Over the last few years I have seen many forum discussions and blog posts regarding sponsored Muay Thai fighters in Thailand. These have always been written from the fighter’s perspective and usually involve some insinuation that the fighter is either being used or ripped off by the gym, which can sometimes be the case.
As I have never seen anything written from a gym owner’s perspective I thought it might be useful if I gave an outline of how the sponsorship program runs at Sumalee Boxing Gym in Phuket. In so doing I hope to widen perspective and understanding of what a gym and a fighter should expect to get out of a sponsorship contract, and how such a scheme can be equally beneficial to both parties. Clearly, I can only explain how the program works at Sumalee Boxing Gym. There will be many similarities with other gyms but there will be differences too. This blog does not touch on the role of the promoter in arranging fights. In most cases, but not all, the promoter’s business is completely independent of the gyms.
At Sumalee Boxing Gym we have three levels of sponsorship operating:
- We as a gym are sponsored by Sandee Thailand (equipment suppliers), Ultim8 (fight wear) and Boomzap Entertainment (casual games developer)
- Partial sponsorship of foreign fighters
- Full sponsorship of Thai and foreign fighters
The principles of sponsorship are the same in all three cases. The sponsor offers some sort of direct or indirect financial investment in a person (in this case fighter) or brand (in this case Sumalee Boxing Gym). This is done so the sponsorship can help with developing the person or business. Providing the sponsorship investment is successful, it benefits the sponsor to be associated with that success. This concept is of course not restricted to the world of Muay Thai. It applies the world over, especially in business or sport.
Since most of what I have read relates to full sponsorship of fighters I will focus on this aspect of our business.
At Sumalee Boxing Gym our main sponsored fighter program is full sponsorship. The core offer to the fighter is that we provide free training, free accommodation, and a significant proportion of their fight purse is returned to them. Specifically, the first 8000 thb (about £160 or $250) of the fight purse is given directly to the fighter, although they are expected to give a small tip to their trainer/s from this. The remainder of the fight purse is split between the gym and the fighter. It is proportioned according to costs involved in sending the fighter/trainer to the show. It is never more than 50% of the amount over and above 8000 thb.
To qualify to be a fully sponsored Muay Thai fighter at Sumalee Boxing Gym, fighters must be young, at an early stage of their international fight career, and be seen to have a lot of potential. We are not interested in average fighters looking for a means of staying in Thailand at someone else’s expense. Although taking more experienced and well known fighters would generate bigger fight purses earlier, this is not what we are about. When sponsoring a fighter we wish to demonstrate what we as a gym are able to achieve in terms of developing a fighter. Our approach means that a large proportion of fight purses generated by our fighters is 8000 thb or below. In consequence, as a gym we more often than not bear the costs of the many expenses incurred.
In planning a fight program for our fighters, size of fight purse is rarely the prime consideration. However, once a fighter becomes well known and established they can get the opportunity to fight for very substantial fight purses. Typically an established fighter can earn around 50,000 thb per fight plus all expenses. Recently one of our fighters had the opportunity of fighting in a tournament for which the winner received 500,000 thb.
We are looking for a balanced program consonant with the fighter’s skills, but one that also develops his/her potential. We are also looking for exposure for our gym and will consider shows even if we have to bear the brunt of the costs for travel, accommodation, food, trainer and other support. To give some concrete examples, fight purses at Lumpini, Ratchadamnern and Max Muay Thai do not include travel expenses or any expenses for the trainer. (Fighters on these shows can expect to get between 8000-10,000 per fight.) Sometimes accommodation is also provided, as in the case of Max Muay Thai and Thai Fight.
Apart from what we directly provide the Muay Thai sponsored fighter by alleviating them of the significant costs of living, training and fighting in Thailand, we provide a number of other benefits too. We operate an open door policy for our fighters and they can always come to us if there is a problem. Often this involves supporting them with medical or living expenses and giving them advice/mentoring. They are encouraged and supported in obtaining an educational visa and most of them are now conversant in Thai. We have recently introduced a nutrition program and all of our fighters are able to benefit from nutritional advice (with tailor made diet plans) and subsidised meals at the Sumalee Ringside Restaurant.
We promote and market the fighters heavily so they become well known internationally. Such activity increases demand for the fighter, which is of course beneficial for all parties. We provide fighters with all their fight clothing and the companies who sponsor us (Sandee Thailand and Ultim8) also provide them with equipment and fightwear. A number of our sponsored fighters have also received subsidiary sponsorship from our contacts and customers.
All of this investment in a fighter is at risk to us. When a fighter comes to us we have no guarantee that they will stay with us. If we are lucky, the will stay a long time and become very well known. However, unless we are extremely lucky the financial return from a fighter is unlikely to repay us directly for our investment in them.
How many times have I heard fighters say “Gyms are only interested in money”? I never cease to be perplexed by the naivety of this statement. How can any business operate if no money comes in? These are some of the fixed costs of our business: rent on the land, salaries, electricity, VAT, Social Security for the staff, income tax, corporation tax, accountants fees, work permits, upkeep of the gym/rooms, maintenance costs, renewals… the list goes on and on. A gym has to make money and balance the books otherwise it cannot survive.
So how does having sponsored fighters in the gym help us with meeting our costs? In the main they give us a platform from which to promote what we have to offer in terms of the quality of training at the gym. The more well known they become, the bigger that platform is. Having sponsored fighters at the gym means we always have a story to tell. Usually it is an interesting and successful story. Because we have fighters whom we invest in, Sumalee Boxing Gym has been represented throughout Thailand and internationally.
If they do well, the fighters become iconic figures in their own right. Other people see them and aspire to reach their level. This of course brings business to the gym. Our sponsored fighters promote the gym themselves and this helps to bring us new customers. None of this is guaranteed when we first take them on and invest in them.
I feel that at Sumalee Boxing Gym we have a mutually beneficial relationship with our sponsored fighters. Sure, their fight purses bring us little direct return. However, they bring far more than this in terms of what they add to the gym by representing us in Thailand and elsewhere in the world. They create much of the excitement. Many people come to the gym because of them and the marketing associated with them. In return, we enable them to live the dream of training and fighting in Thailand. They get the opportunity to travel all over Thailand and to places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong and Indonesia. They have fought on some of the biggest promotions in Thailand, and at the most prestigious and well respected stadiums like Omnoi, Lumpinee and Ratcherdermneon. They even get invited back to their home countries to fight on bigger and better shows than they otherwise would have done. They become mini superstars in their own right because of the opportunities we provide them.
Aside from furthering their Muay Thai career, the experience fighters have with us gives them skills which will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. All in all I feel we’ve got the balance right!