The Guardian published an explosive exposé detailing the financial plight faced by all but a few UFC fighters. Classified as independent contractors, competitors signed to the mixed martial arts promotion aren’t protected by federal employment and/or labor laws; it’s that distinction that allows the UFC to avoid paying healthcare for its competitors and forces the fighters to bear their own expenses in preparation for a fight (save accident insurance). Neil Seery, a flyweight fighter, said back in ’17 that “people think once you get to the UFC you’re made for life. I’ve had 5 fights in the UFC, I’m about to have my sixth, but there’s not a chance in hell that I’d be able to pay my mortgage for the year and support my family off that.” Seery isn’t the only mixed martial artist unable to cover his/her monthly expenses with fight earnings, the Guardian reported that several current UFC fighters are struggling so badly they’re now relying on public funding campaigns to make ends meet.
Howie Long-Short: On average, UFC fighters took home $132K in ’17, but that figure is misleading; while Georges St. Pierre took home $2.5 million, 41% of the promotion’s fighters took home less than the average U.S. household income ($45K) and nearly 25% made less than $25,000 (131/537). No wonder they’re asking for handouts.
Being an independent contractor doesn’t just mean that the fighter is responsible for their own health insurance, they’re also paying for expenses like training, flights and accommodations for their cornermen; though, they can write off those expenditures as business expenses on their federal tax return. It’s worth noting that the UFC does cover expenses originating from injuries inside Octagon.
The UFC was founded in ’93 and wasn’t acquired by William Morris Endeavor until ’16 (for $4 billion), so the decision to classify fighters as independent contractors was made long before the talent agency took ownership of the promotion; but, with the UFC raking in $700 million in 2017, it’s tough to argue (outside the significant roster cut down that would occur) that the fighters shouldn’t receive the “accommodations needed to be healthy and happy later in life.” Of course, that outcome isn’t guaranteed, even for well-paid athletes in sports that offer medical and financial benefits; 78% of NFL players and 60% of NBA players are in financial distress within 2 years of retirement.
Former UFC fighter Leslie Smith maintains that if the fighters were to form a union, they’d hold the power to collectively bargain employee benefits (think: disability, health insurance, pensions, 401K). That may be true, but she’s received little support from active fighters. Smith founded Project Spearhead to advocate for medical care beyond the minimal care received today, but the group has failed to wrangle up enough members to even begin commanding change.
I asked Sporting News Combat Sports Writer Steven Muehlhausen if he agreed with Smith and thought the formation of a union would give the fighters the leverage they needed to negotiate employee benefits?
Steve: It sure would. The premiums fighters must pay are ridiculous compared to “normal” human beings like us. A former UFC champion told me about three years ago that he has to pay “five times” what it would normally cost if he had a 9-5 job. If for anything else, that should be the sole reason a “players union” is a necessity.
I also asked Steve why haven’t more fighters joined Leslie Smith’s cause?
Steve: Because look at what happened to Leslie Smith. Right when she started making headway, the UFC paid her (more or less) to go away. They (the UFC) don’t want a CBA. For all the great things Bellator is doing and for the headway ONE is starting to make, when you mention MMA, 9.5 times out of 10, people mention the UFC. While the money has proven to be better on the other side, fighters care more about the notoriety.
Fan Marino: The catalyst for The Guardian story was last month’s Chuck Liddell/Tito Ortiz fight. Once among the UFC’s biggest stars, 48-year-old Liddell continues to fight because he “needs the money”; yet, he’s no longer fit to compete having been knocked out in his last 4 fights. It’s a sad end to the former light heavyweight champion’s career.
UFC fighters aren’t employees of the UFC, but that hasn’t stopped the promotion from preventing fighters from wearing sponsored fight gear (UFC has a $70 million apparel deal with Reebok), requiring fighter participation in the organization’s out-of-competition drug testing program and demanding that fighters keep the promotion advised of their whereabouts (think: travel plans). I can understand why an out-of-competition drug program would be necessary in a combat sport (see: safety) and why the UFC would need to know when a fighter might be out of pocket (see: booking purposes), but UFC fighters should be able to monetize their highly visible fight gear (if they’re going to be independent contractors); the promotion is taking money from its fighters (who have short earning careers) to line their own pockets (note: fighters do get paid Reebok bonuses from $3,500-$40,000 based on the number of UFC fights on their resume). Just another reason why a “players union” is necessary.
I asked Steve why aren’t the sport’s biggest stars taking a more aggressive stance on that particular issue?
Steve: We’ve seen some fighters leave the UFC for Bellator like Benson Henderson, Rory MacDonald, Frank Mir, Demetrious Johnson, Eddie Alvarez and Sage Northcutt, but the sport’s biggest stars aren’t using their leverage because they don’t need to. Should they? Absolutely. But fighting is an individual sport and the common theory has always been, ‘why should I help somebody else make a lot money because that will result in less for me.’
Interested in Sports Business? Sign-up for our free daily email newsletter list, here!