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The Case for Public Fighter Pay

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Tuesday morning, ESPN the Magazine released its list of highest-paid professional athletes. Included were the obvious -- boxer Manny Pacquiao ($50 million), New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez $30 million), the not-so-obvious -- jockey Ramon Dominguez ($20.5 million), bull rider Silvano Alves ($1.4 million), and the downright ridiculous -- competitive eater Joey Chestnut ($205,000).

In all, the leading earners in 31 separate sports were listed, with earnings only including salaries and prize money earned in 2011. Among the sports not listed was mixed martial arts. According to the story, excluded sports were omitted because official salary data was unavailable.

UFC president Dana White has long been on the record against fighter salaries being made public.

"You don't have to know everything," he said just a few months ago. "And to be honest with you, it's not your f------ business. They're making a lot of money."

He is right and he is wrong. It is true, it is not our f------ business. Nobody wants their salary plastered on news sites around the world for anyone to see. There are certain things that should as a rule be kept private. Family squabbles. Pin numbers. And yes, money.

But there is another side to the argument, one that suggests holding this information from the public view actually holds back progress of the sport. Football, basketball and baseball are mainstream because they're big business. And part of the reason we know they're big business is because players salaries are made public.

People are obsessed by money. It can drive conversation, debate and attention. For proof, just go back to January, when ESPN produced an "Outside the Lines" show examining fighter pay.

The segment produced a huge amount of controversy at the time, which was largely due to White's objection to it even before it had aired. At issue was whether fighters are underpaid.

That's a question that is ultimately impossible to answer based upon the information we currently have, which is incomplete. The fact that ESPN the Magazine did not include MMA in its "best-paid" list practically proves that point. The UFC only has to report a fighter's "show" fight purse and "win" bonus money to state athletic commissions. Anything beyond that -- and there are millions that change hands through the UFC's bonus structure -- is kept between the promotion and each fighter and/or his management.

It seems clear that under White and Lorenzo Fertitta, nothing will change in that regard. But should it? I would argue the answer is yes. Why? One word: talent. Quite often, talent is driven by market prices. If you're an athlete and you have equal interest in multiple sports, wouldn't you put extra consideration on the ones that pay the best? You might ultimately decide against it in favor of a lower-paying sport if you believed your chances of succeeding at the latter are better, but it would make you think twice.

That's no different than college kids picking majors based upon what fields are most likely to generate them the best living.

White likes to say that you have to love fighting to be good at it, and that's probably true to some degree, but even the ones who love it sometimes need incentive to chase a dream. There are plenty of athletes who may see Jon Jones making a guaranteed $400,000 for fighting in a main event and wonder if it's worth it. That not small potatoes, but when they see NFL stars pulling in $10 million signing bonuses, it can't look quite as attractive. Now, I happen to know that Jones makes a considerable bonus based on pay-per-view sales, and that his final take-home pay is far above the listed $400K, but the random athlete who is charting his path between football and MMA is not likely to know it.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of possible MMA stars who are on football fields. In many parts of the country, football and wrestling work together to create quality athletes. But then what happens? As the athlete progresses, he starts thinking about his future. And where is there a better chance for a future? Of course most, if given the opportunity, will move on to football. Why? Because long-term, there is a chance for a windfall payday. Even if it's remote, there is a chance.

Take the Jones family as an example. Two of the brothers -- Arthur and Chandler -- made it to the NFL. The other -- Jon -- is a UFC champ. All three of them grew up wrestling. Arthur moved on to football because that's where opportunity was. Chandler just liked football more than wrestling. Luckily for the MMA world, Jon had little choice; he was a terrible athlete aside from wrestling. His high school wrestling coach JJ Stanbro once told me, "If you ever watched him play basketball or anything with a ball, you'd hurt yourself laughing."

If Jon had the same aptitude for football as Arthur and Chandler, we probably would have never known his fighting brilliance. And it's hard to believe he's the only one who never really saw MMA as an option until it became a last resort. How many others are out there? What other stars are we missing because athletes don't see a potential windfall? What they see is a lot of hard work and effort for at most, a decent amount of money. How might that change if there were multi-million dollar paydays constantly being discussed, as there are in other sports?

Ultimately, kids don't dream about being NFL superstars or Major League Baseball World Series heroes because of money, but as they grow older, money becomes part of the end game. As long as fighter pay remains a state secret in MMA, we will lose out on some elite-level athletes. The next great heavyweight is probably in football pads somewhere right now, thinking his only chance at big money is in the NFL. As long as the real money in MMA remains concealed, so does a lot of the real talent.

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