UFC: Blood Money

Are Dana White and the UFC blurring the line between a sports franchise and a monopoly?

By Lance LeVan

For the past 20+ years or so, the Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC has been the premier mixed martial arts venue in the country. It currently stables most of the top-ranked fighters in the country, and the world.

If you are a mixed martial artist and you plan to make a career doing so, you probably aspire to compete inside the Octagon. In the world of MMA, the UFC is the equivalent of the NFL for football.

Historically in this country, MMA fighters usually were not paid and if they were, they received very meager payouts for destroying their bodies for the audiences’ entertainment. The UFC came along and changed that. In my opinion, UFC started out with good intentions.

It paid the fighters a guaranteed, negotiated salary for each fight and a bonus if they won. Then, fighters were offered bonuses for a crowd favorite fight or for a sensational knockout or an amazing submission.

For example, if a fighter got paid a salary of $20,000 for a fight, he might get another $20,000 for winning. If he won the “KO of the night,” he might get a bonus of $50,000. To most people, a $90,000 payout for less than 30 minutes of work sounds like a pretty good salary. However, you have to consider numerous other things.

Most of these fighters do not have regular jobs. MMA is their job. They have trainers and nutritionists to pay, gear to buy, camps to fund, traveling expenses, insurance, hospital bills, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapy, etc. Most of these men and women only fight two or three times per year. Moreover, if they don’t win, then they only take home the money they negotiated before the fight. When these  concerns were brought to UFC president Dana White’s attention, he responded by saying the following:

“You don’t like the structure? All right, we’ll pay the lower-level guys more money – no more f–king bonuses,” Dana White said. “You guys come in, you negotiate your contracts, and we do away with all bonuses. That’s what I’m thinking about doing. The bonuses are something we’ve been doing out of the kindness of our f–king heart. It was something we liked to do. Apparently, people don’t like it. They want the lower-level guys to get paid more money.”

The UFC seems to be treating the fighters like independent contractors rather than members of the “team.” Fighters have to find their own trainers, pay for all of their own insurance/hospital bills, and pay for all of their own travel and lodging. One of the things that offsets these costs is when the fighters are able to procure sponsorships from vendors.

Most of the time, these sponsorships account for more money than the actual fights do. A company sponsors a fighter and that fighter wears the company product during the entrance into the fight venue, or the fighter wears a patch/sticker with the company name on shorts/t-shirt/hat while walking into or from the Octagon. It gives the sponsoring company TV airtime and advertising, and that is what makes these deals with fighters so attractive to them.

Recently, White struck a deal with Reebok to have the fighters wear a UFC-designated uniform to and from the ring. The fighters still will get money from UFC/Reebok for wearing their gear, but the percentage of money the fighters receive will be tied to their rankings. The top-level fighters will get more, while the beginners will get considerably less.

While this definitely is a motivator for fighters to get better and move up the ranks, it is having negative effects on other fighters who already have inked deals with top-name sponsors. Brandon Schaub lost six of his sponsors immediately following the news of the new Reebok sponsorship.

Demetrious Johnson is sponsored by X-Box, but now he will not be allowed to wear those t-shirts and shorts in the ring. He has said in several interviews that he is still unsure how this will affect him financially. He is very openly opinionated about letting the fighters find their own sponsors and their own money. I am unsure what Reebok will be paying each fighter, but if an entry-level fighter is making $40,000 per fight from sponsorships that he or she procured on their own, I don’t think it is fair to force them to wear a UFC regulated uniform and only get paid $2,000.

Recently, several fighters brought a class-action lawsuit against the UFC citing anti-competitive practices that hinder fighters. The fighters are saying that the UFC is buying all of the other fighting organizations and making it nearly impossible for them to make money in other organizations. So far, there are only three fighters named in the lawsuit, but I am certain that more will be jumping on this bandwagon.

It will be very interesting to see which, if any, of the fighters will come forward and try to make changes in the ways the UFC runs its dictatorship…I mean, its business practices. I believe that most of them will keep silent in fear that if the lawsuit fails, there will be huge ramifications from management for anyone who defied them.