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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

Marketing

Decoding 2.0: Receptivity Theory and the Power of Niche Sponsorship Strategies

New study unveils unique findings when it comes to sponsorships.

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Earlier this year, global lifestyle marketing agency MKTG and sister agency, marketing analytics company, SRi, released The Receptivity Story, as part of Decoding 2.0.

Decoding 2.0 is a unique study, as it acts as one of the few sponsorship-specific studies in the industry. To date, it is also one of the most intensive ones as well.

There’s a ton of great stuff here, but I’ll focus on a couple of my favourite findings, and one thought:

  1. Receptivity Theory
  2. Niche Sports
  3. Firm-Level Differences

Receptivity Theory

Initially unearthed in the original Decoding study in 2012, Receptivity Theory is the idea that, more than the passion associated with a property, the receptivity of fans towards branding is more predictive of sponsorship success.

While this seems like an intuitive finding, the industry, without the necessary data, could only use passion or exposure as a proxy for predicted success.

Really — what we are doing here is shifting the inflection point. Rather than having brands place a premium on number of passionate fans, we can now shift to a brand-specific view, where meaningful attention to branding is being measured.

Niche Sports

Through this study, SRi discovered that there are three types of fans: Receptives, Selectives, and Non-Receptives. Niche sports, which suffer from a lower total number of fans, benefit from a greater percentage of Receptive fans.

From a sponsor’s perspective, the math here has always been simple: would you prefer to reach many, but impact a lower percentage? Or, alternatively, would you prefer to reach few, but impact a greater percentage?

What’s easy to determine is relative exposure at the extremes — i.e.: the NFL is clearly more popular than swimming. The middle is more difficult to measure, and even tougher, the relative willingness to pay of fans.

For instance, assume the following, for average brand X:

  • Sponsorship for Sport A will reach 1,000 fans per game, with fans, on average, valuing branded sponsorship at 1
  • Sponsorship for Sport B will reach 500 fans per game, with fans, on average, valuing branded sponsorship at 2

Under this scenario, if return is value, X would be indifferent between the two options at the same price.

Scenarios like these are where receptivity is powerful. It provides perhaps one of the best estimations of reach — just because your branding is at a baseball game, does not mean that everyone will see it!

In addition, it lays the groundwork for potentially being able to measure predicted value of sponsorship, or “willingness to pay” — which would vary, whether you are a Receptive or Non-Receptive fan.

Borrowed from economics, willingness to pay is the idea that each consumer has a maximum price that they are willing to pay for a good. For this application, I will treat attention as price — the scarce resource.

Thus, the equation becomes closer to this:

Where i would act as categorical variable for category of fan. n would represent number of fans falling within the given category. Return would represent willingness to pay.

Because fans are heterogeneous, the brand will experience a different return for each “unit view” — meaning that even if one person’s receptivity differs from another, there will be subgroups within categories of fans, separated by willingness to pay. While we can assume that the return from a Receptive fan will be greater, meaning that variable return exists, we would still be uncertain as to the degree that this exists.

Importantly — this study clearly shows a greater percentage of surfing fans falling under the “Receptive” category than the NBA, but does the willingness to pay for Receptives, Selectives, and Non-Receptives differ between the two sports? It’s still early, and there will be ongoing studies, but these are questions that immediately come to mind.

One interesting note: if receptivity proves as powerful as this study suggests, it may become an arbitrage opportunity for the first brands who successfully adopt it. And, while the long-run equilibrium should theoretically be one in which all brands adopt this strategy, it may take some more time for sponsorship to get there — meaning that the early adopters could reap massive gains.

In speaking with Julie Zdziarski, VP of SRi:

“Brands do recognize that the scope is much smaller. But the key piece here is that the smaller sports are more lifestyle focused… they’re a more intimate environment”

Firm-Level Differences

Plenty of this is dependent on the firm, as well. In my earlier example, I assumed that a fan’s assigned value for branding (or willingness to pay) being greater was always a good thing.

For some firms, this isn’t necessarily true — and in fact, many firms pursue strategies in which they are unconcerned about reaching high-value customers. This leads to an advantage in number of customers, rather than one in revenue per customer. Think Google, or the telcos.

For these firms, receptivity still matters. Even if you want to be everywhere, you want to be sure that people are noticing you. But what matters less is the degree to which fans are willing to pay, whether they are Receptive or not.

Good Data Is Always Good

In an industry that suffers from a dearth of public data and dispersed data sets, this study acts as one of the true landmark pieces of research.

But here’s the thing: marketing data is tough, and it will never be as easy as it is in industries like finance to find information. And that’s why stuff like this is important.

To be sure, firms like MKTG enable people like me, who study the industry, to make better and more informed analyses, but it also benefits companies and other stakeholders. And understanding the consumer does more than just help brands make money — it provides consumers with an opportunity to gain more as well: leading to (hopefully) an optimal outcome.

It’s still early days, but MKTG has promised to release more stories in the future. When it comes to research and available data, sponsorship looks more promising than ever.

 

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FOS Exclusive: Not a D@mn Intern Shirt

Tell those internet trolls who’s boss!

Front Office Sports

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Are you tired of being called an intern on social media? It’s time to tell the haters bye-bye with FOS’ first shirt. Our “Not a D@mn Intern” shirt will have you feeling like a million bucks, looking like a million bucks, and probably even Tweeting and posting like a million bucks too.

Get Yours Here: https://www.bonfire.com/not-a-dmn-intern/

We have heard your Tweets, seen your posts, and felt your pain. Now it’s time to fight back. It’s time for you to tell those trolls who’s boss. It’s time for you to put on your hater blockers and own your @.

If you or a loved one has been personally victimized by an internet troll over the fact that they believe you are an intern, tell them that it’s 2018 and you are not a d@mn intern.

Also, get your own shirt here https://www.bonfire.com/not-a-dmn-intern/. They even come in a variety of different colors!

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Business

LAFC Owners Join City Leaders To Unwrap State-of-the-Art Banc Of California Stadium In Los Angeles

Owners Magic Johnson, Mia Hamm Garciaparra, and Nomar Garciaparra Help Club Unveil New Soccer-Specific Stadium In Exposition Park Before April 29th Home Opener.

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LAFC Ownership (Photo by LAFC)

The Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) made history once again, “unwrapping” for the city and world the new, state-of-the-art Banc of California Stadium at an event on April 18th.

Together with supporters, city and county leaders and representatives from Major League Soccer, LAFC owners spoke to the L.A. community.

Located in Exposition Park, Banc of California Stadium brings more than $350 million in private investments to South Los Angeles. The stadium was designed by leading architect Gensler Sports.

In addition to the 22,000-seat stadium, the project includes a district that will serve as a sport, entertainment, civic and cultural landmark for Los Angeles, featuring a large public plaza, restaurants, LAFC retail store and a conference and events center that will be active 365-days of the year.

“Los Angeles is where championship dreams blossom into iconic superstars and legendary teams. That journey begins today for LAFC,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I’m proud to welcome our new team to this spectacular new stadium, where Angelenos can be a part of the next chapter in MLS history.”  

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Councilmember Curren Price, and Council President Herb Wesson were first to speak. Joining them was MLS Commissioner Don Garber and LAFC ownership, including co-owners Earvin “Magic” Johnson, two-time Olympic gold medalist Mia Hamm Garciaparra, former Major League Baseball All-Star Nomar Garciaparra, entertainment and sports leader Peter Guber. Additionally, LAFC lead managing owner Larry Berg, co-managing owners Bennett Rosenthal and Brandon Beck, and LAFC President Tom Penn all spoke in celebrating the landmark occasion.

Field Level (Photo by LAFC)

“It is an honor to unveil this world-class stadium to the Los Angeles community,” said LAFC lead managing owner Larry Berg. “This project is not only about providing our fans and supporters a state-of-the-art venue to watch soccer in the heart of Los Angeles, but this is about our Club’s commitment to investing in and elevating our entire city.”

Banc of California Stadium is built in an area rich in Los Angeles sports history, sitting adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics, USC Trojans football and the temporary home of the Los Angeles Rams.

“It’s been incredibly exciting for me and my constituents to drive past Expo Park and see this marvelous soccer stadium rise from the rubble,” said Councilman Curren Price, who represents District 9 that includes Banc of California Stadium and other major developments and investments in the area. “This is a defining moment in the history of South Los Angeles, and now it’s finally here. Banc of California Stadium will be a critical piece of the local economy and is a representation of the promising future of our community.”

State-of-the-Art Scoreboards (Photo by LAFC)

Banc of California Stadium will host a variety of community, entertainment and cultural events in addition to soccer matches. In 2028, the stadium is slated to serve as a participating site in the Los Angeles Olympics.

“I am honored to support and celebrate LAFC’s commitment to Los Angeles,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the LA Coliseum Commission. “This magnificent Banc of California Stadium will do more than provide a new state-of-the-art place to play soccer, it will bring thousands of jobs and economic opportunity to the surrounding community and beyond, furthering the transformation already taking place in this region.”

The stadium took a total of 20 months of construction, and produced over 3,000 total jobs, with 40% of those locally hired workers from the surrounding community.

“Thank you to the hundreds of workers who spent countless hours, seven days a week to ensure our new LAFC home was completed,” said LAFC co-owner Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “Now we have a state-of-the-art stadium for our amazing fans in South Los Angeles as the first step to building a winning franchise. These are exciting times for MLS expansion in Los Angeles.”

The first home match takes place Sunday, April 29th versus the Seattle Sounders. (Photo by LAFC)

Never one to shy away from guarantees, Magic provided the golden touch.

“Just like we were able to turn the Lakers into a championship team, we are going to do the same thing with this great soccer team. We will be champions one day,” Johnson proclaimed.

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