The UFC announced its groundbreaking apparel contract with Reebok last week and it left many in the MMA community with more questions than answers.
UFC president Dana White said during the press conference that the fighters would receive every last penny from the uniform deal. But how much money will each fighter actually get? And will the athletes be compensated enough to make up for the loss of previous in-cage apparel sponsorships?
That is still very much unclear and there still seems to be much to hash out before the official Reebok gear rolls out in July. The use of the UFC's official rankings, voted on by members of the media, to decide payouts has also come under criticism.
"Until we see the actual dollar amounts and how they're going to get spread out among the fighters, no one can give you an exact comment on it," said Malki Kawa, the manager for UFC stars like Jon Jones, Benson Henderson and Carlos Condit.
MMA Fighting reached out to a handful of the top managers in the sport to get their opinion about the Reebok deal this week, since they have more working knowledge of fighter pay than anyone. Almost all of them feel like the Reebok affiliation will be good for MMA as a whole, but whether the fighters will see more money remains to be seen.
"It's definitely a monumental occasion for the sport," said Paradigm Sports Management president Audie Attar, who represents the likes of Conor McGregor and Michael Bisping. "It's definitely a milestone that's good for the sport, bringing in that validity, particularly for the casual sports enthusiast."
There are differing opinions about what level of fighters the sponsorship deal will benefit. Longtime MMA manager Monte Cox believes entry-level fighters will be helped most by Reebok, since they have a hard time getting endorsements in the first place. But Cox is not sure the top fighters and champions will make anywhere near what they are getting now.
"If they're getting anywhere close between $3,000 and $5,000 extra, that's a home run for them," Cox said of entry-level competitors. "That's enough money to keep them going so they don't have to get a job. If I was a champion, I'd be skeptical it would be better for me."
MMA Incorporated's Jeff Meyer made the point that logo placement on fight shorts is one of the few things entry-level fighters have to sell and now they will lose some of that potential income. Kawa thinks champions like Jones will be fine, especially since fighters will get 20-percent profit on merchandise sold with their name or likeness. Champions will also make more on the tiered scale. It's the ranked contenders -- the middle class -- that Kawa is most worried about. He said some of his fighters can make upwards of $100,000 on in-cage clothing sponsors.
"Telling me that a guy who is ranked No. 3 or No. 8 or No. 1 is going to get a check for $25,000 because he's No. 1 contender or whatever, he loses money," Kawa said. "He also loses income from the sponsors that go on the shorts. On the flip side, as a manager you have to go out and get deals done outside the Octagon."
That will be where the jobs of managers will be altered the most. They will have to think outside the box and get more creative with potential endorsement deals. Meyer and partner Mike Roberts represent fighters like Urijah Faber and Anthony Pettis. Faber has been sponsored by Pepsi's Amp energy drink for seven years and has never worn its logo inside the cage. White also used Georges St-Pierre's Under Armour sponsorship as an example of this. The former UFC welterweight champion never wore the brand in the Octagon.
"We will continue to propose creative methods to our sponsors that leverage the popularity of the fighters and deliver a return on objective to the sponsor," Meyer said. "In-cage logo placements are simply one less deliverable that we can offer to our sponsors."
One of the biggest reasons managers are open to the Reebok deal is the current state of fighter sponsorship. It's not nearly what it was just a few years ago. Meyer attributes it to a number of reasons, including competing brands consolidating, the economic downturn, the UFC sponsor tax and the sheer volume of fights the UFC is putting on.
"I can remember the days when it was possible to sometimes even equal a fighter's fight purse with sponsorships, depending on the different variables," said Alex Davis, the manager for fighters like Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and Edson Barboza. "But it has been a while since then. I believe that the glut we have been experiencing is due to the simple fact that marketing dollars used on fighters have not been translating into revenue to the company's spending those dollars."
Sponsors have to pay the UFC a fee in order to be approved to endorse fighters in the Octagon. The rate goes along a sliding scale with regards to how much money the company is spending. There's little doubt the sponsor tax has discouraged brands from budgeting money toward UFC fighters, but some managers don't have a huge problem with it since it has effectively wiped out bad sponsors who end up stiffing the athletes.
"At the end of the day, there's two ways to look at it," Attar said. "Did it really disrupt the free market from a sponsorship standpoint? Or did it weed out the problems? There are fighters out there who still have six figures owed to them from bad sponsors."
Another criticism of the Reebok deal has been the fact that fighters could lose their individuality if everyone is wearing similar gear in the cage. Chuck Liddell became famous in part because his "Iceman" brand was supported by his fight shorts. Attar doesn't necessarily agree with that.
"Everybody looks the same right now in the endemic apparel, don't they?" Attar said. "A fighter's brand is going to be his brand. If a guy is just getting thrown per-fight deals, if he's rocking a new brand all the time, I don't see any difference. If you have a strong enough brand, a strong enough personality, I don't think that they're going to prevent you from doing that. If anything, aligning with major brands like Reebok only brings other major deals. It validates you."
There are still plenty of unknowns when it comes to the tiered structure of payouts, but the UFC rankings will be the base. Champions will get paid the most, followed by fighters in the top five. Then will come fighters ranked No. 6 to No. 10 and No 11 through No. 15.
White said there will be improvements made to the much-maligned current system and he will seek more legitimate, credible media members to vote. Managers are divided on how effective and fair this method will be. Most of the high-profile MMA journalists decline to vote on the UFC's rankings due to a conflict of interest and this presents an even bigger one. There has also been an issue with the UFC removing fighters from eligibility for frivolous reasons, which, if continued, would directly affect their income.
"I don't like the rankings system at all," Kawa said. "I thought it was BS from day one. At first they say it matters, then they say it's just for the fans. The rankings, you never really know what's going on with them."
Cox, a former journalist who has voted on such prestigious awards as the Heisman Trophy, doesn't mind using the media rankings to sort things out.
"I would rather them use that as a measuring stick than if it would go by whoever they like the most or whoever they say is the most popular," he said. "Those types of things are ambiguous. Who's to say who is the most popular? Why should someone who's a good fighter but not necessarily popular get less money? This is one way to tie it to something. There are a lot of worse ways to do it."
Could media members be swayed by managers trying to get more money for their fighters? Cox doesn't think so. On the other hand, Dan Lambert, the owner of American Top team and longtime manager of many ATT athletes, believes it's a manager's job to pull for their fighters in any way they can. He doesn't think anything sinister like bribes will occur, though.
"[Journalists are] going to get a lot more Christmas gifts this year, I think, or they're going to become managers on the side," Attar joked. "In all honesty, that's one of the areas that has yet to be seen."
There are plenty of those areas with the new Reebok deal. Kawa believes it'll take years to know the effects on fighters and their incomes. But it's almost unanimous among managers that the UFC branding itself with a company like Reebok has more than a few positives even if there is way more gray area than black and white facts at the moment.
"Twenty years ago, we were putting on shows with 50 people in the crowd and we were coming up with the rules in the Octagon," Lambert said. "To see where this sport has come, every little thing like this helps. It's just a pleasure to see it get to this point. A worldwide brand like Reebok stamped right there with the UFC? It's a great thing."
Additional reporting by Guilherme Cruz