What We Talk About When We Talk About UFC Fighter Pay
Ben Fowlkes is one of the better writers over at MMAFighting.com:
It probably tells us something that UFC president Dana White knew he hated ESPN's Outside the Lines segment on fighter pay well before he saw it. One gets the sense that he hated the topic more than the source or the approach, and the UFC's heavy-handed response to the story only confirms that this is a conversation the UFC would probably rather stop before it starts.
ESPN tells us that many UFC fighters are practically despondent about their pay, even if it can't name any of them or produce any meaningful, verifiable financial figures that make the case. The piece questions Lorenzo Fertitta's claim that the UFC pays somewhere "in the neighborhood" of half its revenue to fighters, as most major sports leagues do, but it can't disprove it. And when ESPN's John Barr says he's spoken with "more than 20 current, former, and potential UFC fighters," the savvy viewer is right to stop and ask just what he means by "potential" UFC fighters, and how many of the former fighters are guys like Ken Shamrock, who is the only fighter quoted in the piece, and who is, shall we say, not the most reliable or unbiased of sources on the topic.
In response, the UFC crafted a clever little piece of propaganda featuring interviews with fighters Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell, and Matt Serra, all of whom have nothing but positive things to say about how the UFC compensates its fighters. Shocking right? And here I thought that when the UFC showed up at Griffin's house with a camera he'd have used the opportunity to unload on his employers with one bitter complaint after another. And who could have guessed that Liddell, who was given a cushy, do-nothing corporate gig with the UFC once his fighting days were finished, would be so supportive? Never saw that one coming, I tell you.
The UFC loves to tout its post-fight bonuses, all that off-the-books money that it gives away out of sheer generosity and appreciation, and it does so again in its video rebuttal. It's true that the UFC literally gives away money that it doesn't have to. I've talked to dozens of fighters who have told me stories of White writing them a check that they didn't earn, contractually speaking. I've also talked to fighters who thought they went out of their way to hype a fight or put on a great show, only to have the UFC pat them on the back and send them on their way without the extra monetary appreciation they were expecting.
The current bonus system keeps fighters in a constant state of financial anticipation. They know the big money is out there somewhere, but unlike in most employer/employee relationships, it isn't laid out in print anywhere exactly what they need to do to get their hands on it. In that sense, fighters are like a primitive tribe of people worshipping inscrutable gods. They keep putting different offerings on the altar, trying different dances to make it rain. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes it doesn't. Some guys are thirstier than others. Some guys are better dancers.
One thing the ESPN piece and the UFC response have in common is a lack of detailed financial information. For a conversation entirely about money, there aren't a lot of numbers being thrown around here. ESPN would probably blame the UFC for that, arguing that because it doesn't release information about how much it makes and how much it pays out, we can't really know whether Fertitta's claims are accurate. That's true, but as Fertitta points out, the UFC doesn't have to release any of that information, and it's definitely not going to invite a closer scrutiny of its books if it doesn't have to. What company would?
But this argument gets us nowhere. ESPN says fighters want more money, which isn't at all hard to believe. So do NFL and NBA players. The difference is how they go about getting it.
It's easy to swat the UFC upside the head about fighter pay and ask why it isn't sharing a bigger slice of the revenue pie with fighters, but it's also naive. Why should the UFC be the lone company in this capitalist dogfight of ours to simply decide, out of sheer altruism, to give more and take less? If fighters are really unhappy with the deal they're getting from the UFC, they need to do what athletes in every other major pro sport have done: form a union.
What would it take to form a fighter union? The same thing it takes in any industry: a willingness to stand together, and the participation of a few key people. If Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones, and Anderson Silva banded together with a few of the lower-tier fighters, the UFC would have little choice but to recognize their union. If it didn't -- if it decided instead to cut its top three champions for daring to organize -- it would bring such an avalanche of bad publicity down upon itself that it would wish it had signed a blank check instead. A mess like that could easily end in congressional hearings and a sponsor exodus, and no one at the UFC wants either.
Then again, what do GSP, Jones, and Silva need a union for? They're doing fine as it is. They're rich and well taken care of by the UFC, so why speak up and potentially cost themselves money? Why should they care what Octagon newbies are getting paid?
In other words, the people who are most capable of creating a union and addressing issues like fighter pay and general transparency are the people who need it least. It's pointless to address these complaints to the UFC, which isn't going to simply decide to give away more money just to keep reporters away. Instead, bring it up with GSP. Bring it up with Dan Henderson and Frankie Edgar. Ask them if they're willing to do what's necessary to secure a better future for the fighters of tomorrow, even if it means angering the UFC brass today.
That might be a harder sell in the fight business than it is among pro baseball or football players. Those guys are used to working together against a common foe, and maybe that makes it easier to unite them against greedy owners. MMA fighters, on the other hand, are more accustomed to a certain brand of self-reliance. They're used to a world where there's only one champ in each division, one man sitting at the head of the table and eating his fill for as long as he can hold on to the chair. They're all certain that they'll be that man some day, so none are eager to complain that he's the only one getting a decent meal. You come into that world and tell them to unite in service of the fighters they either don't know or don't care about, and you might not get such a warm reception.
But this is how it's gone in every pro sport. The NFL players of today might enjoy great salaries, solid pension plans, and health care for their later years when the bill for all they've done to their bodies comes due -- all things that UFC fighters need and deserve -- but they didn't get it by waiting around for the owners to give it up voluntarily. It never works that way. Not in any business.
If fighters want to do something about their pay and their treatment in the UFC, it's up to them to join together and make it happen. For that, they need powerful leaders who don't need them. If those leaders decide it's not worth it, that they're doing just fine on their own, then at least we'll have our answer. But asking the UFC when it's going to fork over more money to fighters is like asking a CEO when he's going to give himself a pay cut so factory workers can get a raise. Change won't come on its own, via some self-imposed sense of fairness. It's going to take a struggle, and that struggle is going to have to begin with the fighters.