor details.

“People will like it in stadium and on TV,” he said. “You see them with bumps and bruises and sweat.  It’s a physical game and you see all of that. If you can get people to watch and understand, like any sport,  you start converting them.”

As the TV partners seem to understand the vision, Howes said foundational partners are key to the growth of the league as well.

“In the world of sports, your first sponsors are those you’re doing business with, those people literally getting value from you and your business,” he said. “As you grow and become stronger, then you reach out into those partners who love you because of sheer brand strength.”

Rugby is an international sport with plenty of room for growth in North America, much like the MLS had with soccer. European rugby leagues are already looking at North American cities, according to a BBC article suggesting teams in New York and Toronto for England’s Rugby Football League.

“Obviously the other leagues want to keep an eye on us, what we’re doing and want to participate in the appropriate markets,” Howes said. “We have the most headroom for growth and we’re the largest economic country in the world.”

READ MORE:  Major League Rugby Partners with CBS Sports Network

Howes knows that growth will take time, even just to get a foundation set for future growth. He’s not planning to rush it.

“We have the passion to say this sport deserves to be amongst the other major leagues,”  he said. “We need to be able to say this is what it takes to sustain this thing for five years or 15 years.

“We’re in it for the long-haul and funded and structured for the long-haul.”

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