UFC Fighter Pay: What's Wrong with It and How to Solve It

Z.G. Harris@@BRBootsyContributor IIJuly 31, 2013

Courtesy SBNation.com
Courtesy SBNation.com

For the last half decade, fighter pay has become an increasingly discussed issue in the UFC. More fighters are stepping forward to voice disdain and concern. From what can be researched on the issue, there is good reason to have gripes.

We all know Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and other top-tier names are making good money. But what about the rest of the fighters on the books?

Jon Fitch, John Cholish, Dan Hardy and a handful of other fighters have already come forward to complain about how the UFC controls payments. UFC President Dana White continues to scoff at the grumblings, but the issue is likely to persist until either the UFC opens its books or simply pays out more.

According to MMA Manifesto, 15 percent of fighters who participated in the UFC in 2012 made under $10,000. Over 50 percent made between $10,000 and $99,000 for the full year of employment (gross total before fees, costs and taxes).

Tim Kennedy stated in an interview with MMA Mania that he netted $20,000 before taxes following his disclosed $70,000 for a victory at UFC 162. He noted expenses of his camp, medical fees and cost to travel with a fight team as the cause of the diminished net total. Given that is for a single fight, one can assume fighters are spending a hefty portion of their five-figure totals to break even, or working with far less than Kennedy can afford to pay for.

Kennedy is in the minority of current fighters willing to voice the realities of payments in the UFC.

Jacob Volkmann, who was 6-2 in the UFC before being released, stated the problem he saw that goes beyond simple fight-day payments.

“They always claim that they treat the fighters so well. Yeah, they treat the top five per cent of the fighters well — the ones that are on the main card all the time. They don’t treat the rest of them very well. The healthcare plan is horrible, with a $1,500 deductible per injury — the catastrophic-injury insurance is not even really good insurance. There’s no retirement fund, there’s no signing bonus.”

Long-time Top-10 welterweight and title challenger Jon Fitch also spoke out following his release from the UFC.

“Out of the 18 fights out of that $1,020,000, I paid 20-percent of that to management and the gym. So if you take that number, $1,322,000, divided by seven and a half years, I was roughly making just over $176,000 a year. Now remember, that’s before management and gym fees. You also have other expenses you have to pay for, equipment, stuff like that.”

Former welterweight title challenger and Top-10 fighter Dan Hardy spoke with Stephen Daniels of Bloody Elbow, and discussed the monopoly of the UFC as well as sponsorship taxation by the organization on its fighters.

“The problem is that the fighters are in a situation where we don't really have a great deal of options, as far as bargaining power. There are 100 guys that would step in and do my job for free. That kind of devalues us. There aren't any options as far as where we can go and what we can do.

With the sponsor fees, it really limits what we can do outside the sport, as well. It's just a very difficult situation to be in. I went from one fight, where I sold the space on the front of my shorts for $5,000, to six months later, going back to the same company, and only getting an offer of $1500 because of the sponsor fee. I refused it, because someone has got to set a standard. The problem is, when I turn it down, there's another 10 fighters on the undercard that will take that offer, because there's nobody else paying.”

Beyond all the hard numbers is the unregulated and secretive nature of payment. White continually assures everyone the fighters are well taken care of. There is no doubt many fighters are better cared for than in prior eras of the sport. It does not then follow that the fighters are being paid fairly or according to what they deserve. Remember these men are in the top one percent of their sport.

Nobody is demanding that every MMA fighter who steps into a UFC cage ought to receive $300,000 a year. But marginally higher wages for fighters and/or a better cost-of-living coverage is more than fair for men who pay for their own training, coaching team and medical fees.

For those concerned that such costs may leave the UFC in financial ruin, the company has averaged $3.4 million at the gate in its last four pay-per-views. The entirety of fighter payments on each card only accounted for half (or less) of that total (including bonuses). Less than a quarter went to fighters not on the main cards.

The $3.4 million average the UFC pulls in at the gate does not account for profits made on concessions, merchandise, the pay-per-view buys themselves, TV deals or sponsorship tax on fighters.

Possible Solutions

So what is there that can be done to give the fighters their proper dues without breaking the UFC financially? There are three possibilities that could satisfy both needs.

Camp and Fight-Related Expenses Fees

This concept would ask the UFC to pay for the gym fees, coaches fees and medical bills for training camps leading up to fights. With fighters no longer fitting that bill, the disclosed amount of money made for UFC bouts will be the actual amount a fighter receives. Suddenly $10,000 to show seems fair for a first-time fighter and his three or four months of work.

Fighters can still pay for their own non-lead-up camp months. But once preparing for an official fight, the UFC takes control of fees owed. There could be a maximum the UFC is liable to pay to avoid superfluous fees; however, the system would ultimately relieve financial burdens on up-and-coming fighters especially.

Free-Market Sponsorships

The free-market option allows fighters to cultivate their own income and reap the rewards of a free-market system based on performance and self-marketing. Right now the UFC attempts to control which sponsors fighters have, how much they are marketed, as well as levying fees for allowed sponsorships.

If the UFC keeps their fingers out of the pot, the fighters themselves could earn based on their cultivated fame. That way the UFC avoids the gripes of low pay and can continue to pay fighters fees they seem fit without incurring any severe losses.

Percentage-of-Gate Share

Give the gate earnings to the fighters, breaking it up by the percentage each fighter's base salary carries in overall fighter pay total for that show.

Say two main event fighters have agreed contracts totaling $300,000 and eight main-card fighters earn $200,000 total. Assume also that 10 undercard fighters pull in $50,000 total. With the gate-share concept, main eventers would share 54 percent of the total gate. Main eventers not on the main card would share 36 percent (or 9 percent apiece), and undercard fighters would take away around 1 percent each.

That payment-share would allow each undercard fighter to earn $33,545 minimum for a $3.14 million dollar gate (under the average). While it doesn't fix every problem, it is certainly an improvement on the current system. When added to current fighter bonus opportunities, the disclosed total will reach a more acceptable value for fighters. And most important, the reasoning for particular pay would be easy to see.

Each system is likely somewhat oversimplified. But at least each has a logical base, is orderly and can be shown to the public. Given it took me about an hour to come up with all three strategies, the UFC is simply not putting enough effort into proper pay schemes that both benefit fighters and simultaneously stops the endless harping grumblings regarding payments. And that is the real shame. The fighters are making complaints, and those complaints are not unreasonable. Yet, the UFC simply turns away any attempt to discuss the issue.

*All numbers in solutions pulled and calculated from MMAManifesto.com and MMAPayout archives.