UFC is underpaying their #1 asset — the fighters

Fighter pay is becoming a hot button issue within the UFC.

In earlier years, the lower-tiered fighters voiced their concerns about pay issues, including Jon Fitch and Dan Hardy. But recently the UFC has had issues with some of their top-tier fighters now voicing concerns about pay; from Jon Jones and Dustin Poirier to Henry Cejudo and Jorge Masvidal.

In this piece I will not do a deep dive into the numbers, but will highlight why this problem will not go away and has a chance to get worse.

  • Jones asked that UFC bump his pay up since he was vacating his championship and moving up to heavyweight. This became a Twitter war between Dana White and Jones where White tried to say Jones asked for Floyd Mayweather type of money. The former champ said that when he was in his prime, UFC did not pay him the amount he deserved because they felt he was not a star — even though the organization was making millions off his fights.
  • Poirier allegedly turned down a fight with Tony Ferguson because he wanted better compensation. Recently, Poirier tweeted “@ufc @danawhite send me the right contract (fight vs. Conor McGregor). Stop playing games!” This statement appeared to put negotiations with the UFC at standstill and the Jan 23rd PPV main event in jeopardy.
  • Cejudo retired after his bantamweight championship fight with Dominick Cruz. Many wondered why he would abruptly retire in the prime of his career, but he shed some light on the reason why a few weeks back. The former two-division champion said in an interview with ESPN that he could return before the end of 2020 — for the right price.
  • Masvidal after beating Nate Diaz ask to be released from the organization because he wanted to re-do his deal. The UFC balked at his request until they needed him to be a last-minute replacement for the main event of UFC 251 vs. Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title. UFC had offered him less money to face Usman than what he earned to take on Diaz.

The UFC is not financially strapped as parent company Zuffa, LLC has a net worth of $1.6B as of Dec 2020. The president of the UFC, Dana White, has a net worth of $500M. In May 2018, it was announced that UFC signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to stream UFC fights on ESPN+ and show bouts on its other channels as well. Lastly, UFC signed a six-year, $70M deal with Reebok in 2014.

Normally when sports organizations sign TV deals or sponsorship deals, they find a way to compensate the players since they are the reason that the company has the means to make money. For example, the NBA breaks down their revenue with the players and owners collectively bargained to split 49% to 51% and the NFL split is 48% to 52%.

I understand that UFC fighters are independent contractors, but a pay scale can be formulated to fairly compensate the fighters. I also understand that we are in the midst of a pandemic and the fights are still going on with no fans so there are no tickets sales, meaning no gates to be made at this time. This was an issue when the UFC was selling out Madison Square Garden and different venues in Vegas.

The Bleacher Report once explained that the UFC more than likely pays its fighters less than what many other sports organizations pay their athletes.  Therefore, UFC fighters try to get into wrestling or boxing matches because they know they can hit major pay dirt. Some fighters just leave the UFC for better deals to include former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and welterweight contender Rory MacDonald.

There is no clear-cut solution to this issue, but fighters need to realize they are the asset and the reason the UFC can put on events. I have a few suggestions that the UFC should adopt:

  • Pay your champions $1M per fight, your champions are the face of your company and should be compensated as such.
  • UFC should pay for the gym fees, coaches fees and medical bills for training camps leading up to fights. This would mean a fighter would take home all their fight purse.
  • Free-market sponsorship would allow fighters to develop their own income and reap their hard-earned rewards based on performance and self-marketing.

As a fan of the sport, please don’t let pay issues lead to your demise as you are a billion-dollar company with a lucrative TV deal, along with multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals. Keep your #1 asset happy with fair and comparable pay. Or on the other hand, with so many top-tier fighters speaking up about unfair financial compensation and underhanded negotiations, it is becoming more likely that your fighters will form a union. With a union, UFC fighters can then negotiate for better pay in the long run.

The fighters are making complaints, and those complaints are not excessive. That is the real shame in this issue.