Mayweather vs McGregor: brands wary of getting in the ring despite superfight's marketing masterclass

Mayweather faces off McGregor at final press conference

The so-called 'Money Fight' between legendary undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather and mixed martial arts superstar Conor McGregor is touted to become one of the most lucrative events in sporting history when it takes place in Las Vegas on Saturday (26 August).

For brands, the extraordinary clash of styles represents a unique opportunity to put themselves in front of what is predicted to be the biggest pay-per-view audience of all time and millions of armchair fans passionately debating the merits of the contest and what hope – if any – UFC fighter McGregor has of beating a boxing great at his own game.

But while some brands are inevitably scuffling to get in front of these audiences, others are more cautious about stepping into the ring for an event so volatile, unpredictable, the likes of which we have never seen before on this scale.

Star power

The loud and bashful brawler McGregor’s ascension to dominate the UFC as its most marketable asset has been swift and complete. As such, the undisputed lightweight champion has at least temporarily changed disciplines to try his hand at boxing in an immodest showdown with the undefeated Mayweather – guaranteeing, at the very minimum – a substantial payday for both stars.

Mayweather, a combatant in the three biggest pay-per-view events of all time, against Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, and Saul Alvarez, is positioned to earn £20m in clothing sponsorship, which includes a Hublot wristband that'll likely be pretty difficult to catch a glimpse of. This will add to the $230m he is reputed to be earning from the event all in. But on the face of it, the sponsorship stable for boxing's biggest attraction, a reputation that has earned Mayweather the nickname 'Money', looks rather deserted, perhaps as a consequence of his brand gaffes on top of reputational damage around domestic abuse.

Joel Seymour-Hyde, senior vice president at sports and entertainment agency Octagon, offers a different take: "Elite athletes know their own price. He has probably been approached a number of brands that wouldn’t pay his fee [a reported $1m baseline].

"He’d rather turned down low price offers. He is making plenty of money, but there is a price he will not entertain."

Meanwhile, making up for his reportedly smaller share of the fight purse, which is still said to number into tens of millions of dollars, McGregor brings with him numerous brand partnerships in the form of Beats By Dre, Monster Energy, BetSafe and others.

#IAmTheBeast - Representing @MonsterEnergy since day 1! #ad A post shared by Conor McGregor Official (@thenotoriousmma) on

If there's a difference in the athletes' approach, it's perhaps symbolised by Connor McGregor being willing to partake in a teeth whitening slot.

Do you get your toothpaste delivered? @hismileteeth #hismile #teethwhitening #toothpaste #ad A post shared by Conor McGregor Official (@thenotoriousmma) on

The curious contest itself is forecast by UFC president Dana White to reach some 1bn homes, helped by a projected 4.9m pay-per-view buys in the US alone at the dizzying price of $99.95. As such, it is set to be the highest grossing box office return ever – even if ticket sales at the event itself are lagging because of eye-watering prices.

4C Insights has examined who is the most engaging of the two athletes on social media, and it is no surprise given that McGregor styles himself as 'The Notorious' that his brash and controversial positioning has attracted more than double the Facebook and Twitter engagements of Mayweather. Over the past five days, McGregor has had 3,267,800 engagements to Mayweather’s 1,357,100. If it were a competition to determine who is the most positively talked about athlete, Mayweather would win… just. Across a vastly smaller volume of chatter, he scores a 22.5% positivity rating to Notorious’s 20.6%, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. On the negative spectrum, it sits at 19.1% and 15.1% respectively.

And while this seems inconclusive, the nine million engagements across Facebook and Twitter this week are a testament to the heft of this event. As 4C's chief marketing officer Aaron Goldman says: “The scale of the online discussion around this one boxing match is unrivalled. It’s a reflection of how far we’ve come with social media, keeping so many of us connected, engaged and sharing content around these monumental events.

“While it’s easy to think the relevance and reach of these events doesn’t extend to your business or brand, it’s crucial that any consumer-facing business recognise these boundaries only exist in our minds."

Pure Hollywood

The cross-pollinated clash orbits closer to entertainment that it does to sport according to Lizzy Pollott, creative director of Havas sport and entertainment agency, Cake. She tells The Drum: "There's a continuum between sport and entertainment and this feels more toward the entertainment end at the spectrum, compared to say, the recent Joshua v Klitschko fight, which was more of a pure sporting event."

Pollot describes the hype as "pure Hollywood" but warns the contest could endanger the legitimacy of the UFC brand and see it considered as something closer to WWE wrestling.

"Does McGregor's persona and performance take the franchise closer to WWE than authentic sport? We'll only really know the answer after the bout," she says.

As to whether the showdown represents a viable marketing moment for brands to jump on, Pollot thinks it will be challenging for them to stand out: "There's so much marketing noise around the fight that cutting through with a coherent story will be tough. As a short-term eyeball driven mega moment, it's as big as they come for a brand seeking a brand exposure hit. You pays your money...."

Samsung and Betfair are among those to have aligned themselves with the fight by buying up AdWords on Google. But while Betfair's ad overtly jumps on the event by offering odds on the outcome, Samsung's approach is a little cheekier: "The Wait Is Over – For The Event Of The Year," its copy teases, before a click of the link reveals the brand is not talking about the fight, but the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S8.

More crossovers?

Octagon's Seymour-Hyde does not believe the cross-discipline clash, which has not been entirely welcomed by boxing purists (former heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis dismissed it as "ridiculous") will ultimately harm boxing's commercial appeal, as the sport is already a challenging sell to sponsors due to its "pugilistic nature". It is for this reason that some advertisers may have reservations about aligning themselves with Mayweather-McGregor, despite the huge audiences it promises. "Your base of brands to sponsor the event is significantly smaller than say football or rugby," Seymour-Hyde says.

Notwithstanding the caution from sponsors, the lucre on offer for those who can make matchups of this nature means more crossovers could be on the horizon, according to Seymour-Hyde. "Anyone involved in boxing wants to make as much money as possible and get out with their health intact," he says. "With that in mind, clearly these guys are always going to be looking for the big commercial upsides. If it becomes clear that these crossovers make more money, then you’ll see more boxers going for them."

Wrestling, UFC and boxing: built for box office

Andy Milnes, head of brands for Nielsen Sports UK, points out that 13 of the 15 highest grossing pay-per-view events of all time are shared by boxing and UFC. He's not surprised that the event has been compared to WWE, because it is the wrestling behemoth's sports entertainment events that make up the other two broadcasts in the pay-per-view pantheon of riches.

"In terms of a sporting event, this transcends boxing and MMA," Milnes says. "This is an opportunity for fans of both sports to crossover, no one really knows what will happen in the ring and both fighters have done a great job in the build up. We see this as entertainment as much as sport."

And this crossover may not be as harmful as it first appears. The slickly branded UFC has gained even greater mainstream attention from being associated with the fight – perhaps the disjointed, multi-brand world of boxing less so. "UFC has a real hardcore of fans but this might have opened up the whole concept to people who were not aware or hadn’t engaged with it," Milnes says.

The pomp and hype, fuelled by a grandiose and at times crass 'world press tour' that took in LA, Toronto, New York and London, may have sat uneasily with purists of both sports, but Milnes says such dramatisation techniques are being used across multiple sporting disciplines anyway. "Storytelling, even in sport, is becoming more and more important, certainly from a rights holder perspective. But even for brands, in order to gain traction with fans and engage beyond match day, there must be the creation of narrative or fan stories."

What impact the event has on the wider sports ecosystem, and whether it will ultimately harm or benefit boxing and the UFC, remains to be seen. As Milnes concludes: "It is difficult to measure the damage. That depends what goes on the ring."

Soon enough, we'll find out. For now, the talking is almost over as the world waits to see what happens when trusty old Queensbury rules boxing comes head to head with its more visceral upstart the UFC. A reported 95% of Las Vegas bets have favoured McGregor despite this being his professional debut in the ring and most pundits giving him no chance of succeeding where 49 boxers have failed by vanquishing the undefeated Mayweather. Perhaps the luck of the Irish will prevail, and if it does, the way we view these sports will look very different come Sunday morning.

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John McCarthy

John is an entertainment marketing reporter at The Drum. He writes about the amazing marketing stories coming from the movie, TV, music and video game industries. He's also the hunt for the weirder trends in marketing and advertising.

Fuelled by tea.

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