When news broke that UFC was sold for $4 billion, many people, like retired fighter Nate "Rock" Quarry, were quick to joke that the company was now just as valuable as the Star Wars franchise, which got bought by Disney for the same amount in 2012. It's an apt comparison, considering that the mixed martial arts behemoth is now majority owned by WME/IMG, the combined talent agencies of William Morris Endeavor and International Management Group. The major difference is that the Hollywood talent repped by WME/IMG and who appear in Star Wars films are protected by unions, guaranteeing them certain salaries, freedoms, benefits, etc.
UFC fighters are not.
The sale is a huge windfall for brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the casino magnates who bought most of UFC along with company president and franchise face Dana White for a mere $2 million back in 2000, making this the largest sale of a sports entity in history. The hundreds of fighters who dedicate and risk their lives for the company, which earned $600 million in revenue in 2015, aren't guaranteed to earn an extra cent.
But if there's any time for the fighters to band together and demand better compensation, it's now. As MMA Fighting reporter Ariel Helwani said on Twitter, "Biggest takeaway at the moment on this historic day for MMA: UFC fighters are worth more than we all thought. Hope they realize that, too." https://twitter.com/arielhelwani/status/752486888091553792
Among many criticisms, UFC is notoriously tight-lipped about what it pays its fighters. There's no reason for them to, as the company is a private promoter, not a league or sanctioning body. Fighters are independent contractors without a union or players association, so they don't collectively bargain, negotiate for merchandising revenue or certain financial guarantees or protections. In 2012, ESPN reported that UFC paid its fighters reportedly about 10 percent of the revenue of a fight, whereas most boxing matches offered a 70-30 split in favor of the athletes. UFC defended itself by saying they're also responsible for all the production costs, in spite of the reportedly $100 million a year they receive from Fox Sports. According to ESPN, UFC could receive $200 million per year from a TV network once their current deal expires in 2018.
Given that many states don't legally force the private company to disclose how much fighters earn per match, it's difficult to gauge salaries. But Nevada makes fight purses public, so it's known that at UFC 200, WWE star and MMA legend Brock Lesnar made $2.5 million for his return to the octagon, while welterweight Enrique Marin collected an event-low $13,000 for his loss to Sage Northcutt.
It doesn't help that the former UFC brass doesn't seem to take the complaints seriously. "That's always going to be an issue," Lorenzo Fertitta said about payouts last December. "If we distributed 200% of our revenues, people would be complaining about fighter pay."
What also hurts UFC athletes is the company's 2015 endorsement deal with Reebok, worth $70 million over six years. Under the terms, athletes are paid in a tiered system. Champions get a $40,000 bonus, while fighters with between one and five matches per year merely get $2,500 per bout. For any non-champ or title contender to earn $20,000 per event, they'd have to undergo at least 21 matches, which is basically insane for any competitor. The real kicker? That fighters can't display any of their other sponsors on their outfits or during the fight week, depriving them from the added income.
Current interim featherweight champ Jose Aldo called the deal "shit" for all fighters, but mostly the ones who need that extra money to maintain the ability to train and fight without working other jobs. "If we had a union for fighters, and we were all together, like in the NBA, this would've been different," he said. "But fighters are not united. Today I have a price the event is willing to pay to have me, but there are other fighters out there willing to fight for spare change if I don't want to, and that is not even their fault."
AND the closest they have to a union right now is the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, which is encouraging athletes across the sport to organize. It's a big proponent of asking Congress to apply the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which was passed in 2000 in order to protect boxers' ability to have rankings determined by a third party, not have to sign long-term "coercive" contracts and be able to know the revenue of their fights to determine their worth. Oklahoma Republican representative Markwayne Mullin, a former MMA fighter, introduced a bill to expand the Ali Act to his sport in May 2016. Critics, however, say that the act falls short when it comes to enforcement and rankings in boxing, leading to extensive negotiations about title shots, like the long-overdue Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, etc…).
UFC's rankings are currently determined by UFC-approved media members, with some of the top MMA and most mainstream media outlets not participating (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sherdog, Bloody Elbow). The organization is often criticized for promoting lesser-ranked but more media-savvy athletes into marquee match-ups. A notable lightning rod was the brash Irishman Conor McGregor before he became the featherweight champ over Aldo. Fans and fellow fighters felt he didn't deserve a shot at the Brazilian, and then didn't deserve a shot at UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, but that UFC booked the matches because it was better for ratings. Funnily enough, Dana White later removed McGregor from his UFC 200 match versus Nate Diaz for failure to complete media obligations, sending the message that "you are not bigger than the organization."
But now there's the $4 billion sale, which White says will take the company to "the next level," and investors expect it to expand to markets overseas. NBA free agents are getting huge raises thanks to the league's new nine-year, $24 billion television deal. It won't happen right away, but with all those dollar signs floating around, expect the stars and up-and-comers to band together and demand a piece of the pricey pie very soon.