If you were to write a tally sheet on all of the things in bodybuilding that made you shake your head you’d probably need to set up an appointment with your local chiropractor. Nothing is more ludicrous than the exclusive contracts negotiated by Flex and Muscular Development. By now we all know that once you’ve made a significant name for yourself in the industry the two big boys will come knocking on your door for exclusive rights. At the time, it seems great for the broke bodybuilder—most work as trainers or local contest prep coaches, and sure, they can make some decent money doing it. After a 16 week contest prep and limited time invested in their day job, once the contracts start getting offered you can bet they have their hands out. But is being on Team MD or Team Flex what it’s all cracked up to be?
Let’s begin with the now infamous weekend contracts. The boys down at Muscular Development are notorious for these little gems. You’ll see these handed out at shows like Junior Nationals or USA’s. In many cases, finishers in the top one or two places in each weight class will be offered a few hundred bucks for what ultimately turns out to be a gag order. As a fan, all we’re looking for is a little coverage of the upcoming stars. So what ends up happening? If you’re lucky, these weekend warriors will get two minutes with Shawn Ray after the contest and in most cases he will forget the name of the competitor he’s talking to.
Now let’s say you are a Red Arowana, a very popular and sought after big fish in bodybuilding still in transit to Palumbo’s house via mail order from Curacao. These athletes likely started out with Dave on RxMuscle and were lured away – Evan Centopani, Juan Morel, and Guy Cisternino come to mind. MD and Flex have a laundry list of guys who they essentially put on the shelf and let collect dust. It wasn’t too long ago I remember the signing of Nicole Wilkins and Steve Kuclo to MD and I’d be hard pressed to remember if either of them have done much at all for the brand. Then you’ve got mega stars in the industry like Jay Cutler and Branch Warren; no, they aren’t shelved, but for the amount of money being shelled out annually for these guys you would think we would see more than Jay on the couch at Dave Bourlet’s store in Venice or Branch stalking Metro Flex in his typical Gasp Capri pants and combat boots. I got it Branch, you’re intense…I got it.
Everyone in the bodybuilding industry wants to see the sport grow and expand. Not only will it bring in more money for the competitors, but ultimately we will see bigger shows, more frequently. But what’s happening, by limiting who the athletes can be covered by, cuts the audience size down and limits the sports overall appeal. You wouldn’t see exclusive rights for players in the NFL or NBA with Sports Illustrated or ESPN The Magazine. Those athletes are free to give interviews with whomever they choose. But because bodybuilders earn so much less money than their mainstream counterparts, media companies like Flex and MD take advantage of the starving bodybuilder.
Now I know the past few years have been hard on everyone financially. The Recession has affected IFBB pro’s just as it has affected everyone reading this article, sans Aaron Singerman – he just bought a Breitling watch with the change he found in his couch cushions. So to turn down what is essentially free money is hard to do. But when you consider the new media marketing that is available to bodybuilders it really doesn’t make much sense to sign with Weider/AMI or Advanced Research Media. What it does take is creativity, motivation, and yes, personality.
By not taking a contract and getting shelved like Todd Jewell and Mike Liberatore, a bodybuilder could start his own YouTube channel, host his own weekly Podcast radio show, schedule independent photo shoots, freely write a blog on his personal website without any limitations, and of course not be told who he can and cannot interview with throughout the year. Hell, we might even get to see some lifestyle or training videos by some current IFBB pros that are longer than 5 minutes long—now wouldn’t that be refreshing?
The perfect example of a guy who understands marketing his own brand is Antoine Vaillant. Coincidentally he recently signed an exclusive contract with MD, but I fear he will soon realize that until he reaches the status of a Branch or Kai he will ultimately leave money on the table and lose much of his creative freedom.
So why do the bodybuilding superpowers hoard their athletes? It’s the competition inside of the competition. Steve Blechman reminds me of Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner. Just because he’s all grown up and has more money than he knows what to do with doesn’t make him the cool kid down the street. If he buys enough ‘friends’ maybe he will earn credibility in the sport. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way and in the meantime all it is doing is holding the sport down for long term success. You can’t collect athletes the way Jay Z collects sports cars and expect your industry to grow as a whole.
Clearly I have made my case for who are the villains in the bodybuilding industry. Any fan will tell you how unimpressed they are with the content being delivered by Flex Online and MD. Once bodybuilders realize that they may have to give up a little now to make more down the line, we may see a trend of guys not being swayed by a few thousand dollars and more and more gravitate towards RxMuscle or their own independent ventures.