ESPN aired an “Outside the Lines” piece this past Sunday that peaked my interest immediately when I saw the topic listed on my cable providers information guide. The topic was UFC fighter pay. I am a UFC fan. And, I have a background as a compensation professional. It seemed like something worth taking a look at.
If you are a fan 0f the sport of mixed martial arts, I suggest you give it a watch here.
And, after doing so, view Dana White’s rebuttal video:
A Culture Of Pay For Performance…
ESPN wants to focus on the entry level fighters. It’s a fact that the entry-level UFC fighter doesn’t make near the wage of a league minimum player in the four major sports in base pay. However, the UFC isn’t a league that’s been around for decades. In reality, the UFC is more like a growing start-up.
The UFC has a graduating scale for their first three fights. In their first fight a truly entery level fighter will receive $6,000 to show and an additional $6,000 if he wins. These number increase to $8,000 and $8,000 for the second fight and $10,000 and $10,000 for the third.
That’s a potential total of $48,000 for a fighter in their first year. However, that’s not where the pay stops. And, I am not speaking of dollars earned outside the octagon, such as sponsorship deals.
The UFC’s typical bonus payout structure offers three main bonus payouts per event (in addition to other discretionary bonuses). The three common bonuses are fight of the night, submission of the night and knockout of the night. For a PPV event, each payout has recently been $75,000.
Fighters can actually get multiple bonuses in one night. Thus, a fighter making the minimum $6,000/$6,000 can actually walk away with an additional $150,000 if they win fight of the night and get a finish bonus.
Generally, a fighter will, on average, fight three-times in a calendar year. That means there is $498,000 available to an entry level fighter when these bonuses are added to base pay.
This type of highly leveraged pay is not often used in the other North American sports. However, it is often used in corporate America.
Fighter Compensation Going Forward…
The UFC is in it’s infancy. This all being said, there is room for the UFC to better it’s fighter pay. I would agree with ESPN that the biggest area for improvement would likely be in the lower-level tier of fighters. Those fighters don’t benefit from shares of PPV sales (and shouldn’t) and do not get big endorsement deals (and won’t ever).
It would be a solid goal to get the show money up from the current $24,000 mark. Whether the UFC believes it to be fair, this number is a lightning rod for outlets to attack. It has clearly already started with this ESPN piece.
An entry-level worker that has trained for four years at college or university makes about $35,000 to $45,000 on average. A fighter that has made it to the UFC has trained for years as well. Similar to someone studying finance, psych, or biology, a UFC fighter studies muay thai, boxing and jiu-jitsu.
A fighter that has made it all the way to the UFC-level, should be compensated with a livable wage. Currently for losing three fights, a first year fighter would make $24,000. These fighters generally train full-time. It would be a great improvement to increase that true base pay by around 50% at the very least.
Here is an example of something that might look a bit better:
This wouldn’t completely break the bank for the UFC. The goal of a new entry-level wage scale should be to increase the show money from $24,000 to somewhere north of $35,000 at minimum.
This could be a plan that is implemented over the course of an extended period of time. It would be a drastic change if made all at once. However, if the UFC wants to use corporate compensation as a model, there are ways to bring their pay up over time.
Truth be told; in the long run it could keep activists away, and fighters much happier.
Why ESPN Is Covering This…
ESPN is notorious for only giving airtime coverage to the sports leagues which they have deals with. It’s a massive gripe coming from the NHL world currently. With this UFC fighter pay story, the worldwide leader takes this idea a step further. It would appear that the people at ESPN are now actively looking to sling mud at sports leagues which aren’t their partners.
The UFC and ESPN could have been a match made in heaven for fight fans. However, the two sides could never get close to getting any type of deal done. It has been reported that the UFC and ESPN were very close to getting a deal done a couple years back. It was in 2009 when the UFC signed the deal with ESPN in the UK.
In the past few years the relationship has gone south. This from Dana White this past August:
Lets just say ESPN has no problems with putting their foot on the UFC’s throat. In fact, they might enjoy doing so. There will not be a relationship between the companies in the future — not anytime soon.
The Knockout Blow…
ESPN holds a massive audience captive. However, in this small battle, the UFC might have brought up the most crucial point. ESPN itself has partaken in the exploitative low wages paid to boxers. Literally, boxers can often earn hundreds of dollars for a fight from a promoter. Those promoters include ESPN. Lorenzo Fertitta’s comparison to ESPN’s boxing salaries somehow didn’t make the “Outside the Lines” cut. It’s not surprising this was left on ESPN’s cutting room floor. If true, it cuts the legs right out from under ESPN’s argument. If false, I would think ESPN would have more directly retorted Fertitta’s statement.
It also brings up a good general point — which ESPN just ever so gently refered to in the OTL piece — the UFC pays much better than boxing historically did. However, ESPN choices to harp on the fact that the UFC doesn’t have to follow the protocols listed in the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. If we are going to compare the UFC to the other major sports, lets be consistent.
The four majors have been granted exceptions from major legislation for decades.
ESPN accusations are not completely basis-less. However, it is my belief that ESPN looks petty and shortsighted here. It would appear they are trying to go after what they see as a competitor.
Dana White has long been touting the UFC as the next big thing. Garnering this type of attention from such a high profile enemy, it would seem he is correct and ESPN is taking notice.