It started simply - three friends handing out flyers at local mixed martial arts shows, selling gear out of the trunk of their car, and quite often getting sent packing when the venue realized they hadn't paid the requisite fee to sell merchandise. From that humble beginning, Mask, SkySkrape, and PunkAss built the biggest and most successful brand in the sport. Hundreds of fighters have been sponsored by the company. Hundreds of more knew they could call on the TapouT crew when times were tight.
Fast forward to 2011, TapouT is a multi-million dollar company, one quickly expanding outside the boundaries of mixed martial arts. Since being acquired by Authentic Brand Groups last year, an already aggressive diversification plan has been ramped up to warp speed. Everyone in the company stresses that MMA will always be the foundation. They see this less as moving on to other sports and more bringing MMA culture to the mainstream. Today you'll see the distinct TapouT aesthetic in Nascar, in the movie theater, and with the recent signing of football star Chad Ochocinco, on the gridiron as well.
"It freaks people out a little because it isn't MMA," TapouT founder Tim "SkySkrape" Katz said. "It goes all the way back to the start with Charles ("Mask" Lewis), Dan ("PunkAss" Caldwell), and myself. We always talked about at one point being big enough to branch out and start sponsoring other sports. Ochocinco, he's a character as well as a great athlete. That's what we're going after. The kind of characters who can grab people's attention. I like it. I always talked about how I wanted to change my name from Tim Katz to SkySkrape. Like Prince. Like Madonna. Like Ochocinco. Dude changed his name to Ochocinco. He's got to be a character. We love that. I'm glad he's part of the team. He's a perfect fit."
To PunkAss, expanding outside of MMA is the natural product of the company's growth. The goal since the very beginning, he says, was to be as big as Nike. And you don't get there by pigeonholing yourself in a single sport.
"We just felt like the brand lends itself to other sports. All athletes are fighters in a way. They're fighting to win. They're fighting to be the best," PunkAss said. "That's why we had so many athletes come to us for our clothing. I remember the Arizona Diamondbacks, back in 2001 when we were still a small company, (star outfielder) Luis Gonzalez called us and ordered $700 of black TapouT shirts. They would wear them underneath their jerseys during the game. When they won the World Series that year, he sent me a jersey signed by the whole team. That said to me that to athletes in other sports, TapouT means more than MMA. It stands for fighting spirit."
Ochocinco, who signed a deal to promote TapouT Mouthguards earlier this week, is a long time fan of mixed martial arts. The TapouT crew says he was already using their mouthguards and is a big supporter of MMA and MMA culture. He's not alone in an expanding talent roster joining the company from other sports. The company has its eye on Chris "Birdman" Andersen from the NBA and a "big name" football player they are close to signing. They've also reached out into Nascar, bringing the TapouT ethos to the racetrack, partenering with driver Kevin Harvick to sponsor his team for two races this season.
"I'd love to tell you it was my idea, because it is such a brilliant idea and it's working very well for the company. It was Skrape's idea," Jamie Salter, CEO of TapouT's parent company Authentic Brand Groups said. "He was talking to one of his buddies and thought we had an opportunity to do a deal with Nascar. It's a co-sponsorship, meaning they are going to sponsor us and we're going to sponsor them. There's merchandise on both sides of the fence, for us and for them. The more research we did, the more we liked it. Because not only was it good for TapouT, it was good for Kevin Harvick's racing teams."
"Harvick just had a deal with Kyle Busch a few weeks ago where he got out of his car and smacked him on his helmet. He fits that mold," SkySkrape said. "We made a deal with Kevin Harvick, and in the Nationwide series, he has Tony Stewart racing for him. Tony Stewart is "that guy" in Nascar. He's that dude that a lot of people don't like. These guys are aggressive and have a TapouT attitude."
Beyond apparel and related deals, TapouT has set their sights on the multiplex. They produced an Evan Tanner documentary that screens at the LA Film Festival this weekend and also produced Hamill, a feature film about the UFC's first deaf fighter Matt Hamill that is already getting Oscar buzz. It's won at every film festival they've entered it in and the crew is excited to see the sport represented on the big screen.
"It's the first time the UFC has ever given out footage to a film like this, a feature. They let us actually film inside the arena a couple of times. It's a great piece," PunkAss said. "It's a special, special film. An inspiring film. We're really proud of it. We feel like we can help push the sport in this way. It's our own contribution to the sport, to help it be seen in the right way. People don't always understand that these are real athletes and good people. Changing that perception with documentaries and feature films is a big contribution to the sport we love."
With Authentic Brand Group's recent signing of Fox and HDNet television producer and personality Mike Straka, a return to cable seems likely. Barely able to contain their glee, the TapouT founders declined comment on what they had in the works. But it seems likely it's big - the TapouT crew doesn't do it any other way.
"Brother, we've got some big things in the works. Lots of big things going on," PunkAss said. "We just get antsy man. Our problem is we're never satisfied with what we did yesterday. We've always been that way. When we sign a big deal, we're allowed to be happy for that one day. Maybe one extra day. After that it's always 'Now what?' We got in the UFC? 'Now what?' We don't allow ourselves to be happy for too long and we're constantly trying to outdo ourselves."