Conor McGregor sponsor says retirement announcement is a “piece of entertainment”

Sergey Portnov, chief executive of Parimatch, the international betting firm which recently signed a two-year endorsement deal with Conor McGregor, has questioned the fighter’s retirement from mixed martial arts (MMA) and thinks it “100 per cent” certain he will return to the octagon.

The Cyprus-based company announced McGregor as its brand ambassador to collaborate on promotional content and consumer activations in February, but the former Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC] featherweight and lightweight champion appeared to announce his retirement from the sport in a tweet earlier this week.

“I was bombarded with questions asking how it impacts on our sponsorship of him and what we expect from Conor in the nearest future,” Portnov told SportBusiness.

“It only brings the stock value of Conor’s brand up because his return in one month, or two months, or six months with a great fight announcement will only generate even more attention, so we see it only as a positive, even though people want to treat it as a negative. Conor is young and he is here to stay and here to make money and entertain everyone. [This] is nothing but a piece of entertainment.”

McGregor is the biggest draw in UFC having generated four of the top five pay-per-view audiences in the history of the sport. The Dublin fighter’s Twitter announcement has already fuelled speculation that he is using the threat of retirement as a negotiating ploy. The star is thought to have previously used the strategy in May 2016 to secure a bigger payday for a fight against Nate Diaz later that year.

That standoff took place when UFC was run by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta who were sympathetic to McGregor and keen to keep him involved in the sport as they prepared to sell the business to WME-IMG (now Endeavour) for $4bn (€3.6bn/£3bn) just two months later. Questions surround how Endeavour might respond if McGregor proves to be bluffing this time.

“If I had to give my evaluation of this situation, I could say this news came as a result of some negotiations with the UFC. Maybe it’s a bit emotional, maybe it’s a mix of both tactics and emotion,” said Portnov. “100 per cent he will be back, maybe this year, most likely this year, but we will see.”

Parimatch has targeted its sponsorship spend in MMA and esports because it believes football is oversaturated with betting partnerships. Last July the brand also signed a three-and-a-half-year deal to be the UFC’s exclusive betting partner for the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region, excluding the UK and Ireland.

“Conor McGregor is just an extension of our strategy to amplify our brand with MMA DNA because we believe MMA has a massive future. It’s growing faster than football, it has outgrown boxing,” he said. “Audiences love it. Our turnovers have grown 600 per cent in a year. They’re all signs that this is a sport to stay and become mainstream and we want to ensure we will be the first to be associated with that sport.”

Portnov revealed that the brand has been approached by Leeds United to be the club’s shirt sponsor for next season but felt the UFC sponsorship deal offered more value for money and a more effective platform to target its largest markets in the Commonwealth of Independent States (the CIS, formed when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991) and parts of Africa.

“We received a random offer from Leeds,” he said. “But if you take it on, you would have to be [operating] in Europe or in England because getting a shirt placement in Leeds and operating in CIS doesn’t make much sense.”

Parimatch’s sponsorship deal with UFC gives it branding on the octagon canvas and bumpers at UFC events in EMEA, access to UFC ambassadors, tickets, and digital assets across the UFC website and YouTube channels. The deal also entitles Parimatch to octagon bumper branding at UFC events in Las Vegas.