The Hamilton Tiger-Cats announced a very unusual partnership for a CFL team today. They're going to be teaming up with Canadian UFC fighter Mark Hominick, who's going to be taking on Jose Aldo for the featherweight title at UFC 129 April 30 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. As part of the deal, Hominick will wear a Tiger-Cats' hat as he enters the octagon; his shorts will also feature a Tiger-Cats' logo and an ad for Ticats.ca. The team's also running a contest which includes tickets to UFC 129 as a prize (along with plenty of other impressive stuff), and Hominick will also be featured at "MMA Night" at Ivor Wynne Stadium, which will take place July 16 when the Tiger-Cats host the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
This is an innovative move by the Tiger-Cats, and it's one that makes a lot of sense for them. The UFC is wildly popular in Canada, and UFC 129 is going to be a mammoth event; the original block of 42,000 tickets sold out in one day, prompting UFC president Dana White to text "I LOVE CANADA!" to The Canadian Press. It's become one of the hottest tickets in town, and one of the only ways to still get in if you don't win the above contest is to book a stay at the stadium's hotel. Canadian fighters like Hominick (pictured above right with Tiger-Cats' president Scott Mitchell) and Georges St. Pierre (who's headlining Saturday's event with a fight against Jake Shields, and doing some rather unconventional training to prepare) are among the best in the world, and they've helped build an incredible Canadian fan base for the UFC. This will be the organization's sixth big Canadian event (they held UFC 83, 97, 113 and 124 in Montreal and UFC 115 in Vancouver), and all of those previous ones have been notably successful. In fact, in November, the top two UFC events ever by attendance were UFC 97 (21,451) and UFC 83 (21,390), both in Montreal. UFC 97's attendance record was itself broken at December's UFC 124, also in Montreal, which hauled in 23,152 people to watch GSP demolish Josh Koscheck. UFC 129 is expected to shatter that Montreal record, so the Tiger-Cats have essentially bought themselves some prime advertising space before a record in-person crowd (and also the massive global crowd watching the fight).
MMA fans are also an excellent demographic for the Tiger-Cats to reach out to. The MMA fan base includes a lot of people in their 20s and 30s (partly because the sport's rise to prominence is still relatively recent), and that's a group the CFL would do well to try and draw. The CFL audience used to skew a lot older; I think that's starting to change, but there's still a need to bring in new, young fans, and a partnership with a prominent Canadian MMA fighter's an excellent way to at least increase the visibility of the Tiger-Cats' brand. From an image perspective, it's also a good thing for a CFL team to position itself as on the side of MMA; many established sports leagues and brands have somewhat turned up their noses at the UFC, and that's probably not a smart long-term strategy given the sport's rapidly growing popularity.
Perhaps that's more clear in Canada than anywhere else, as fan support and television ratings have generally been huge north of the 49th. The UFC's Canadian office is also led by a very smart businessman, former CFL commissioner Tom Wright, who's done a lot to encourage the provincial governments in both B.C. and Ontario to allow the sport (and might even have played a role in this deal) (Update: He didn't, but he likes it.). Every indication is that MMA's popularity in Canada is going to continue to rise, so the Tiger-Cats appear pretty smart to get in on this now. Plus, for them, there's an added bonus; Hominick's going to be displaying their logo to a worldwide audience in the home of their biggest rival, as the Rogers Centre is also home to the Toronto Argonauts.
This deal could work out very well for Hominick too, though. He's a native of Thamesford, Ontario (part of the Zorra township, which is near London and not all that far to the west of Hamilton, so plenty of people from his area probably also follow the Tiger-Cats. If working with MMA is a good way for the CFL to capture a youth audience, working with the CFL might also be a good way for Hominick to expand his following among a different crowd. There are still plenty of Canadians who don't follow the UFC, and moves like this might at least put it on the radar for more sports fans.
This might also help Hominick (pictured in the centre at right with legendary former Tiger-Cat Angelo Mosca on his right; Mosca also had a notable professional wrestling career) boost his personal brand; he's an eight-year veteran of the sport, but UFC 129 (where his featherweight title shot against Aldo is the co-main event) could be his breakthrough moment. To get here, he had to take down George Roop in January, which he did with plenty of style. That's given him plenty of attention everywhere from SI.com to traditional newspapers like The Windsor Star, and he's got a decent chance at beating the fearsome Aldo thanks to his striking abilities, but it would certainly help to have the crowd firmly on his side; this move could help with that. GSP is obviously the focus for many Canadian MMA fans, but this deal might help bring Hominick some more attention, and his appearance at the Tiger-Cats' MMA Night this summer should also increase his fan following. (It's going to be a big month for Hominick, as he and his wife are also expecting their first child within a week of UFC 129).
The CFL and MMA are obviously dramatically different sports, but there are plenty of people interested in both, and there's no reason the organizations can't work together. The UFC's been interested in teaming up with football before, and they recently ran a campaign to try and land former Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray on the cover of NCAA '12. Unfortunately, they probably won't have any similar opportunities with CFL video games any time soon, but this is a perfectly logical way for them to work together with the CFL and try and improve their own brand in the process. The partnership between the Tiger-Cats and Hominick could provide exposure benefits for both sides, and it could blaze new ground that other teams and fighters could build upon with new partnerships. The Tiger-Cats and Hominick are smart to work together here; there's very little apparent downside to this, and there's the potential for this partnership to be a great one for both the team and the fighter.