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Click Debate: ‘Reebok pay’ now a thing of the past, and was never really a thing in the first place

Etihad Stadium at UFC 193 Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Don’t call it “Reebok pay” any longer.

Beginning last month, the UFC instituted a new policy for fighters. The money athletes get per fight from the UFC’s apparel deal with Reebok has now been rolled up with two other requirements — media obligations and a fighter code of conduct.

The altered policy is now called “promotional guidelines” and is an amalgamation of all three things: conduct, media obligations and outfitting, per a document obtained by MMA Fighting. Fighter compensation for this is no longer called Reebok pay or outfitting pay — it’s called a “fight week incentive payment.” The changes went into effect Jan. 1.

When the UFC signed an apparel deal with Reebok in 2015, fighters were no longer able to wear their own apparel sponsors or sponsor logos in the Octagon or during fight week. To compensate for that loss of income, the UFC said it would pay the entire amount of the Reebok contract — reportedly $70 million over six years — back to the athletes. The compensation structure was tiered, so that fighters were paid in apparel money based on tenure with Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company.

Those compensation tiers have also been changed, along with the combining of the three elements, officials confirmed following a report by ESPN in December. The lowest tier was split into two. Under the new promotional guidelines, athletes with between one and three UFC fights will receive $3,500 per bout, while athletes with four or five UFC fights will make $4,000 per bout. Before, athletes with between one and five UFC fights earned $2,500 per contest.

Per a UFC official, “the new incentive payment” gives “additional compensation” to the largest percentage of the roster: athletes who have five or fewer fights in the UFC.

“The UFC Promotional Guidelines is a policy that groups together policies and procedures already adopted and followed by UFC athletes during fight week, therefore these guidelines are not introducing any new elements aside from a new associated incentive payment,” the official said. … “This compensation model is new and compensation was allocated based on available funds and strategically placed to support the largest number of athletes.”

Not everyone is thrilled with a fighter code of conduct and promotional obligations being tied into what was once pay athletes received for abiding by the UFC’s outfitting policy brought upon by the Reebok deal.

On a recent episode of The MMA Hour, Leslie Smith, who has founded the latest effort to unionize fighters, called Project Spearhead, referred to the new promotional guidelines as restrictive and controlling. In order to unionize, fighters must be deemed employees by the federal government. They are now considered independent contractors. Smith said the new guidelines will work in favor of a union effort.

“I strongly believe that we are employees,” said Smith, a UFC women’s bantamweight fighter. “Strongly believe. In fact, the promotional guidelines that just came out show an astounding amount of control. That’s definitely something that when we get to that point, we will be entering as evidence of one of the reasons that we are employees.”

Lucas Middlebrook, a New York labor lawyer acting as counsel for Project Spearhead, said he believes that the new promotional guidelines document would be “Exhibit A” to the National Labor Relations Board that UFC fighters are employees and not independent contractors. Middlebrook, who represents the NBA referees union and the MLS soccer referees union, said the new provisions tying conduct to what used to be outfitting pay opens the door for the UFC to discipline fighters financially for things they do outside work situations.

The promotional guidelines document reads that sanctions on the fight week incentive pay could be imposed if a fighter is involved in criminal offenses; “inappropriate physical, verbal and online behavior;” “violent, threatening or harassing behavior;” and more.

“Now they’re not only saying what you do when you’re representing the UFC, now they’re saying you could get in trouble in your own personal life and we’re gonna impose these sanctions on you,” Middlebrook said. “And so not only now are they reaching out and saying you have to wear Reebok while you’re fighting for us, you have to wear it during the fight week. Now they’re saying if you get in trouble in your personal life outside of working hours and we could impose discipline on you as well. To me, if that doesn’t scream employee, I don’t know what does.”

Middlebrook said the Reebok deal — which, in his estimation, amounts to a fighter uniform — and specific promotional duties separately are more in line with how companies treat employees, not independent contractors. The promotional guidelines and the UFC saying it now has the ability to fine the “fight week incentive pay” — which was once known to fans as Reebok money — amounts to discipline different than what independent contractors would expect.

“In a true independent contractor relationship, you don’t get to discipline these people,” Middlebrook said. “They don’t work for you. You terminate your contract, that’s it. Your contract is over.”

There is an appeal process for fighters who are sanctioned, which would culminate in arbitration. The UFC would likely argue that the fight week incentive pay is just that — an incentive. It’s not part of a fighter’s salary or purse, it’s something extra, not unlike a bonus. The UFC has no obligation to give it to fighters.

The UFC having an ability to take that away in some capacity, though, is likely a hard pill to swallow for athletes, considering this is the pay that was touted initially as coming from the Reebok apparel deal. The UFC official, though, made it clear that fighters were never getting directly compensated from Reebok nor for wearing Reebok.

“Athletes were never compensated for wearing Reebok,” the official said. “Athletes received Athlete Outfitting Policy payments for complying with UFC’s Athlete Outfitting Policy. Athlete Outfitting remains an important pillar of the fight week experience.”

What is accurate, though, is that fighters are still no longer able to wear their own sponsors in the cage. In 2015, when the Reebok deal and tier structure were first announced, highly regarded MMA manager Mike Roberts told MMA Fighting that it would hurt “85 to 90 percent” of UFC fighters from a financial perspective. Some fighters who were making six figures in sponsorship money per fight were bumped down to $10,000 or $5,000 per fight from the UFC’s outfitting policy, a massive loss.

Now, that same money has been rolled up into three different things — outfitting, code of conduct and promotional duties — and all or part can be taken away if rules are violated.

In 2015, when the Reebok contract was first signed, UFC president Dana White said over and over publicly that “all the money” from said deal would go to the fighters.

“[Fighters] are getting all the money from the Reebok deal,” White told TSN in 2015. “All the money goes to them. What better of a deal could you cut for the guys? It’s an investment in the future of the sport.”

When asked last week if that was still the case, if all the money from the Reebok deal was going to fighters, the UFC official gave a non-answer.

“UFC’s partnership with Reebok, the global brand’s official outfitter, will continue to focus on the creation and development of world-class MMA product and the global outfitting of all UFC athletes and their cornermen and women,” the official said.

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