One Big Problem

By Anthony Walker May 3, 2019
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Since One Championship was founded in 2011, the company then known as One FC has had little trouble making headlines. Their attempts to change weight cutting culture, ventures into streaming and high-profile roster acquisitions have certainly attracted plenty of attention beyond their Asian market. With a knack for hyperbolic statements and an aversion to supporting evidence, a lot of this news has been raising eyebrows. The claims about weight cutting reform have yet to be documented and verified by independent media; so far, only people directly associated with the brand have vouched for them. The grand rating numbers recently publicized in relation to their March 31 tentpole card “A New Era” haven’t been concretely disproven, but ratings numbers in Japan where the event was held belie the reported 41.9 million that supposedly watched the event.

The recent announcement by One founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong, that athletes competing under the banner could only be represented by agents and managers accredited by the promotion, was met with even more skepticism. Citing unspecified claims of management misconduct that has allegedly negatively affected the working environment of its roster, Sityodtong has stated that the company will need to be certified by One to ensure the health, safety and happiness of contracted athletes.

The requirements to become an agent recognized by One include a degree from a four-year university, passing a criminal background check, at least 10 years involved in the martial arts industry, no litigation involving an athlete and residency of at least a year in Asia. So, the company only wants their fighters being represented by felony-free, college-educated agents with respect for and experience in martial arts and Asian culture. Sounds like a noble cause, right?

In the major mainstream sports that mixed martial arts aspires to catch-up to from a financial earnings and prestige standpoint, oversight in regards to managers and agents is crucial. With the large amounts of money, fame and power at stake, it is crucial that athletes, many of whom are young and relatively inexperienced regarding business intricacies, have some sort of protection in place against the vultures that can and often do emerge. For this reason, a certification is necessary to represent players in the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. Obviously, that certification has standards. Many of those standards, of course without the martial arts and residency requirements, are the same as in One. Background checks are performed and education status is verified.

The NBA Players Association, NFL Players Association, MLB Players Association, and NHL Players Association all make their policies very clear on their websites. Did you notice the common thread between all of those organizations? The Players Associations set and enforce those guidelines. The players in those four sports came together to set an acceptable standard for their representatives. Their respective leagues only deal with agents and managers who have been approved by those associations. Those leagues don't dictate those standards. The conflict of interests is glaringly obvious.

Imagine an NFL team approving an agent tasked with negotiating against team interests. How could an athlete be sure that his best interests were the agent’s priority? With the agent’s job essentially determined by the NFL, it would be unclear which party would be best represented when it came time to debate about pay structure, incentives, etc. Would an agent be able or willing to really pound their fists on the table to make sure that their athlete was getting everything available to him from that team?

Imagine the NFL not only a having the final say in who is a credible agent, but also having its own agency. Would it be even remotely possible to believe that true good faith negotiations were taking place if that promotion-accredited agent also happened to be a direct employee or contractor of a subsidiary of that promotion?

One Championship’s agent certification program has created this troubling conflict. The offshoot brand that was launched last year, One Elite Agency, only further muddies the waters. Described in a recent Facebook post from Sityodtong as a “one stop VVIP shop to serve all of the needs of global superstar,” OEA promises to work with top athletes as “true partners in mutual win-win success.” That is inherently impossible when the stakes for the trifecta of agent-athlete-promoter are so intertwined.

Moreover, this can cause a ripple effect that impacts myriad aspects of a fighter’s career. Where matchmaking is concerned, already an area that is grayed in the current structure of combat sports across the board, One has even more leverage to make whatever pairings it chooses despite the actual best interests of the fighters involved. Additionally, the pay scales can be manipulated even further, as the company’s own language confirms the door being opened for 360 deals. To those unfamiliar with some of the inner workings of the music industry, 360 deals were introduced as a way to secure earnings from artists that would be traditionally outside of the scope of the record label. Money from touring, product endorsements, acting roles and other ventures that normally benefited the artists alone were now to be divided alongside the music endeavors that the label would have a hand in, such as album sales. One Championship also recently announced a full production studio for film and television. With 360 deals, in house agency, and the potential for double dipping could be problematic.

This was one of the major reasons why the United States Congress introduced the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in 1999. For decades, promoters found ways to stack the deck against the fighters and prevent them from truly benefiting from the fruits of their labor. While boxing is still plagued with many systemic issues, the legislation was intended to ensure that those competing would have something in place to retain at least some form of power. There would be something intended to protect them against absurdly predatory practices like Don King’s stepson Carl allegedly representing Tim Witherspoon or Terry Norris’ manager, Joe Sayatovich, conspiring with the controversial figure to withhold contractually-owed income.

The residency requirement adds another interesting wrinkle to the new policy. While on the surface, fighters with agents based outside of Asia are being excluded from any opportunities in One entirely. Speaking with Sherdog.com, several managers who have chosen to remain anonymous wondered where this would leave the fighters they represent if offers were presented from the Singapore-based company. The managers who offered their thoughts have had clients offered deals with One Championship. From their perspective, “it seems it will be impossible for non-Asian-based management companies to do business with them,” with one manager stating plainly that “it’s BS and it’s designed to keep American fighters out.”

Perhaps that’s only part of the story. As the free agent market becomes a common thing for fighters to explore in the Reebok era of the UFC, excluding a potential wealth of popular talent for the benefit of an odd and arbitrary guideline seems counterproductive to One’s very noticeable efforts at expanding their fanbase. With the ink still drying on the Turner Sports broadcasting deal, the idea that One would present North American fighters with an unnecessary barrier to entry would be akin to shooting themselves and their new business partner in the foot.

If presented with an offer, the fighter in question would either have to disassociate him- or herself from their current representative(s) or alternatively the management company would have to align itself with an accredited agent in Asia. Either way, the party that is designated with protecting the best interests of the fighters would be forced to turn over those duties to a potentially compromised entity if any offers from One Championship were to be entertained. In other words, door number one will incentivize fighters to trust their careers entirely with the promotion while door number two will force those who elect to sign to the company without abandoning their representation to enter negotiations without the full power of their appointed team.

Another head scratching element is the martial arts requirement. Of course having an agent or managerial team with experience in the world of martial arts can be greatly beneficial when involved in MMA. However, this is another restriction that unnecessarily puts a ceiling above them. Would an agent with experience in other sports be denied accreditation because his/her other clients don’t punch people for a living? How counterproductive would it be to exclude the potential for growth and additional opportunities that might present themselves with people outside of the small bubble in which the sport currently operates?

While it can be beneficial to weed out some of the troubling personalities that have historically been attached to combat sports, this must be done in a manner that does not overreach. As a promoter, and one whose policies can be so blatantly abused, One Championship is inviting increased criticism and speculation about their business practices. Despite the insistence from the promotion and their marketing team regarding the ethics and integrity of One, history and the nature of beast would indicate that fight promoters cannot and should not operate on an honor system. Checks and balances are necessary to protect the athletes. The intentions may be noble. However, as the saying goes: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

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