A decade ago, Senator John McCain famously described Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) as little more than “human cockfighting” and sent letters to 50 governors asking them to ban the, then nascent, Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”).
Yet, earlier this year, just 10 years after Senator McCain’s statement, the UFC was purchased for a reported €4 billion by a consortium led by the talent agency WME-IMG, in what was has been described as the most expensive transaction for an organisation in sports history.
The sale of UFC was the clearest indication yet of MMA’s and, in particular, the UFC’s, burgeoning popularity amongst sports fans worldwide. Indeed, the UFC claims that it was watched by 1.2 billion households in 158 countries in 2005. Those figures should be viewed in light of the forthcoming renegotiation of the UFC’s current broadcast deal, which is to be renewed in 2018, a renegotiation which could prove to be hugely lucrative for the UFC’s new owners. Little wonder then that WME-IMG, and its associates, can see the value in owning an organisation with such a large, and growing, worldwide audience.
Indeed, some have predicted that MMA will soon be more popular than boxing, due in part to the UFC’s ability to ensure that fights take place between the best fighters in each of its weight divisions. Not only is this popular with the UFC’s fans, it also ensures that they are not left frustrated by the kind of “will they or won’t they” sagas that so often characterise mooted fights between the best fighters in boxing (the most recent example of which was the “mega-fight” between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, which took a number of years to come to fruition and failed to meet expectations when it did).
The UFC’s increasing popularity has also been assisted by the emergence of possibly the most high-profile fighter in its relatively short history, the swaggering and quick-fisted Irishmen, Conor McGregor. The closest thing the UFC, and indeed MMA, has had to a “cross-over” star, McGregor has undoubtedly brought the UFC to a wider audience.
As a result, when McGregor talks, it invariably generates media coverage. And, after his latest devastating victory in November, McGregor took the opportunity to put the UFC’s new owners on notice with the words: “I want my equity”.
Given McGregor’s previous public pronouncements and general unashamed braggadocio, some may view this as just another sound bite from the first mixed martial artist to simultaneously hold UFC belts in two different weight categories. Others, however, have seen this as the latest attempt by UFC fighters to seek increased remuneration for their exploits in the octagon.
Indeed, just last week, five veteran UFC fighters helped launch the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association (“MMAAA”), with the professed goal to “fight for the rights of MMA fighters“. Some of the MMAAA’s self-professed aims include: (i) seeking an out-of-court financial settlement with the UFC for its former and current fighters; (ii) ensuring UFC fighters are guaranteed an increase in revenue share via a formal collective bargaining agreement; and (iii) securing insurance and pension packages for UFC fighters. The MMAAA has confirmed that its preference is to resolve the issues it has raised as amicably as possible with the UFC, with a fighter strike the option of last resort.
The emergence of the MMAAA should be viewed against the backdrop of an ongoing anti-trust lawsuit, filed in 2014 against the UFC, by a number of UFC veterans, which is still making its way through the US courts. The lawsuit includes the allegation that UFC fighters are made to sign oppressive contracts, which the plaintiffs allege mean that they were/are paid comparatively low salaries compared to the UFC’s revenues. Indeed, the MMAAA claims that that revenue split between organisation and fighters should be altered from the 8%, that it claims is currently paid to UFC fighters, to 50%, in order to bring them in-line with other sports, such as the minimum 47% revenue split enjoyed by players in the NFL (as guaranteed by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement).
However, previous attempts to unionise UFC fighters have not met with overwhelming enthusiasm amongst the key constituency, namely, the fighters themselves. And, given that the MMAAA is not currently certified or voluntarily recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, the UFC has no legal obligation to listen to its demands.
In addition, whilst as a private company the UFC has never had to declare how much of its revenue goes to its contracted fighters, the UFC’s former majority owners, the Fertitta brothers, have previously been at pains to suggest that, as the UFC has grown in popularity, not only has fighter pay increased accordingly on a year-by-year basis but that fighters on the UFC’s roster remain the best paid in the MMA business.
It seems likely that, unless or until UFC fighters can obtain the kind of collective bargaining power enjoyed by competitors in other US sports (i.e. baseball, American football or basketball), any demands for better pay for all fighters (whether justified or not) will fall on deaf ears in the immediate future. As with other sports, it is the “stars” who obtain the life-changing paydays, by virtue of their ability to generate headlines and, most importantly, deliver revenues (whether that is via advertising revenues; ticket sales; pay-per-view buys; merchandise sales) for their sponsors and/or employers.
The UFC has shown this to be the case: McGregor is as quick with his mouth as with his fists; generates huge pay-per-view and ticket sales for his employers; and as a result is (at least by his own proclamations) the best-paid fighter on the UFC roster.
If McGregor maintains his current trajectory into the wider public’s consciousness, whilst maintaining his performances in the octagon, he might just get his “equity“. The vast majority of other fighters might have to wait just that little bit longer before any of their collective demands are met.