UFC has become the first competition-based professional sports association to sign a college athlete to an NIL deal. It could become a trend.
Iowa freshman Bella Mir, a member of the Hawkeyes wrestling team, joined UFC as a brand ambassador last week. Mir—the daughter of Frank Mir, a former UFC heavyweight champion—previously starred at Centennial High School in Las Vegas, Nev. She was ranked sixth nationally in her weight division and won several championships. Mir also has a professional MMA record of 3-0.
“At UFC one of our brand maxims is ‘be first’,” UFC senior executive vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein told Sportico in a phone interview. “This is another example of UFC leading the way among professional sports organizations.”
Although MMA isn’t an NCAA sport, UFC has eyed the college wrestling ranks for new talent. Daniel Cormier and Dan Henderson, for example, both enjoyed distinguished MMA careers after competing as college wrestlers.
“So many of our great UFC athletes came out of college wrestling programs and were All-Americans or Olympians, too,” Epstein added. “It’s been a natural fit for UFC to support college wrestling, and [Mir’s NIL deal] is just the latest iteration of that.”
WWE, another fighting-based organization, has pursued NIL contracts and recently signed a Penn State football player and wrestler. But WWE matches are staged, with outcomes scripted as part of an entertainment program. MMA fights are competitive affairs governed by strict competition rules, PED testing and other features consistent with ensuring fair play.
No other athletes are currently lined up for NIL deals with UFC, but Epstein said UFC will “evaluate the situation” and is “super optimistic about being in the NIL space and boosting awareness of UFC among college fans.”
Mir’s deal illuminates NIL’s evolution. In 2021, the NCAA permitted college athletes to sign endorsements, sponsorships and influencer contracts. It did so as several states implemented statutes that made it illegal to deny college athletes the kinds of commercial opportunities their classmates—including esports players, musicians, actors and artists—have long enjoyed.
Many of the college athletes capitalizing on NIL are, like Mir, women.
According to data recently released by Opendorse, 39% of NIL activities involve female athletes, and that percentage climbs to 60% if football players are excluded from the data. And, though some feared NIL would cause problems with some but not all teammates securing NIL deals, a new analysis by Bill Carter’s Student-Athlete Group finds that more than 90% of surveyed athletes do not “think that NIL is a cause of locker room strife.”
Still, some coaches and other industry figures contend that contracts fashioned as NIL deals sometimes camouflage pay-for-play arrangements between a school and a recruit. To that end, the NCAA is lobbying Congress to pass federal legislation that would, among other features, craft national NIL standards. As Sportico explained, such standards could prove problematic with states’ right of publicity laws.
The possibility of other pro leagues signing college athletes to NIL deals is hazy. Most of the major leagues, such as the NFL or NBA, feature individually owned teams that employ athletes who are members of a players’ association; in turn, the players’ association negotiates eligibility rules and other workplace restrictions. That setup would likely prove complicated for a league or team to pay a college athlete who is not yet eligible. But leagues such as the U.S. Tennis Association or PGA Tour—both of which, like UFC, provide athletes with a structure and schedule for competition, championships and rankings—might prove to be a better fit.