Last week, the UFC announced an official partnership with major CBD brand, Aurora Cannabis Inc.
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The partnership details a multi-year collaboration researching the potential benefits of CBD for combat sports athletes, based out of the UFC Performance Institute (PI).
So for the UFC and its fighters, a long-term deal to validate and provide access to a potent and apparently risk-free healthcare supplement is great news…right?
In case you’ve been under a rock, CBD (Cannabidiol) is a non-psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. It is purported to have a variety of remedial benefits for physical and mental afflictions and injuries. So great has its celebrity become, the industry grossed just under $600 million at the close of 2018; and is predicted to exceed $22 billion by 2022.
Most commonly found as oils or gummy sweets, its integration into the FMCG market has occurred with astonishing speed; with soaps, cocktails, lotions and even ice cream now proudly sporting the green leaf.
In last week’s press release, UFC President Dana White said:
“Since the day we opened the Performance Institute, our primary goal was to offer UFC athletes the best possible training, nutrition, and recovery services. This partnership with Aurora is an extension of that goal, and we’re looking forward to collaborating with Aurora to find new ways to improve the health and safety of athletes who compete in UFC.”
The PI is arguably the company’s greatest achievement, offering unrivaled athlete programming and development opportunities. The press release seems to complement the PI’s vision of athlete holism, aiming to:
“Significantly advance further clinical research on the relationship between 100% hemp derived Cannabidiol (CBD) products and athlete wellness and recovery, with a view to accelerating CBD product development and education.”
Face the Pain
On the face of it, the partnership offers huge potential in terms of health and safety; especially considering MMA’s inherent problem with prescription pain medication. Chris Leben, Brendan Schaub, Ian Heinisch; a few names amongst a litany of professional MMA fighters who have suffered at the hands of Over-The-Counter painkillers. Former UFC fighter Kenny Florian recently vocalized the scale of the problem he witnessed first hand during his career.
“The training in mixed martial arts is brutal. You’re sore all the time, hurting all the time, not to mention you’re taking blows to the head. It’s very difficult on the body.”
“Being around a lot of mixed martial arts (kickboxing, and boxing) gyms, I saw a lot of kids and men who were addicted to opioids. A lot of promising careers were thrown away because of it.”
Regrettably, pain tolerance is essential to success in MMA. It’s one of the factors that makes the sport so exciting and compelling. Unfortunately, it is often also a maligned badge of honor for athletes in the sport. Is it any wonder that recent psychological studies reveal that this mindset in athletes can lead to the overuse of painkillers that we have become so accustomed to seeing?
Hopefully, the deal marks the start of a much-needed overhaul in the consideration of athlete treatment in combat sports. As a case in point – Tramadol, one of the medications at the center of North America’s opioid epidemic, remains noticeably absent from WADA’s prohibited substance list. This is despite a recent BMJ study finding that it has an equal, if not higher addiction risk among opioids, including Oxycodone; a WADA-banned substance.
Currently, despite endorsement from many figures in the sport, there is little definitive scientific evidence confirming CBD’s benefits. So who could argue against a research program into a safe treatment backed by the UFC’s enormous financial resources? Aside from serving a direct benefit to the hundreds of fighters on the roster, it could position them as a facilitator of revolutionary scientific advancement; a most welcome PR boost.
In truth, it’s a major PR move for the UFC and Aurora, and that’s where things get interesting.
Aurora CEO, Terry Booth set out his mission, stating the undeniable financial benefits for Aurora:
“(It) creates a global platform to launch targeted educational and awareness campaigns, while creating numerous opportunities to accelerate our global CBD business.”
The mixed martial arts community is a long-time advocate of CBD. As a result, an ecosystem of CBD companies with endorsement from fighters such as Sean O’Malley (Pure Kana), Donald Cerrone (Ignite) and TJ Dillashaw (Green Roads), has emerged.
As well as free access to their products, fighters with such endorsements likely enjoy financial benefits from their sponsors; ones that look to grow more lucrative as the industry expands. The partnership could threaten these sponsorships should the UFC decide to appoint Aurora their exclusive provider.
And if that’s what they’re lining up, it could prove catastrophic. Historically, the UFC is 0-1 with satisfying its fighters on the subject of sponsorship deals. Their 2014 outfit agreement with Reebok is a well-documented corporate PR blunder and received industry-wide criticism.
Under the agreement, UFC fighters were no longer able to wear their own sponsors during fight week. Instead, a tiered system was created wherein fighters are paid sponsorship money in accordance with their time with the promotion. The result was a significant roster-wide loss of earnings, and the outrage from fighters was overwhelming. Former UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson had this to say following a measly $15,000 sponsorship payout:
“I won’t lie, it was a very big deal. The ability to get sponsors on your own and not have to rely on the amount that Reebok dictates to you was a huge factor. I’d be straight up lying if I said it wasn’t a very big part of my decision to go to Bellator.”
In 2018, further uproar ensued when an addendum to the outfitter deal required fighters on the roster to adhere to additional media obligations and a code of contract outside of the octagon; with failure to comply resulting in fines/bans. These restrictions hold the fighters as employees as opposed to independent contractors, leading to the creation of unionizing movements such as Project Spearhead .
The consternation even led to major marketing agency 9ine cutting ties with the UFC in 2015, citing unreasonable treatment of fighters.
But what of Aurora themselves? Well, it’s no secret that in the months prior to the deal, the company had been struggling, reporting net losses of over $150 million. Throwing your lot in with the UFC is a smart move, giving your company an enormous new consumer-base overnight. Furthermore, CBD represents a higher-margin cannabis market segment than sole cannabis flower sales; thereby enabling sales of a more expensive product to more people.
As it stands, we can view the UFC-Aurora partnership in two ways. At its best, the UFC has introduced a transformatory health protocol for use at the athletes discretion. At its worst, it’s another calculated marketing chess move, under the guise of wellness improvement, binding fighters to the organization’s mast and restricting their capacity for independent earning.
Time will tell.
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.