Opinion: A Plea for Vigilant Coverage of Fighter Pay

By Jacob Debets Feb 21, 2020
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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There is something deeply dystopian about a profitable company paying hundreds of millions of dollars to celebrity investors while workers it likes to bill as celebrity athletes toil for absurdly low remuneration in a sport known for imparting head trauma and other serious physical ailments. However, that’s ostensibly exactly what the Ultimate Fighting Championship is doing. An article that appeared in the New York Post on Feb. 13 reported the following:

The mixed martial arts giant has approved a massive $300 million dividend to UFC’s investors—a star-studded list that includes Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Gisele Bundchen, Ben Affleck and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, sources said. Roughly half of the $300 million will go to Endeavor, the entertainment holding company run by Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, which bought a 50 percent stake in [the] UFC in 2016 for $4 billion. Endeavor also owns Hollywood talent agency WME, fashion and sports media agency IMG and the Miss Universe Pageant. Wahlberg, the Hollywood producer behind “Entourage” and “Boardwalk Empire,” is slated to nab a roughly half-million-dollar dividend, sources said, while Brazilian model Bundchen—wife of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady—is on track to get $145,000. Other beneficiaries include UFC President Dana White, Endeavor CEO Emanuel—the inspiration for the Ari Gold character in HBO’s “Entourage”—and Endeavor Executive Chairman Patrick Whitesell, ex-husband of Jeff Bezos gal pal Lauren Sanchez.

The report goes on to claim that the UFC made $900 million in revenue in 2019, with less than 16 percent ($150 million) of that total being assigned to fighters. In an analysis piece for Bloody Elbow scrutinizing The Post’s report, Anton Tabuena and John Nash triangulate the various figures with those found in documents filed in the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against former UFC parent company Zuffa, noting that both the revenue and fighter pay figures are roughly in line with the company’s historic projections. Nash also cites past dividends awarded to owners in the Zuffa era—they total over half a billion dollars between 2007 and 2009—to demonstrate that this is not atypical behavior.

By now, the story of UFC fighter exploitation is a familiar one, from the low pay and lack of financial transparency to the oppressive contracts granting the UFC ancillary rights in “perpetuity,” the historical acquisition of competitors to limit fighters’ bargaining power and mobility and the remarkably effective prospect-acquisition model that is “The Ultimate Fighter.” Any fight fan with a modicum of interest in how the industry works knows that outside champions and a handful of A-side contenders, UFC fighters as a whole are woefully underpaid, with the promotion extracting enormous surplus value through ticket sales and TV rights, even as many of its athletes struggle to break even.

Unfortunately, what’s also becoming part of the story is a consistent unwillingness on the part of fighters to advocate for their economic interests or align themselves with bodies purporting to do so on their behalf—such as the long-established Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, which is lobbying for an expansion of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to include MMA—and a series of now-defunct organizations that have pushed, at one time or another, for a fighters union. Outside of tweets from former UFC fighters Devin Powell, released by the organization in 2018 and now fighting for Bellator MMA, and the MMAFA’s Nate Quarry and Cung Le, both long retired, I saw no meaningful engagement with the story on the part of fighters online at all.

Regrettably and no less alarmingly, native MMA observers have shown a similar lack of interest in the story, choosing instead to focus their energies on more pressing matters, such as whether Diego Sanchez quit against Michael Pereira in his UFC Fight Night 167 co-main event and who incumbent 205-pound champion Jon Jones will fight next.

Such apathy is disappointing and reinforces the UFC’s ability to control the narrative around fighter remuneration and direct the media—at times forcibly—to keep its focus on the competitive aspects of the sport, at the exclusion of economic and political issues. Whereas White is free to make unsubstantiated assertions about Khabib Nurmagomedov’s net worth at a press conference and mosh to prospective contenders about their earning potential on the set of “The Ultimate Fighter,” earnest questions about wage-share and UFC greed are few and far between, and they are seldom chased by the journalists willing to ask them in the first place.

History dictates that the power asymmetry—and its various manifestations—between the UFC and its fighters is unlikely to change in the immediate future. However, that is not a reason to stop documenting, dissecting and advocating in relation to these issues. Discussions about what a less-exploitative UFC model might look like are a legitimate and necessary part of MMA journalism—to hold truth to power, to inform uninitiated fans and maybe even motivate fighters to begin organizing. The worst thing the media can do is act like these issues do not matter or suggest that things are never going to change so there is no point wasting energy debating them. In that obstinate spirit, let’s end by briefly discussing two reforms that might plausibly be introduced by the UFC to improve athlete pay and conditions in the immediate future.

1. Replace fighter bonuses with shares in the company.

A conversation that is beginning to take place in the United States and the United Kingdom involves worker ownership, specifically the provision of shares to employees as a means of improving economic outcomes. Studies across a number of countries indicate that employee ownership is generally linked to better productivity, pay, job stability and firm survival, and it is not crazy to wonder how these might play out vis-a-vis MMA’s market leader. The provision of shares could be neutral in terms of total economic cost: Simply translate the value of the fighter bonus—typically $50,000—into shares, giving fighters an incentive to promote the UFC’s interests, as doing so would increase the value of their capital in the business.

2. Implement a fighter-pension system.

White was on record saying that he loved the idea of a fighter pension nearly a decade ago; and with many of MMA’s pioneering figures suffering ugly declines in and outside of the Octagon as the company’s profit margins soar, now is the time for the UFC to put its money where its mouth is. A pension is not necessarily appropriate for every fighter on the roster. What about those combatants who have reached double-digit years in your organization and maybe had a couple of surgeries during their tenure? They deserve it. The fans would love it, and you can bet it would quell the antipathy many fighters feel when their fighting days are behind them and the company for which they bled is still exploiting their intellectual property on ESPN+.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.


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