The purpose of athlete sponsorship...
is to provide resources to support an athlete’s endeavors, or as compensation for promotion of the sponsor itself. It is extremely important that athletes receive sponsorship opportunities in order to establish themselves as professionals and have access to the gear and products necessary to ensure success. This is especially true in niche sports, where the ability to support one’s self through competition and prize money is inconsistent, and in most cases, unrealistic. It is equally important to hold sponsors accountable and make sure they are investing in the sport from which they profit, in order to limit the opportunity to exploit jiu jitsu or dilute the culture by only taking without giving anything back.
The UFC famously views sponsorship as a form of legitimacy for the Mixed Martial Arts, by constantly having redefined the standard for acceptable sponsorship within their promotion. Finally, they reached a standard system of payment, as well as uniformity for their athletes.
For recent fans, there is an oft-referenced period of MMA that was considered the “Wild West” of sponsors. Fighters were able to independently secure sponsorship from any type of business, and would wear the supporters’ logos on their shorts in the ring or cage to provide exposure. During this time, the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts was skyrocketing and industry-related companies were popping up all over the place looking to cash in. There was an all time high of gaudy t-shirts sporting foil print designs, including but not limited to: massive amounts of tribal, angel wings covering the entire back of a shirt, contrived fight-related phrases, and more.
Even low level fighters were able to secure vast sums of money due to the sheer amount of sponsors and their willingness to invest in the burgeoning sport. Due to incidents with both inappropriate sponsors and sponsors they felt undermined the respect fighters deserved, the UFC instituted a “sponsor tax” as well as out-right banning certain brands. In short, a sponsor had to pay the UFC a hefty sum for the right to sponsor an athlete and have their logo represented during broadcast. This policed the sponsorship landscape and eliminated many of the less-serious and less-corporate companies involved, for better or for worse.
A handful of athletes chose to forgo the Nascar approach of plastering their ring attire in as many logos as would fit, and focused specifically on landing fewer, higher paying corporate sponsorships. Georges St-Pierre was picked up by Gatorade, and one of a select few athletes in any sport sponsored by Under Armour. Anderson Silva landed a contract with Burger King, and for years the sole sponsor on Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s shorts was Microsoft XBOX. Notice the correlation between champions and high paying, professional sponsors? They produced the image that the companies wish to sell.
Much to the chagrin of its stable of fighters, especially those without tenure, the UFC reached an agreement with Reebok to be the sole in-ring sponsor for fighters during their events. Accepting the rationale at face value, they felt that instituting a company wide uniform policy would appear more professional and lend legitimacy to the sport, as well as provide consistent income for all fighters (rewarding those in particular who fight with the company the most). A small minority of fighters defended the UFC’s decision to implement the Reebok deal (for which it profited greatly), but most were outraged to lose their autonomy.
The UFC correlates professionalism with corporate sponsorship. They believe the investment of a major athletic dealer provides authority that the athletes themselves are unable to produce for themselves through their training and the manner in which they conduct themselves. One must look only to social media and popular culture to see the lengths an individual will go to to receive validation from the judgement of others. Jiu jitsu is not exempt.
Blue belts are the primary target of generalized criticism in jiu jitsu, because they have proved themselves serious enough about the art to earn rank, but are still well short of demonstrating that they are invested long term, and certainly not developed enough in skill to be taken seriously in most contexts. Blue belts are often the most eager athletes to obtain sponsorships, commonly asserting they need support in pursuit of their dream of becoming a World Champion. Whether it be apparel, gear, or financial support, amateur athletes do mental gymnastics in order to convince themselves that this is a necessary component of their training and ultimate success-- when realistically, it is nothing more than a means to stroke their own ego.
At its ugliest, this type of shamelessness manifests in crowdsourcing. Kickstarter and GoFundMe provide the platform for the entitled idea that everyone else’s money should be used to finance the whims and fancies of well-intended hobbyists. This is patronizing at best, and downright offensive at worst. Unfortunately, in our desire to establish ourselves as professional martial artists, we often lose sight of one of one of the primary tenets to which we pay lip service-- humility.
At its core and as martial artists, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re seeking as athletes. Do we provide genuine and true exposure to a business, and thus are entwined in a mutually beneficial relationship? Are we the recipients of generosity and support from those happy to provide products or service and invest in the sport in which they profit? I don’t see a problem with these things. But I can’t help but feel that for many, wearing a gi patched head to toe with sponsors is an aesthetic choice, made to emulate the appearance of the athletes at the top level of the sport. Is it just my imagination, or are the amount of logos on the gi correlative with the confidence said athlete exudes because they feel themselves, just as Dana White feels about his fighters in proper uniform, more professional.
I would argue in many cases, it is the latter. The opposing school of thought is that opportunities for support are scarce and the spoils go to those who hustle the hardest and seek out these opportunities, and thus, are deserved. But by taking one of those opportunities as an under qualified athlete, are you only worsening the situation for those with more credentials, who are more deserving? Certainly, it is true that a business is free to support who they wish, and who they feel will give them the most exposure, but to this I say: hold yourself to the highest standard. Much like the Mixed Martial Artists embroiled in pro wrestling theatrics and negative publicity hoping to drum up interest for their careers, I feel that it is our responsibility to know the difference between self-promotion and shameless self-promotion.
By no means am I suggesting that an athlete, even a blue belt athlete, should squander opportunities due to some rigid, altruistic standard, but only that we should reflect on our actions in a more general sense, and make sure we are doing things for the right reason. Whoring yourself out on social media and hounding businesses may yield some short term benefit, but no amount of free t-shirts or tournament fees are worth your dignity as a martial artist.