MMA memorabilia industry breaks out

MMA is carving out a big piece of the estimated annual $2 billion memorabilia pie. Round 5/Sherdog.com

Every major professional sport has its own collectibles. When Mark McGwire's 70th home run baseball can fetch $2.7 million or one of Wayne Gretzky's hockey jerseys pulls $145,000, it's safe to say that sports memorabilia has become big business.

In 2007, the sports memorabilia industry took in an estimated $2 billion. With the recent release of UFC trading cards by the Topps Company, the upcoming release of the third series of Round 5 Collectibles figurines and a host of autographed items and original artwork flooding the market, mixed martial arts is now looking for its piece of the pie as well. And why not?

"When you just look at the action-figure industry, it had between $1.5 and $1.8 billion in sales in 2008," said Jeremy Padawer, the senior vice president of entertainment brand marketing for Jakks Pacific, which is producing a series of UFC action figures due out in October. "Of that, between 30 and 35 percent of the sales were to adults. There's a huge market for MMA collectibles."

Clint Warford of San Diego bought and sold baseball cards for 20 years, and even owned a baseball card shop for six years in the mid-1990s. However, he traded in pitching mounds and bases for chain link 18 months ago when he opened MMA Art and Autographs, which sells everything from trading cards to signed posters and gloves.

"I just got away from it because the market made me go away from baseball and other sports cards," Warford said. "There were too many different kinds of cards from too many different companies. The market got oversaturated, and it was hard to collect and stock it all. Plus, when you can go on e-Bay and find whatever you want, it takes the game out of it."

Warford's move to MMA collectibles was a natural progression of his love for the sport.

"If I can do something that allows me to make a living while involving a sport that I love, it's great," said Warford, who noted he already has turned profits on individual items. "It reminds me of when I had a card shop."

One of the burgeoning industry's Cinderella stories has been Round 5. The Canadian company already has released two series of collectible figurines and has another scheduled to debut in April.

"We started out small, and how it's ended up has really been a fairy tale for us," said Round 5 co-owner Damon Lau, who started the company with his brother Barron in 2006 after they saw a void in the market. "I think one of the things that have really set us apart is, from the get-go, we've wanted to work directly with the fighters so that they can share in the creative process and in the profits from the sales of their figurines, as well. We've gotten a lot of the top guys from doing it this way."

Some of those elite catches have been six-time UFC champion Randy Couture, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and former Pride kingpin Wanderlei Silva. All three signed exclusive contracts with Round 5, and won't be a part of the Jakks Pacific line that launches in the fall.

Lau, whose company hit the shelves with Couture, Quinton Jackson and others in November 2007 and has figurines available in 3,500 stores throughout North America, said he hasn't run into any rivalry.

"In all honesty, I'm a big fan of the UFC, but I've never talked with anybody from the UFC," said Lau. "All of our dealings have been with the fighters themselves. We've had no problems with the UFC or Jakks Pacific. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing."

Enrique Ruvalcaba, the director of entertainment brand marketing for Jakks Pacific, said fans can expect to see not only the UFC's top current fighters but past standouts as well.

"I can't discuss exactly who all we're going to have figures of, but we've got access to Zuffa's roster," Ruvalcaba said. "So there's going to be UFC guys, some Pride guys, some WEC guys and some classic guys like Royce Gracie. We're going to have the top guys, past and present."

In addition to action figures, an MMA memorabilia collector can go in several directions, whether it's trading cards, autographed merchandise or original artwork.

Warford said the fighters with the most demand are Couture, Gracie, Silva, Georges St. Pierre, B.J. Penn, Urijah Faber, Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez and Chuck Liddell, whom Warford described as "the rock star of the industry."

"Autographed fight gloves are the best-selling items right now," said Warford, who recently snatched $300 for a signed Penn glove. "Either gloves or a fighter's trunks or shorts. There's also signed artwork. The Topps release is popular, and it's exciting for the business because you don't see a lot of kids coming to sports cards shows anymore. But a lot of kids are wanting the UFC cards."

Topps released its UFC line of trading cards Feb. 25. Jeff Haza, the brand manager for the series, said the demand has been high.

"One thing about our company is that we print the cards to order, and since we first announced we were doing UFC cards, the demand has exceeded the supply," Haza said. "The value has gone up almost 100 percent over the last few weeks."

Haza cited value as a major reason for the appeal of the Topps cards with MMA fans.

"There's a good chance to complete the whole base set by buying just one box," Haza said. "You also get three relic cards and three autographed cards in a box as well. We thought it was very important to make a big splash the first time out, and we feel like we did that."

Though the MMA memorabilia industry may be just starting to hit its stride, Mike Merriman of Allen Township, Ohio, has been a collector since 1997.

"I originally started out collecting event programs, and also have some older trading cards, event posters, fighter passes and T-shirts," Merriman said.

Merriman has more than 1,000 items, which he acquired by attending live events, talking to fellow collectors on the Underground forum on MixedMartialArts.com, and through his dealings with other collectors on e-Bay.

"To me, collecting MMA memorabilia is about having mementos of fights that you went to or pieces of your favorite fighter," said Merriman, who plans to add the Topps cards to his bounty. "It's just a way of looking back at fighters you've met and fights you got to see."

Merriman hopes to pass his collection on to his five sons.

"I've always built my collection knowing that," he said. "Some of my older sons are MMA fans, and I want to pass my stuff along to them, unless I have something that just explodes in value and it just makes sense to sell it."

The MMA collectibles business is just getting started, according to Warford, and its potential is almost limitless.

"The MMA collectibles business is in its infancy," Warford said. "It's practically brand-new. It's easy for me to get excited and say that MMA collectibles can become just as big as baseball, football or basketball, but I don't know if it will do that. I do think it's already surpassed boxing because, unlike other sports, there's no offseason, so there's no market depression that comes along with the end of a season."

Joe Myers is a contributor to Sherdog.com.