In Depth

Anheuser-Busch Warns UFC About Fighters' Sexist, Homophobic Comments -- Major Sponsor Threatens Action 'If Incidents Continue'

By E.J. Schultz
Advertising Age

Anheuser-Busch, a major sponsor of Ultimate Fighting Championship, has reprimanded the mixed-martial arts organization for remarks made by some fighters. Advocacy groups have criticized the fighters comments as sexist and homophobic.

"We've communicated to the UFC our displeasure with certain remarks made by some of its fighters, and they have promised to address this. If the incidents continue, we will act," the brewer said in a statement. A-B, which did not elaborate on potential actions, also stated that it "embraces diversity and does not condone insensitive and derogatory comments rooted in ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, etc."

The rebuke comes as the UFC is gaining mainstream exposure through support from major advertisers and a long-term TV deal with Fox that includes live prime-time matches.

In a statement to Ad Age, UFC said: "With over 425 athletes on our roster, there have unfortunately been instances where a couple athletes have made insensitive or inappropriate comments. We don't condone this behavior, and in no way is it reflective of the company or its values."

A-B last year renewed its UFC deal in a multiyear pact that makes Bud Light a sponsor of pay-per-view and TV broadcasts, while giving the Bud Light logo prominent placement in the UFC's "Octagon" ring, as well as in press conferences, weigh-ins and locker rooms.

As it rises in popularity, UFC remains a polarizing sport, criticized by some for showcasing violent fighting and inflammatory rhetoric.

"We believe that the UFC contributes to a culture of violence against women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence stated in a January letter to state assembly members in New York, urging the state to uphold its ban on professional mixed martial arts, which is legal in most states. "Children, in particular, should not be exposed to the homophobic, misogynistic and violent language that has been permitted by the UFC."

The letter referred to incidents aggregated at a website called unfitforchildren.org, which includes a collection of UFC videos and comments made by people associated with the organization. (The website is run by Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers Union Local 226. The union has unsuccessfully tried to unionize casinos owned by Station Casinos, which is partly owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who also own UFC parent company Zuffa LLC.)

The incidents cited by National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence include:

* An undated video linked on unfitforchildren.org, in which UFC fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson urges a Japanese-speaking fan to say: "I'm a fag."

* A UFC press conference in which one fighter makes light of the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal by telling another fighter: "I'm going to put those hands on you worse than that dude did them other kids at Penn State," according to this ESPN.com report.

* Comments from Joe Rogan, a TV analyst for some UFC events, who reportedly used the C-word to describe Yahoo Sports mixed martial arts blogger Maggie Hendricks. Ms. Hendricks had called out fighter Mr. Jackson for the way he dealt with female interviewers at UFC events, such as telling one that she made him "horny."

Noting that some of the incidents in question have occurred over social media, UFC told Ad Age that "unlike most other sports leagues, we encourage our athletes to engage online. It is part of our company culture, and whenever you are at the forefront of a trend or initiative, it comes with its own pitfalls. We will continue to embrace social media while looking for better ways to stay in front of the issues. This includes a mandate for our athletes to attend sensitivity training and a seminar on proper use of social media."

A-B first commented on the issue when asked about it by a couple of beverage trade publications, Kane's Beverage News Daily and U.K.-based Brewers' Guardian, which reported on criticism of Bud Light's UFC advertising by alcohol watchdog group Alcohol Justice. The group, formerly called Marin Institute, frequently criticizes alcohol marketers for a host of reasons. Alcohol Justice has seized on the UFC issue to criticize this UFC-themed Bud Light Lime ad, which it says is "disgusting and typical of their cage-fighting sponsorship advertising campaign."

The ad features barely clothed UFC ring girl Arianny Celeste rolling around in limes and playfully uttering double entendres. It has never run on TV and has been distributed only through AB's age-gated Facebook and YouTube pages, according to the brewer.

In a letter to shareholders of A-B global parent Anheuser-Busch InBev, Alcohol Justice alleged that as UFC sponsor, the brewer is "delivering harmful content to millions of underage youth. At center stage is the ever-present Bud Light logo."

In its statement, AB said: "We take our role as a responsible advertiser and marketer very seriously, and we adhere to the industry's voluntary advertising and marketing code. While brand advertising influences brand choice amongst those 21 years of age and older who have already decided to consume alcohol, research shows that it does not influence increased consumption or misuse."

The industry's self-regulations call for alcohol marketers to run ads only in digital and broadcast outlets where at least 71.6% of the audience is 21 or older.