ESPN Investigates UFC Fighter Pay

“Outside the Lines has spoken with more than 20 current, former and potential UFC fighters, as well as agents and promoters,” ESPN’s John Barr charged. “To a person, they say UFC fighters have not received their fair share of the company’s rapidly increasing revenue.”

In short, the show charges that UFC pay is not fair. This is an extraordinariy claim to make in a free-market economy.

With the advent of recycling, there are now countless thousands of people employed to stand by moving lines of refuse, separating the garbage from the recycling. How much would you have to be paid to spend eight hours a day picking through garbage? Is the near minimm wage that scut line workers are paid fair? Best way to determine the answer might be to spend a day doing it, for 50 bucks.

The show established unequivocally that UFC main event fighters make far, far more than do first time prelim fighters, who can earn as little as six or eight thousand dollars if they lose. However, equally unequivocally the UFC is paying main event fighters vastly larger sums because so many more fans pay money to see the main event and main card fighters than they do the undercard fighters.

One need only see the extraordinary swings in PPV buys with roughly equal undercards to understand that main event fighters bring in the money. That may not be “fair” to the undercard fighters who may train just as hard as a Rampage Jackson, and often hold down a full time job simultaneously, dreaming of the day when all they have to do is train. But it is what it is in a free-market economy.

One needs only a passing familiarity with sponsor money figures to understand that the relative sums paid are roughly equivalent to what the market will bear. If sponsors were paying undercard fighters multiples of their purse, then the argument could be made that something was out of balance. But that is not the case.

The show charges that “Nearly all of (20 current, former and potential UFC fighters, as well as agents and promoters) also refused to speak on camera, for fear the UFC would blackball them.” This was presumably their excuse for trotting out Ken Shamrock to denounce the company. Shamrock has been ordered by Nevada courts to repay $175,000 in court costs to UFC parent company Zuffa LLC over a dismissed lawsuit brought by Shamrock.

Whatever Shamrock’s contributions to mixed martial arts – and they are profound – if ESPN had even even a shred of journalistic integrity, they would not ask a man to assess the fairness of a company’s pay structure when that same man has been ordered by a court to pay the company $175,000.

Fighters at all levels of the UFC have tested the waters elsewhere, and invariably seek to return.

Low-level fighters are released by the UFC on a weekly basis, and invariablly vow to put together a string of wins in smaller shows, in an (often successful) attempt to fight their way back into the UFC.

When mid-tier fighters like Paul Daley, Jon Fitch, Nate Marquardt, or Miguel Torres are released for extraordinary reasons, again, there is invariably a statement that their intention is to fight their way back to a UFC contract.

Although it is highly unusual, even top tier fighters like Tito Ortiz or Randy Couture who separate from the UFC in the end re sign the contact. All this suggests that a UFC contract is not unfair and burdensome, but rather is what the entire industry aspires to.

A few top fighters have left and found bigger paydays elsewhere, but not for long. Heavyweights Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia departed the UFC and signed with Affliction for large amounts of cash, but Affliction MMA lost millions and died after putting on just two shows, which suggests their model was fundamentally flawed, and not something upon which the viability of the sport could possibly rest.

In an undisclosed and almost stupeyingly ironic turn, Shamrock’s failed suit was an attempt to force the UFC to let him fight for the organization. And when he was unsucessful, and saw the courts demand he pay back court costs, he asked the UFC if he could pay off the debt by fighting for the UFC. The man ESPN put front and center to criticise UFC contracts actually sued to try to get one.

Also undisclosed in the piece, Shamrock earned millions from the UFC, and was released not over a contract dispute, but because he could no longer win in the organization, hsving gone 1-4 with his sole victory an early KO over a troubled Kimo Leopoldo.

The argument further falls apart on their inability to find even a single retired fighter other than Shamrock to back up their claims. Is the UFC so terrifying that no retired fighter is willing to say publicly “Geeez, they are doing great, I wish they had paid me more.” Lastly, former UFC 170 pound champion Matt Serra paints an entirely different picture of the interview process, saying the reporter was uninterested in positive comments about the UFC pay structure, and that other fighters had a similar experience.

Monte Cox, the sport’s most prolific promoter and with nine former world champions its most successful manager, appeared on the show and spoke his mind. If Zuffa follows a vindictive management model, then Cox would be either stupid or ignorant to have said what he said on the record, and Monte is neither. To the contrary, there is no one on Earth with a broader knowledge of the sport’s business side.

Shortly before his retirement, Mirko Cro Cop, who has fought for Pride, K-1, and the UFC, predicted his actions should he lose his next fight. “(If I lose I will) apologize, and (say) ‘I’m sorry I wasted your time.’ … I will disappear from the UFC and I will apologize, first to the headquarters of the UFC, because I was treated like a king, I was paid well, and unfortunately I didn’t justify the treatment.”

Cro Cop’s remarks are an extraordinary testament to the character of athletes in MMA – when was the last time a pro athlete in any major sport apologized for being paid too much for his or her performance? As well, it is not the kind of remark one would expect to hear about an organization in which the athletes characteristically feel they are unfairly underpaid.

The ESPN piece also contains flat out mathematical error.

It was initialy claimed that median annual income for UFC fighters was $17,000 to $23,000, an amount barely above minimum wage. The problem is, it isn’t true. ESPN later explained the figure was not per year, but per fight, but that sum does not cover bonuses, sponsorships, PPV percentages, and other standard sources of fighter income.

Just as MMA has remarkable athletes, it has remarkable fans, too. While fans of all other major sports bemoan the amounts paid to the athletes, MMA fans wish the fighters were paid more. From the first timer who loses and earns only $6,000 to GSP who said he makes four to five million per fight, there is a widespread desire on the part of fans to see fighters paid more.

The piece spoke about mainstream sports paying roughly 50% of gross to the athletes, and claimed that the UFC pays only a miserly 10%. Fertitta flatly contradicted the figure, calling it “completely innacurate” and saying that the UFC pays in the neighborhood of 50%. Fertitta also pointed out that since 2005 the UFC has made 39 milllionaires and paid out over $250,000,000 to fighters.

The issue of compensation is a legitimate topic of inquiry in this, or for that matter any industry. And there are multiple places to look at the issue, some of them not as sexy as calling out the UFC. For example, there are fighters competing on television for other promotions for 500 or 600 dollars, with no health insurance.

In sum, the video below does not do the topic justice. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this piece, with as its centerpiece a man who recently sued to try to get into not away from the UFC, fails to deliver.

As former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez said in a follow up program, “The UFC gives you the best opportunity.”

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