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Scott Coker on UFC-Reebok sponsorship program: Bellator's 'phone's been ringing'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

News broke this week with details about the UFC's new sponsorship program with Reebok. Specifically, payment tiers for fighters made their way onto social media platforms and news sites. The feedback was mixed, but largely negative as many fighters objected either to losing the right to find their own sponsors or the downgrade they faced in expected pay.

The question isn't simply how this will affect the UFC and the fighters who compete there, but the sponsorship market generally. In addition, how will this affect the Viacom-backed Bellator, a much smaller organization, but one that doesn't use a sponsorship tax or other heavy-handed sponsor screens?

To get answers to those questions, MMA Fighting spoke with Bellator President Scott Coker about these various issues. In this exclusive interview, Coker opens up about the UFC-Reebok sponsorship, his views on how it could impact Bellator, what it would mean for a fighters' union to be established and much more.

Star-divide

Now that the details are public, what are your thoughts about the UFC-Reebok sponsorship program?

I think that people really have to take a step back and understand that this is a business that everybody here's trying to run. The UFC is a business. Bellator is a business. Both of these are businesses and just like the fighters - they're a business of their own, a brand business. I think the UFC felt that was the number that made it work for everybody.

I think for the fighters, from what I'm reading, it's a hard pill to swallow, but at the end of the day, I think UFC had to do what they had to do.

What I don't understand is why did they have to do it? They were making money from the sponsor tax. Sponsors were helping to offset some of the complaints of low fighter pay. What is so necessary about it?

I think that's something you'll have to ask them. I can only speculate. Their corporate strategy really is something you'll have to talk to them about. They're definitely heading into a different direction than the sport's been going the last 25 years. Let's see if it's something that's going to be there for the term of the contract or for many years from now.

I can tell you I feel with our fighters, this is an individual sport. The fighters in our league are going to have the ability to get their own sponsors as long as there's no conflict with our corporate sponsors that support Bellator.

Does Bellator now employ, even in an administrative way, any sort of sponsor screen?

That's the only limitation. We don't have any sponsorship tax on our athletes. As long as they don't conflict with our main sponsors - like Miller, like Dave & Buster's, Monster Energy Drink, there's a couple others - then everything else is fine. If they can go negotiate a deal that pays them a million dollars a year, that's up to them.

They're independent contractors. They have their own ability to go make those deals.

What is the status with Monster Energy Drink and Bellator?

Business as usual. They've been a great sponsor, a great partner. We have a great relationship with them. We're looking forward to doing business together for many years.

What do you think the UFC's program is going to do to the sponsorship market in MMA, generally?

I think there's been some situations that have been explained to me where fighters were making $50-60,000 a fight from all their sponsors [are] now making $10,000 or $15,000 or $20,000. You'd have to talk to UFC to see how they're going to handle that situation, but I'm sure they're going to do something. The fighters are not going to be happy if it's taking out $150-$200,000 a year in sponsorships from their pocket.

I think they're going to have a situation on their hands that they're going to have to deal with.

I will tell you this, the phone's been ringing. I just tell people, 'Listen. We're not going to engage in any kind of dialogue with you on any level unless you're a free agent. When you're free, give me a call.'

When you say the phone's been ringing, you mean from fighters and managers?

Managers and fighters. A lot of questions are, 'What's your policy on sponsorships?' I say, 'Look, I can't engage in any kind of conversation with you guys. When you're free, give me a call.' But the phone's definitely been ringing.

You've stated a commitment to signing free agents, but realistically, you only have so many shows a year. Realistically, how eager are you to sign additional fighters at this point?

I will say we're eager. If you're a free agent and you're the type of fighter that we want, then we're extremely eager. Not everybody's going to be a fit for us. Some people have a fit in a different home and they're happy or if they're not happy, then they may have a fit here. We're looking for a certain athlete and a certain fighting style. Those are the kind of fighters that we want. If they become free agents, we'll have a conversation.

How many fighters do you have on the roster at the moment?

I believe it's like 150.

So how much more could you accommodate now if you wanted to?

Well, this year, the answer to that is probably 140 (laughs), but we're going to have an announcement, I'd say, in a couple of months. We're going to expand our schedule next year and do some really fun stuff and cool stuff. We're excited about 2016 and beyond.

When you were the head of Strikeforce, but after Zuffa had purchased it, were there talks at that time of instituting a uniform for fighters?

No.

Stated plainly, then, is what the UFC's doing good for Bellator or not?

I think time will tell. I think it depends on a couple of things and one is how the UFC will take care of the fighters that are losing money on the deal. It'll depend, but all I can say is, I can't speak for their business because that's their business. I can only speak to, 'Hey, we're open for business. If you're a free agent, give us a call.' If there's a fit, there's a fit, but trying to analyze their business or think about their corporate strategy, I'm just thinking about our strategy. My philosophy is there's going to be more room than for just one player. I think that in the 11 months I've been here, I think we've done some great work. We've done some fun stuff. I'm excited about the next three years or four years that we're going to build this brand and put on great fights and drive TV ratings and put butts in seats. That's the business we're in. That's my comment on that.

Do you know what sort of range of the average Bellator main card fighter earns in sponsorship money?

You know what? Honestly, I don't even know. I'm sure we could find out and get that information back to you, but when Monster took these deals with these athletes like Michael Chandler or I know some of these other guys have deals with other sponsors that aren't these sponsors, we really don't get involved. That's really between them.

Monitoring social media, there's a lot of talk about whether now is the time for a fighter's union. What is your view on the potentiality of something like that happening?

This is all speculation, right? We can only talk about hypotheticals, but allI can say is this. When I was in business with the Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment Group and half the company was owned by the group that owns the San Jose Sharks, we kind of set up our pay structure based upon like a hockey union would do. We paid minimum 68 percent of our gross income to our athletes pay structure. If there was a union, I don't think that would take us off guard by any means because when we structured Strikeforce, we structured based around kind of like if there was a union.

My guys felt very strongly that this is something we should do. If it became real today, we would act accordingly and move forward.

Bellator's still a work in progress with your vision. Is that arrangement something you want to set Bellator to do as well?

We can very easily do that. It'd be a similar adjustment and we'd move forward. I just don't know if a union in an individual sport like MMA will really come to fruition at some point or not. There's a lot of hurdles there because this is an individual sport and not a team sport.

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