The mixed martial arts (MMA) world is not always a lucrative one, especially if you are not a top-tier fighter who garners attention and a strong following. That stark reality often leaves fighters looking outside the cage for additional sources of income. However, as we know all too well, sponsorships are often hard to come by if you aren't one of the notable and recognizable figures of the sport.
Now, with the recently announced Reebok deal with UFC set to alter the sponsorship landscape we've known for quite some time, and eliminate all other sponsors in the Octagon or at UFC related events, it will be even tougher for fighters to bring in other revenue streams while they aren't fighting.
Ajay Chander, the head of the London-based EPOK Agency, has set out to change that.
The exclusive partnership between his agency and Soul Artist Management plans to offer fighters opportunities in modeling like one of his current clients, UFC welterweight Alan Jouban, or other possibilities in the entertainment and mainstream media realm.
The alliance between the sports-management and talent agencies is the first of its kind, and Chander spoke to MMAmania.com about how it came to life.
"A few months back Jason Kanner (CEO of Soul Artist) reached out to us and he was very keen on what we were developing here with EPOK and Alan Jouban. We built this relationship over a few months just putting the finer details together.
"It was quite detailed and extensive and we wanted to make sure we were doing this the right way and that it benefited both parties and that we had the same vision. Fortunately for Jason and I, we have the same vision for how we want to build our companies and how we want to move forward. It was a pretty easy process in the end."
Jouban, Chander says, will be the first client to be signed on for all the services the partnership's sports athletic department has to offer. And he compares the territory Jouban will be heading toward to that of one of the most well-known soccer players of all time.
"What that will mean is we will now promote Alan and push him into mainstream media publications and brands," said Chander, who also mentioned he and Kanner spoke at length about the risks of Jouban fighting affecting his modeling and how they will schedule his work around his fight schedule.
"A perfect example would be comparing it to someone like David Beckham. How he first broke through and managed to get him into things like the mainstream media and fashion world. That is a similar business model we have for Alan. He will be the first to have access to all of these things."
The merger between Soul and EPOK isn't just for Jouban. And while there are plenty of fighters who aren't exactly model material, Chander wants to clear up any misconception and explains that there are plenty of other options if any fighter doesn't meet the modeling prerequisite.
"Just going back to what I was saying about the key aspects to this: there is the modeling side and the entertainment side," Chander explains. "With some of the fighters who might not fit the modeling criteria or have the experience, they will then be introduced to the entertainment side of things. So we will be able to push them to the mainstream media platforms with print publications and TV. For example, you could be put on the front cover of Men's Health magazine, Sports Illustrated magazine, or TV chat shows and commercials."
Coming from a soccer background -- having both played semi-professionally and being represented by a high-profile agent -- when Chander transitioned into MMA, he wanted to bring some of that business flavor along with him and he had a vision for where he wanted to take EPOK.
"I looked at the likes of the biggest soccer agencies in the world and what they did with their teams, and kind of almost in my own way replicated that model and added my own spin on it. I wanted to become almost like a Real Madrid to the MMA world. Because of what we can do and what we can bring to the table, you will sign. I don't believe there is an agency out there that can bring to you what we can now bring.
"This is something, again, that nobody in Kickboxing or MMA has access to this level of mainstream media. So we will be able to grow our athletes and team bigger than anybody else in these markets because I don't believe at the moment, something like this really exists."
Where this really becomes advantageous for the merger is the uncanny timing of the UFC's announcement of their partnership with Reebok, which will eliminate all sponsorships in the Octagon and at any UFC event, as in: weigh ins, open workouts and press conferences. The services that EPOK and Soul can offer will become very enticing for fighters who can no longer count on apparel companies.
"It kind of worked out to be a blessing," said Chander. "It wasn't intentionally planned. We found out about the Reebok deal when everyone else did. I agree it is a hot topic at the moment in the industry about fighter pay and sponsorships.
"The Reebok deal does diminish the existing sponsorship program. In the long term I do believe it will be a great benefit to the industry as a whole. But, in the short term there are very few details out there about it and what they are releasing and people are questioning whether it's going to work in the short term or not. However, we now have something in place that will attract new athletes and new revenue sources. It's more important now than ever before athletes understand the need of additional revenue streams and income."
EPOK initially placed itself in the position to combine forces with Jason Kanner and Soul because they "built a great reputation and a strong roster," Chander said proudly. In addition to Jouban, GLORY featherweight and GLORY 17 tournament winner Gabriel Varga, Eddie Bravo, and Chase Ingalls, an undefeated Canadian amateur kickboxer soon to turn pro, are represented by Chander and will now reap the benefits of the partnership with Soul.
There are currently seven fighters on the roster, and Chander has no intentions of "going on a signing spree for the sake of signing fighters," he said.
"I tend to like to keep a relatively small group," he said. "I don't envision myself to be a manager that has 30 or 40 fighters. We always go for quality. There is a very selective group we go for. You have to fit the criteria of our business model. If I believe that you fit that, then we will sign you. Because then I know with everything we have at our disposal, we can really maximize the athletes potential, instead of spreading ourselves too thin.
"We have a very strong structure built around what we do for the team. We have a great team of psychologists, dietitians, creatives and all these types of things based around our fighters at EPOK. So now with Soul, it has opened up a whole new platform for us. I really do believe this has innovated the way athlete representation is going to be done in the future for MMA."
Chander was adamant that it is now "more important than ever" for fighters to find additional revenues, and that they can't just sit and rely on their fight checks either. "It is not sustainable," he says, because a fighter's worse-case scenario is being injured, and if that is the case and they have no money coming in, the importance of getting other sources of income becomes highly imperative.
"What do you do?" Chander asks a hypothetical question. "And then it's harder to pick up sponsorships now. I think with the deal that we now have -- and if I am going to be completely honest about it -- I'll use Alan Jouban as an example. We are going to be in a position where Alan is going to be earning more outside of the UFC than he is in it. There is no two ways about that. To have that regular income stream it is all about growing your popularity, growing your fan base and being able to attract big endorsements. And we will be able to do that with Soul."