Learn more about Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Bella Mir — daughter of MMA legend Frank Mir — becoming a major sports league’s first NIL signing.
We’ve seen college athletes sign plenty of name, image, and likeness deals that technically qualify as “unique” or “historic” in some form or fashion, but a week ago, the UFC delivered what can only be described as a first — The world’s biggest MMA promotion announced the signing of University of Iowa wrestler Bella Mir to a brand ambassador partnership, marking the first time a major professional sports league has signed a college athlete to an NIL pact.
Bella Mir, a freshman on the Hawkeyes’ wrestling team, is the daughter of former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. During her time at Centennial High School in Vegas, the 20-year-old ranked sixth nationally in her weight class and won multiple championships. Today, she already boasts a 3-0 record as a mixed martial artist.
As UFC President Dana White said on the occasion:
“Bella was destined to become a member of the UFC family her entire life, and I’m proud that she’s making history as our first NIL ambassador in one of the best programs at the University of Iowa. She’s a four-time state high school wrestling champion who has won jiu-jitsu tournaments and three professional MMA fights before turning 19. Bella is an incredible role model for young women who are not only looking to get into sports, but also pursue their dreams. She’s on another level, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.”
“At UFC, one of our brand maxims is ‘be first’,” UFC Senior Executive Vice President and COO Lawrence Epstein told Sportico this week. “This is another example of UFC leading the way among professional sports organizations… So many of our great UFC athletes came out of college wrestling programs and were All-Americans or Olympians, too. It’s been a natural fit for UFC to support college wrestling, and [Mir’s NIL deal] is just the latest iteration of that.”
MMA isn’t recognized as an NCAA sport, but they’ve utilized college wrestling as a means to recruit talent, including former two-division UFC champions Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo.
“So many of our great UFC athletes came out of college wrestling programs and were All-Americans or Olympians, too,” Epstein said. “It’s been a natural fit for UFC to support college wrestling, and [Mir’s NIL deal] is just the latest iteration of that.”
Other pro sports leagues like the NBA and NFL won’t be able to replicate such a deal because any money offer to a college student or upcoming prospect from the leagues themselves would threaten their eligibility; thus, wrestling and MMA are in pole position to own this space. And while the WWE is a scripted sports entertainment organization, they recently signed Penn State’s Greg Kerkvliet (wrestling) and Nick Dawkins (football) to NIL deals as part of their own expanding college athlete program.
In the case of WWE, Kerkvliet and Dawkins will be part of the “Next In Line” initiative — a program to help the WWE find its future talent while they’re still competing. This enables them to monitor their growth as athletes and opens the door for them to train at the WWE’s Performance Center after graduating.
In the case of Bella Mir, it’s another sign of evolution in the NIL space — not only a pioneer for such NIL deals in MMA fighting, but also in signing women in sports to respective deals. According to a study from Opendorse, 60% of NIL deals — excluding football — involve female athletes.
Watch this space. The NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL might not be able to execute such a deal as this, but the UFC just capitalized on the NCAA’s inability to recognize MMA as a sport. Expect more in a similar capacity as the worlds of combat sports and pro wrestling find increasingly creative ways to expand their scouting and talent development operations.
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