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Ari Emanuel defends fighter pay in UFC while touting Conor McGregor as highest-paid athlete

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As Endeavor continues to prove critics wrong after going public earlier this year and maintaining stock prices, the media conglomerate has largely been buoyed during the pandemic by the continued growth and expansion of the UFC.

While the entertainment industry is still getting back on its feet after a disastrous 2020, the UFC has proven to be Endeavor’s best investment yet after spending just over $4 billion to purchase the promotion just over five years ago.

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel has touted record numbers produced by the UFC both on pay-per-view and in live events since fans were welcomed back into arenas earlier this year. Of course, the UFC making money at a staggering clip has also resulted in plenty of complaints about the amount being paid back to the actual athletes in the organization.

Due to an ongoing lawsuit by numerous former athletes, the UFC has been forced to disclose financial records over several years, which revealed that the promotion has been paying out approximately 16 to 20 percent of the revenue back to the fighters. That figure pales in comparison to other major sports leagues like the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball where the athletes almost universally take home around 50 percent of the revenue.

Still, Emanuel defended the fighter pay structure in the UFC during a recent appearance at the Goldman-Sachs Communacopia conference. He touted that fighter pay in the UFC had increased by 600 percent since 2005 while also mentioning the recent Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list that put former two-division champion Conor McGregor in the No. 1 position for the year.

“They just did a recent study of top paying athletes. The number one athlete was a UFC fighter,” Emanuel said during the conference. “They’re making money on fight kits, paid marketing opportunities we’re creating for them with our sponsors, revenue for NFTs, and we’re investing money in a performance institute to rehabilitate them, [focus on their] diet, etc,”

Fighters do earn money from Venum as the official sponsor for the UFC fight kits but they are also banned from wearing any other endorsements on the uniform outside of those companies already partnered with the promotion.

The UFC also recently inked a whopping $175 million deal with but none of that money was actually paid back out to the athletes.

The promotion also received criticism earlier this year when flyweight prospect Sarah Alpar started a GoFundMe page to help pay for her training camp for an upcoming fight in the UFC. YouTube celebrity turned boxer Jake Paul and upstart social media company and boxing promoter Triller ultimately donated enough money to pay for the entire campaign while both took shots at the UFC for an athlete starting a GoFundMe page in the first place.

“Imagine a rookie in the NBA had to start a GoFundMe to play,” Paul wrote on Twitter while making his donation to her campaign. “It’s my honor and privilege to help fellow fighters in any way I can.”

As for McGregor as the highest-paid athlete — Forbes listed his salary at $180 million but only $22 million was counted as his earnings from the UFC. The rest came from endorsement deals and selling a majority share in his whiskey company, which went for $150 million.

Outside of addressing fighter pay in the UFC, Emanuel also talked about the growing sports rights fees in recent years and how that will certainly benefit the mixed martial arts promotion in the future.

The UFC is currently in the midst of a deal with ESPN that runs through 2026, which also includes pay-per-view broadcasts, and Emanuel raved about the relationship while calling the Disney-owned company as “the mecca” for sports broadcasts.

That said, Emanuel expects the UFC to earn even bigger profits once it’s time to negotiate a new rights fee, especially now that so many streaming services are getting involved with the bidding as well.

“We love our relationship with Disney,” Emanuel said. “I’m not nervous about where we’re going to end up. Now, you’re seeing the streamers come into it, so I’m feeling very good about where we sit.”

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