The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
Fighter pay has always been a hot-button issue in MMA, but over the past few weeks, it’s taken center stage as UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal have directly challenged the promotion’s compensation practices, setting in motion a standoff that potentially could spark a movement to organize fighters — or reinforce the promotion’s power over talent.
MMA Fighting’s Steven Marrocco and Jed Meshew offer their perspective on who’s going to blink first, and why.
SM: Although it certainly feels like a new day with so many fighters apparently on the outs with the promotion, and nothing feels like it’s working normally in the world we’re living in right now, the scenario we see between the stars and their promoter feels familiar, albeit with some sharper intel to back it up.
Without the anti-trust litigation currently underway in Nevada, Masvidal wouldn’t have a good receipt — 18 percent of the promotional pie, give or take — to bring to the argument that he’s underpaid. But as to whether it ultimately makes a difference, I think about Canadian MMA royalty: Georges St-Pierre.
The Quebecois, recently ranked by other fighters as the third-best choice to lead a union/association, made a big show when he joined the MMA Athletes Association in 2016. But it wasn’t long after that sham of an organizing effort imploded that he hopped right back into bed with the UFC. Oh, and the No. 2 choice, Daniel Cormier, basically said Jones and Masvidal did it all wrong by going public with their grievances. The No. 1 choice, Conor McGregor, appears to be on his third attempt at leveraging a better deal after two “retirements.”
So we’ve seen many stars lash out in public. All, however, wind up back in the fold with a new deal, and the game goes on without ever addressing the systemic issue that brings us to this place so often. Why? Time and money are two of the most precious commodities in disputes over compensation, and the UFC has always had more of both than fighters.
Jones and Masvidal may have more financial resources than the average combatant to sit out for an extended period of time. They may even be fortunate enough to never have to lace up four-ounce gloves again. But like most fighters, that’s certainly not what they want to do. They have trained their entire lives to do this. They have sweat and bled and taken concussions over thousands upon thousands of hours to get to where they are today. They can only do it for so long before their bodies give out, and unless they prove to be the exceptions to the rule on fighters and second careers, there’s no better way than fighting to make a lot of money in a relatively short period of time.
The UFC knows these things, of course, and they’ve set up a business model that fully leverages the lifecycle of an athlete in their favor. If you’re upset over pay, there are dozen of other fighters willing to step in your place. If you want to be released from contract, you can’t — unless you fight it out, potentially against the toughest opponent at the most inopportune time. Refuse the bouts you’re offered and the promotion can extend your contract, over and over, until you do feel the financial hurt or simply get tired of living in limbo. And if you want to fight this setup in court, you’re probably going to need a level of financial resources that are way, way above your pay grade.
Champions, stars, or rank and file, it’s a fighter’s job to work within that system to get as much from it as possible. But until all three levels of talent seriously threaten the event schedule with a work stoppage, or the UFC loses a pair of fights on the regulatory and legal fronts via the ongoing anti-trust litigation and amendment of the Ali Act, that system won’t change. The promotion can do what it’s always done: Wait it out and keep the machine rolling. This is the choice UFC President Dana White has repeatedly laid out to Jones and Masvidal since they broke ranks, and in an age of guaranteed ESPN revenue, it’s more clear than ever.
Fighters had their best chance to negotiate new concessions when the coronavirus pandemic threatened the schedule the promotion needs to maintain in order fulfill obligations to its broadcast partner ESPN. Now, less than one week after Masvidal joined Jones on the proverbial picket line, there’s “Fight Island” and a talented, entirely willing and arguably deserving contender in Gilbert Burns to fight champ Kamaru Usman.
To be sure, ESPN paid for stars like Jones and Masvidal when they agreed to shell out $1.5 billion over five years. They need stars just as much as the UFC to drive those pay-per-view buys, and it certainly doesn’t help anything when they’ve decided to sit out. Until the fans really start to miss them and stop pressing “buy” on the remote, the UFC has little incentive to bend. And having limited time to fight it out, “Bones” and “Gamebred” likely will settle for a bump in pay far smaller than their worth, and business will go on as usual.
JM: All of the points you make are valid. After all, Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal are hardly the first fighters to buck at the relatively meager wages the UFC offers, and in every previous instance, the big company prevailed. But this time feels different.
For one, though the UFC has previously had to deal with disgruntled stars, they’ve never had to deal with disgruntled stars who were as well informed as they are right now. One of the great weapons in the UFC’s negotiating arsenal with fighters has been their cloak-and-dagger operation. Because fighters never knew exactly how much other fighters were making, the UFC could get away with lowballing fighters across the board. All of that started to change when Zuffa sold the UFC for $4 BILLION, and suddenly, fighters started to figure out they’d been short-changed.
The antitrust lawsuit that came about as a result of that sale has now made it public that fighters take home roughly 20 percent of revenue. For comparison, athletes in other sports leagues in the United States take home around 50 percent of the league’s revenue. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to know that the fighters are getting ripped off in a pretty major way, and the fighters are now making that known. Masvidal even specifically cited this pay disparity while airing his grievances to ESPN over the weekend.
On top of fighters being more informed about the UFC’s pay structure, they’re also more informed about their compatriots. The excellent piece you cited above should be a rallying cry for all fighters under a UFC contract, letting them know that they are not alone in wanting unionization. Eighty percent is a massive portion of the UFC fighter base and people like Jones and Masvidal can look at that and realize all they need to do is lead, and people will follow them.
Another major point in favor of the UFC caving is, somewhat paradoxically, their new deal with ESPN. The UFC’s pay-per-view deal with ESPN gives them a set amount of revenue every year, basically regardless of their PPV sales. In the short term, this increases the UFC’s leverage over fighters, even their biggest stars, because they no longer rely on Conor McGregor selling two million PPVs. However, this deal also functionally gives power away because the UFC now has a business partner that is directly incentivized to have the best cards and biggest fighters as often as possible. That’s why, though the UFC and ESPN are partners, ESPN would air an interview with Masvidal brazenly citing all the ways the UFC is shorting him: it’s in their best interest for the UFC to pay the fighters more so they can get the best fights and thus, increase viewership and revenue.
Which leads me to my final and most important point: the UFC is objectively in the wrong here. In broad strokes, fans of all sports tend to side with corporate billionaires over the millionaire athletes (see: every sports lockout ever), but even the most ardent Dana White Knights of Twitter, can’t justify UFC fighters making 20 percent of revenue. That number is a PR nightmare, not only for the UFC, but for its business associates as well.
Public perception is a powerful tool. Remember when earlier this year, Disney called up Dana White and shut down UFC 249 because the public started to take notice of the UFC’s cavalier plans and U.S. senators got involved? They didn’t have to do that. The UFC’s plans to hold events at Tachi Palace were legal. But it was a real bad look, and Disney made the call. This is also a bad look, and it’s one that can have far-reaching effects.
The small group of fighters who have been lobbying for expanding the Ali Act into MMA have thus far not gained much ground. There are likely a number of reasons for this but, in general, apathy is the underlying cause. No one is concerned enough in the places that matter. As more fighters speak out, and ESPN signal boosts this more, someone is going to see this as an easy political win with broad national publicity. The UFC’s hand is eventually going to be forced: either they come off the cash, or their entire business model is going to go up in flames.
None of this is rocket science. The UFC pays fighters a pittance of what they’re worth and fighters are finally waking up to that reality. You’ll always have some fighters who will be willing to take what is given to them, but increasingly the public and the UFC’s partners are not going to be willing to take what the UFC is putting out as a result. When even your own broadcasting partner is calling you out, you know you have a problem, and this time it’s one White can’t get out of by throwing a fighter under the bus.
Who will cave first in this pay dispute?
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