The Bottom Line: Middle Ground in the Pay Debate

By Todd Martin Mar 12, 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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A number of prominent MMA figures lobbied for a change to fighter pay during the last week -- a change for which many have long advocated. Respected coach and former fighter Din Thomas used the controversy surrounding the Ben Askren-Robbie Lawler stoppage to argue that win bonuses should be eliminated from MMA. Ultimate Fighting Championship announcer Joe Rogan argued for the same change on his popular podcast, and ESPN commentator Ariel Helwani has made the same argument for some time.

This argument is well worth hearing out. If fighters got a guaranteed amount of money rather than a certain amount to show and a certain amount to win, it would offer additional piece of mind. Athletes engaged in a dangerous profession would have less uncertainty in preparing for fights, and that increased stability would make financial planning easier. However, because the subject rarely gets debated in depth, the arguments in favor of the current system are rarely spelled out. Those are worth spelling out, because they are stronger than usually framed when wholesale change is lobbied for.

When removing win bonuses is discussed, the argument usually goes that fighters should receive both their win money and show money. As Thomas put it, fighters “deserve to be paid all of their money.” However, this blends together two different issues: whether win bonuses should be eliminated and whether fighters should be paid more money, in general. The first often bleeds over into the second, but they are not the same.

Fighters should receive more money than they currently receive. They receive a significantly smaller slice of revenue than athletes from other sports, and the UFC is wildly profitable. With that said, it’s unrealistic to expect that if the UFC acquiesced to switching to a guaranteed pay system, it would simultaneously agree to give all fighters a 33-percent raise as part of the deal; that’s what would be needed in order to provide fighters both their current show money and their current win money.

It’s much more realistic to expect that if there was a switch to fully guaranteed purses, it would mean simply dividing up the same pool of money in a different way. Let’s assume two fighters compete and they’re both on contracts where they receive $60,000 to show and $60,000 to win. Those fighters are collectively being paid $180,000. Switching that money to guarantees would mean each fighter gets $90,000. The loser would get $30,000 more than under the current system, and the winner would get $30,000 less.

This simple example demonstrates what would happen over time if MMA switched away from the win-bonus system to a fully guaranteed system. What it would mean substantively, absent all fighters getting raises, is that fighter pay would be redistributed from winning fighters to losing fighters. That may still ultimately be the right thing, but that reality needs to be acknowledged. It’s not necessarily a switch about which all fighters would be wild, given that it’s a risky sport to enter into and most fighters entering into it are gambling on themselves. A lot of fighters likely prefer the opportunity to earn more money, even if it comes with fewer guarantees.

This analysis applies even if you did increase pay for all the fighters. Let’s imagine the UFC does agree to the 33-percent increase. That could mean our two fighters from before each receive $120,000 guaranteed. Alternatively, that money could be increased under the bonus system, with each fighter receiving $90,000 to show and $90,000 to win. Using that pay increase under the guaranteed system, all of the additional money would go to the loser of the fight. Under the bonus system, the winner and loser would each receive a 33-percent raise.

The argument about eliminating win bonuses usually comes down to incentives and whether or not fighters are motivated to perform better. Let’s put that aside for the moment and ask a different question: Which system is fairer? Is it more or less just for pay to be attached more strongly to performance? This type of system can’t be easily applied to team sports because performance in those sports is tied to your teammates. In an individual sport, an athlete’s success or failure is much more directly tied to the individuals. The win bonus is the fruit of their labor. Yes, there are sometimes bad decisions and controversial stoppages, but on balance, it rewards better performance.

The problem with performance-based pay in various professions is usually the difficulty in implementing it fairly in a way that improves output. With that said, when looking at the issue from a simple fairness standpoint, there’s a lot to like about the idea in theory. If a worker at an orchard picks 500 apples a day and another worker picks 200 apples a day, should they be paid equally, or would it be better for the more productive worker to receive more? Metrics are usually not so easy to quantify and employees are not always similarly situated, but professional MMA largely avoids those two problems.

Win bonuses also offer the strongest way for fighters to get ahead financially through winning in a sport where politics and marketability can often negate performance in the cage. Performance bonuses are tied to fighting a certain way rather than simply winning. Base pay is often tied to marketability with fighters who aren’t as skilled making more money because of other characteristics. Win bonuses help to close that gap and allow fighters to bypass politics and get rewarded for accomplishing the ultimate goal of competition: winning.

There is then the subject of incentives and whether the uncertainty about what you’re going to get paid motivates fighters to perform better. To me, this is less important than what is the fairest system. However, the question should be approached honestly. There is statistical evidence to suggest that athletes on balance perform better in contract years than when they aren’t due for a pay raise or decrease. It’s not unreasonable to think the same basic phenomenon might exist with fighters.

As a thought experiment, imagine all UFC fighters are given the option to either continue under the current show-win system or to switch to a guarantee where they make more than their show money but less than their show money plus win money. Some fighters are under one system and other fighters are on the other system. In two years, knowing nothing else about these two groups, which would you expect to have a higher winning percentage?

If you think there would likely be no real difference, then you ultimately don’t feel the current system improves performance. On the other hand, if your sense -- like mine -- is that the fighters who took the incentive-based pay would win more often than the fighters receiving a flat rate, that says your heart does tell you the current system gets more out of the athletes. That’s not the end of the story, but it’s worth considering given there’s no way to objectively answer the question.

If it’s my call, I think a middle ground would likely be the best path. Reducing win bonuses in favor of increased guaranteed pay would provide fighters additional financial certainty while still rewarding winning fighters for their success. However, there are plenty of downsides to doing away with win bonuses altogether. Given the stakes involved for the fighters, the pros and cons of both sides should be tackled head on.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.

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