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Click Debate: Will the UFC’s $4 billion sale be the catalyst for a fighters association?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Rob Maysey has been beating this drum for a long time. It's never been louder than it is right now, he said.

Maysey, the founder of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA), has been opining about the need for fighters to have contracts collectively bargained for nearly a decade. The Phoenix-based lawyer has been speaking about a perceived imbalance in fighter pay for just as long.

For the most part, Maysey has been working with a core group of fighters, many of them no longer with the UFC. That group is expanding, he said, and the reason is obvious: Zuffa's recent sale of the UFC to a group led by powerhouse Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion.

That's a lot of money and many fighters have publicly wondered if they have gotten their fair share.

"We have seen more public sentiment in favor of fighters taking some sort of action together to better their plight," Maysey told MMA Fighting. "What better evidence exists that the leverage between fighter and promoter is way out of balance than the $4 billion sale price? [The UFC owners] don't get that valuation unless they are drastically reducing the compensation fighters get. Now that the sale price is public, it's not just Maysey saying it, it's not just the MMAFA saying it. It smacks them right in the face. You can't deny it."

Multiple fighters took to social media to air grievances after the sale was announced last Monday morning. Maysey and other critics of the UFC have estimated that the promotion pays 14 to 15 percent of revenue to athletes. That number is much closer to 50 percent in other sports.

The UFC has denied estimates regarding fighter pay and it's impossible to know for sure since the UFC is not a public company and it does not release financial numbers. The promotion did not respond to a request for comment for this column, though former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta spoke at length about fighter pay last December.

"That's always going to be an issue," Fertitta said at the UFC's performance center ground-breaking in Las Vegas (h/t Bloody Elbow). "If we distributed 200 percent of our revenues, people would be complaining about fighter pay. The fact of the matter is, fighter pay has continued to increase every single year that we've owned the company.

"We pay way more than anybody else in the space, that's a factor. You do have some fighters that maybe aren't happy with what they get, but at the end of the day, the fighters that achieve great things in this sport and get to the level of actually making a career of it, you don't see many of those athletes complaining. That's the fact of the matter.

"The guys who are rising to the top are making the majority of the money."

The UFC's sale could be something of a catalyst for fighters to unionize or start an association, according to labor attorney Lucas Middlebrook. The New York-based lawyer, who represented Nick Diaz before the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) last year, said he saw the same thing with the Major League Soccer officials in 2012. Middlebrook serves as legal counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association and the Professional Soccer Referees Association.

"Every time that I've helped other unions, there has always been something that at the time pushed them and gave them momentum to collect the cards and get it going," Middlebrook said. "This could be that time, that [UFC fighters] see the sale and how much money the people at the top are making. And they're starting to think, we need to band together and protect ourselves."

To begin the process of starting a union or association, authorization cards need to be signed by fighters. If 30 percent of the UFC's athlete sign those cards and they are submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it would trigger an election after a verification process. In that secret ballot election, if more than 50 percent of UFC fighters vote yes to representation the UFC would have no choice but to legally recognize a union or association.

In order for this to happen, UFC fighters would have to gain legal status as employees, rather than their current status as independent contractors. Middlebrook believes they have a good case.

In September, the UFC sent out an e-mail to fighters discouraging them from signing a union card. Middlebrook is not surprised. He said the company that employs MLS referees, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), fought unionization "tooth and nail." There had to be a contested hearing, Middlebrook said.

"They fought it like it was the plague," said Middlebrook, who also represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants and mechanics. "It's the same thing with the UFC. The employer is used to complete control. They have each of the fighters sign these agreements where they're giving up essentially their rights to profit off of being in these [video] games, when you show up, what you can wear. They have complete control. The UFC, they would lose some of that control, because these things would then have to be collectively bargained. So you wouldn't just be able to say, ‘Here's your contract. Sign it or you're not fighting.'"

Maysey said the common arguments that fighters are too individual to unify and top, well-paid athletes would be disinterested are a myth. He said the highest level of fighters stand to benefit most from collective bargaining, especially if the Ali Act is extended to MMA as is being proposed in Congress. Maysey's MMAFA is in support of the Ali Act to even the playing field among promoters with regards to fight contracts and an association to collectively bargain other deals.

Former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw noted on Stud Show Radio this week that the line has been blurred between independent contractor and employee with the UFC's contracts with USADA and Reebok.

"It's kind of crazy that we are controlled," Dillashaw said. "Any time you have to tell work where you're at and what you're doing, that's considered an employee, not a contractor. They can't tell a subcontractor what to do and when to do it. So this whole drug-testing thing is kind of crazy and the way they're making us wear Reebok and all this stuff we have to do. They're treating us like employees, but not giving us the benefits of an employee."

More and more fighters are speaking out, which could mean more are interested in an association than ever. But these things take time. The Major League Baseball Players Association wasn't founded until 1953 — nearly 100 years after the first MLB game was played.

"There's never going to be just a light-switch moment when it happens," Maysey said. "It's always going to be incremental. Now, what I do think we are going to see without question is the speed of the snowball is going to increase exponentially. It's not going to be step by step."

The Fertitta brothers sold the UFC for $4 billion. Dana White, who is staying on as president, is getting hundreds of millions of dollars in the sale and will keep an ownership stake. The three of them deserve every penny. They had a vision, dumped money and time into it and made it into a reality. They invested in the future of the sport and got an incredible return on investment after an initial $2 million purchase. Good on them.

It's time, though, that the balance of power begins to even out. The fighters, more now than ever, seem to be realizing that.

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