The Business of MMA: UFC Fighters Pay

| July 24, 2013 | 12:59 pm | Reply

UFC Fighter PayThere had been rumblings for years, but John Cholish fired the first substantial shot regarding fighters pay in MMA. Upon his exit from the company after a 1-2 run, Cholish revealed that his time in the sport, with all of its associated costs, had actually cost him money. He was the first, but he wasn’t the last, as other fighters came out with similar experiences in their fighting lives and voiced their concerns on their way out the door. Now even those under contract, and at all levels of the UFC, have begun to question their own compensation and a desire to be a truly full-time fighter.

This has somewhat surprisingly turned into a hot button issue across the fight world, as people have an emotional connection with either the fighter themselves, or those gut-gnawing feelings of not making ends meet in the financial realm. The easy answer is to demand better pay for the entry-level fighter, yet this is an issue with several sides, and blame lies not just with the UFC, but with fighters as well.

With an open mind, let’s look at the issue at hand with the current fighters pay and see where adjustments can be made on all sides, as a bit of hard work in key areas could make a world of difference for struggling fighters.

The Business of Fighting

When we see two fighters get into the cage to kick off a PPV, our minds are on the sport. Who can pull off the win? Who does the winner get next? Will we see a slick submission here? Never do we think of business pertinent questions though. What was the gate for this event? How much does the Octagon canvas cost? What is this fighter’s electric bill at home? It’s before the fight even starts that these questions are asked, and they’re the driving force behind every business: Revenue and overhead.

The UFC is many things to many people, but first and foremost, it’s a massive international business.  Privately owned by four men with rumors of several backing investors, most of its revenue and inner workings are hidden from the public, yet what numbers we see are often the seven or eight digit variety.  PPV buys and gates are common MMA talk and often account for several million dollars each, yet this is only a fraction of the UFC’s potential income. TV deals are worth a pretty penny and multiple contracts with FOX and affiliates have paid them not only in network television terms, but also in bringing new fans to their product. Advertisements plastered about the cage and across airwaves are another large source of revenue, as well as product placement in UFC programming. At times, shows like TUF play out as a long commercial for Harley Davidson and other products, which we can speculate demand a high price tag considering the programs demographic and ratings. Merchandising, premium member services and the dreaded “sponsorship tax” among other sources all work towards filling the coffers of the world’s largest MMA promotion.

On the flip side, the UFC pays titanic sums of money to do literally anything. Fighter insurance, whose price tag is unknown, was an epic initiative on their part, but with 400 fighters on the roster, could have taken a massive bite out of their check book. Those fighters aren’t the only people on the payroll however, as the UFC employs over a hundred people directly, as well as sub-contracting specialty services. Lawyers and marketing experts down to custodians and other office workers all draw a check year round at multiple UFC offices around the globe, and high-profile characters like matchmaker Sean Shelby and UFC fighters turned workers Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes all should draw sizable salaries.

Every event costs a significant amount of money to stage, with advertising, facility fees, insurance and sub-contracting of medical personnel and production crews costing a small fortune. Take into account that the athletic commission then takes part of the gate to bring in judges, referees and other key staff members, and we’re now set for a show. But after you’ve flown in and lodged every fighter and some of their team, oftentimes from around the globe, as well as key players on fight night such as the multiple commentary teams, interviewers and ring announcers that charge per event for their services.  NOW we get to pay fighters.

The Business of Being a Fighter

Fighters are, in essence, contractors themselves. Having set terms with set pay, they are required to perform a task on a given date and pay their way up to that point. After said service is rendered, they are paid their contracted money, with the standard starting number being $6,000 to show and $6,000 to win. Fighters are also often gifted “discretionary bonuses” which are given off the books to avoid taxation, and are largely based on merit beyond that show/win money. There are also the popular “Fight Night” bonuses which can greatly augment a fighter’s earnings for the night, provided they win spectacularly or even, on occasion, lose spectacularly.

TUF Fighters PayUnless you’re a high-profile fighter worthy of TUF coaching spots or advertising deals, this is the only payment received from the UFC for your time in the cage, with these pay days averaging out to be between 2-3 times a year, depending on health. It’s this base pay that draws the majority of angst towards the system and being as they’re the only public numbers, the one that everyone fixates on.  Looking at a straight monetary per fight standard, fighters could make as little as $12,000 a year for going on a 0-2 skid, and this is before not only living expenses, but training expenses as well, which are all paid by the fighter.

Some of the major business expenses a fighter will face are gym dues and manager fees, which are often set up as percentages on their fight purse and any sponsorships they come into. They also face the highest tax bracket as “entertainers”, and are forced to pay income taxes by country and state depending on where they performed and their residence. Simple things such as supplements, equipment, travel expenses and food needed during fight camps can chip away at earnings, and these expenses are all pre-fight as well. A loss essentially means half as much pay with the same expenditures as a win, making for some very trying times for fighters. Fighters like Nate Quarry and Pat Barry have talked about literally being too poor to eat prior to fights, and some fighters are driven into severe debt that cripples them after a loss.

The Responsibility of a Businessman

As harsh as it may sound, the burden of finances falls solely on the fighter. In absolutely any line of work, a contracted worker will look at what they can expect to make and budget their lives and work expenses accordingly. A carpenter isn’t going to spend $600,000 on a house they know full well they’ll only get $400,000 for, and fighters shouldn’t expect to spend more training than they make per contract and expect to make ends meet. The terms of the contract are spelled out far in advance of a bout with many fighters knowing exactly what a “training camp” will cost versus what they can expect to take in off of a mediocre loss or spectacular win. Balancing the expected income towards expenditures is the root of business, and something fighters tend to forget with their immersion in the world of athletics.

While the pay of a fighter starts at $6,000/$6,000 generally, there are exceptions to the rule and ways to increase that starting figure substantially. Fighters who have made names for themselves in other combat sports or promotions have brought in monster paydays right off the bat, with Brock Lesnar and James Toney grabbing $250,000+ checks for their services and bringing new fans to the fold. Being a multi-sport star is an exception rather than a rule, yet fighters can do more outside of the UFC to make that starting purse all the sweeter.

There’s a mentality of jumping at opportunities among the fight world rather than letting a situation percolate; a habit that costs many men great gains in their short-sightedness. Battlers like Hector Lombard and Lyoto Machida came into the UFC fold as sought-after MMA agents, having made a habit of chewing up the competition in exciting and unique fashion, rather than signing a contract and cutting their teeth in the elite fighting world. While some fighters don’t have the support to fight for the peanuts offered by other promotions, those who can would be wise to make themselves a commodity, rather than a faceless undercard fighter, before stepping onto the larger stage.

Sponsorships are a tremendous source of income, with the allure of logos on shorts and banners bringing solid payouts for fighters. Fighters like George Roop have mentioned that their sponsorship money is actually higher than their standard show/win money, with management’s sole job being to secure these deals to the mutual gain of all parties. Money doesn’t always need to change hands however, as many fighters have sponsors for necessary fight items as well. Supplements are the most common trade item for athletes, but specialty items like custom mouth guards, high-end meats and even vehicles have been bartered for ad space, filling a need the fighters had rather than money.

Beyond that contractual money comes opportunities to financially flourish when signing with a brand synonymous with MMA. Adding “UFC Fighter” to the beginning of your name can give fighters the opportunity to charge premiums on any teaching they do, or open their own schools that will draw would-be MMA stars more readily than other dojos. For those lacking that kind of start-up money, many fighters make fast cash off of the various seminar circuits that tour the country, being paid to teach one-off gigs with no overhead other than their own travelling expenses.

Such activities as social media advertising, vlogging or blogging, and paid appearances are a common way to gain some money between fights as well, paying fighters handsomely for something as simple as retweeting ads, writing about a training session or shaking hands at a bar during a UFC event. With apparel deals being another common form of sponsorship, UFC fighters can make money by being a walking billboard to some extent as well, having signature shirts produced or simply repping a brand with photo opportunities and appearances.

The Responsibility of the Employer

While I feel the majority of the lower-level fighter’s financial woes fall on their own shoulders, this isn’t to say the UFC should turn a blind eye to the issue. While the pay structure is one that won’t likely change unless the UFC becomes a world-wide super power, how they help fighters manage their careers and money could change and benefit all parties

Having dedicated social media personnel that work with fighters to maximize their online appeal would not only allow them to market themselves and build followings in their downtime, but help them sell their personalized products and pick up those paid appearances. The more positive exposure a fighter gets, the better he’ll be at drawing more fans to the sport, getting fence-sitters to buy weaker PPV cards, and pick up those sponsorships that will float them between fights. Social media teachers would also help in terms of bad press associated with social media, and act as another barrier between fighter’s larger-than-life mouths and their ever-willing foot gaining entry.

Generating an identity for new fighters would also help both company and fighter, even if their UFC careers don’t pan out. TUF has taken this tactic in the last season; focusing on the personal, real-life trials and tribulations, and making fighters appear to be human and realistic. Giving every fighter this treatment and introducing them to fans would ensure an emotional investment in their new fighters, drawing more viewers to fire up the computer or turn on pre-fight shows to see what would otherwise be a faceless fighter on the undercard.

The UFC can also make use of their tremendously diverse rosters to have their fighters do charity work between camps; making public speaking appearances to deal with drugs, bullying, depression, and the myriad of other issues people face in their daily life. Several fighters have hard-luck stories and could do a great deal of good if that story were directed to the right place. From a business perspective, this would generate free press, further a fan base for the brand, and could be used as a tax deduction for the company, with savings passed onto those fighters.

As far as generating revenue for the brand itself, some fighters have a knack for talking up events and generating excitement through gift of gab and social media. Having bonuses for attracting viewers, through coupon codes for online events for instance, would award movers and shakers that are behind the brand, and give further incentive to sell the event, with bonus money to those who can bring in viewers.

Finally, the UFC could spare ad space meant for themselves to find one or two major sponsors that provided for all the fighters on the roster. A deal could potentially be reached with companies such as Target or Walmart to Omaha Steaks and Musclepharm, where instead of ad revenue going to the UFC, that company provided products or gift certificates to the roster. A few hundred dollars worth of product for everyone under contract would go a long way in easing burdens between fights and would be essentially cost-free to the UFC.

In Conclusion

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and with higher and higher profile fighters airing their financial dirty laundry, steps need to be taken to fix the situation. Through work on both sides, financial strains can be dealt with without such harsh measures as the eradication of bonuses, and without fear of unions or rebelling fighters. Ignoring the issues is rarely the right choice, and thus far we’ve only seen deterioration in moral on the bottom of the roster due to harsh comments from Dana White, and even fellow fighters, towards the situation.

Fighters need to understand that a starter contract with the UFC isn’t a free ride, and better use the branding associated with them to increase their revenue, while the UFC should be more accommodating of sponsors and look to cut slack for those guys looking to start-up a career as they work towards the top of the heap. With both sides making minor adjustments, we can likely avoid a major problem from forming and keep these money issues in-house, to not further jeopardize the sport, both domestically and globally.

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Category: Exclusive, MMA, Opinion, UFC

Mike Hammersmith (Featured Staff Writer)

About the Author ()

I'm a 20+ year veteran of martial arts and a fan of MMA since UFC 1, when my world was thrown on its head by the budding sport. I'm obsessive in the pursuit of martial abilities and have competed across the country in everything from Vale Tudo to archery to Scottish broadsword. Once my body broke down, I picked up a pen and went in the direction of writing. I specialize in betting advice, predictions, and I'm a walking encyclopedia of MMA trivia. I own a cafe in Exeter, NH called Hammersmith Sandwich Company and write out of my office between customers.

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