One of the many benefits of being CEO of Zen Media is the opportunity to observe and associate with a wide variety of businesses and improve ourselves by learning from what they do. Our expertise is in marketing, but the knowledge, skill, and experience on display by companies in other fields form a rich mine of valuable information that helps us progress as a company and as individuals.

Business isn't a spectator sport, of course, though it turns out that we can learn some surprising and valuable lessons from athletes and organizations alike. Take Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), the leading developer of up-and-coming talent in mixed martial arts, for instance. They've recently been acquired by London Trust Media (LTM), marking the beginning of a powerful strategic partnership that will raise awareness about LFA, their events, and their athletes. Innumerable business lessons can be gleaned from sports--hence the prevalence of expressions like "game plan", "playbook", and "step up to the plate" in the world of business. Maybe in this context we should add "roll with the punches." Below are six lessons we can learn from MMA.

1. Breakthroughs happen when we think to combine old things in new ways.

MMA brings together multiple grappling sports that traditionally have been separate, and combines them with multiple striking sports that also have been treated as distinct disciplines. The result is something greater than the sum of its parts, and MMA's pay-per-view audience now rivals those of boxing and pro wrestling. As an FYI, LFA events are broadcast live in over 53 million homes nationally through its television deal with AXS TV.

Sometimes the secret to a successful business lies not in creating something new but in finding new ways to combine what's already there.

2. Old ideas sometimes become new again--if only we're paying attention.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that MMA goes back to ancient Greece and China. The idea never entirely went away. But it has taken visionaries like UFC, Bellator, and of course our own LFA under the leadership of CEO Ed Soares to identify MMA as a sport with mainstream appeal and break free of hardened categories.

An essential part of that has been the re-branding of something old and vague as a fresh, distinct entity with a definite body of rules despite its eclecticism. It helps that "mixed martial arts" tells the public very specifically what's on offer--and that "MMA" rolls nicely off the tongue.

3. Tenacity 24/7 pays dividends.

Commitment isn't just a sometime thing for MMA combatants. It's not just a matter of maximum effort, endurance, concentration, and situational awareness in the ring, though those are essential for obvious reasons. Having command of the various fighting disciplines and being in condition to deploy them entails an entire way of life. MMA requires extreme dedication to the details of technique in combination with cultivating endurance to wield that technique over time.

If we don't want to give up or give out when it's time to perform, we can't give up or give out on the mundane (sometimes boring) preparations we make when no one is watching.

4. Versatility keeps you competitive and helps you rebound from setbacks.

MMA competitors need multiple means of going on the defensive, holding their ground, or recovering lost ground. They have to know how and when and where to deliver a blow, when to bide their time and wait for an opportunity, and how to regain their feet after being knocked down. They train for all of those situations, so there's a plan in place even for those times when they get flattened. Business should be no different.

5. Women are stealing the spotlight, for good reason.

Women's boxing has never been a huge commercial success, which appeared to confirm the idea that neither men nor women cared much for seeing women participate in sports that could seem brutal--but that doesn't take into account the growing role of the martial arts in the lives of women today.

The well-honed ability to defend themselves against physical assault is now a mainstream attribute among women, and the vigor and beauty of the martial arts have also drawn large numbers of women to the sporting aspects and fitness benefits of those disciplines. What used to be construed and presented as "self-defense" has become self-expression. Thus a high percentage of today's martial arts practitioners are female. One result, as we've seen from the success of WMMA, is that people of both sexes enjoy watching women display that expertise, and we can expect to see Ed Soares and LFA use their new relationship with LTM to show more women's fights.

So much has changed for women as consumers and in the workforce, but it's surprising what hasn't. MMA promoters have had the originality and courage to see that a combat sport could have an appeal analogous to that of women's tennis, and they've reaped the rewards--because they thought things through instead of relying on old assumptions. There's a lesson in that for relating to customers and clients and for making the right hire: It's best to dispense with preconceived notions and let people's demonstrated abilities impress you.

6. A multi-disciplinary approach helps prevent mental rigidity.

MMA participants not only learn multiple physical disciplines, they are also exposed to the different philosophies and mentalities behind those disciplines, and they encounter multiple teachers. MMA requires great mental agility and strength as well as advanced physical capacities. Competitors have to be open to whatever works, and they have to understand why it works and when to use it. It's like having a team inside their own heads.

This is a mentality we've encouraged at Zen Media by looking for talent wherever we can find it. We rely heavily on people who've come to us from backgrounds completely outside marketing, communications, and business, and we think that helps us develop ideas and respond to problems in a way we couldn't if we recruited more narrowly.

Comparisons between sports and business have given rise to many a cliche. That said, mixed martial arts offer a unique opportunity to appreciate the relationship between the old and the new, the importance of astute branding, the need to combine planning with flexibility, and the opportunities that can arise from combining seemingly unrelated ideas. If we pay attention, we can learn a lot more from MMA as it becomes a more prominent part of contemporary sports and entertainment.

Published on: Jun 21, 2018
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