Tuesday, 17 January 2012

ESPN fighter pay saga: Is UFC's business model good for MMA?

Over the last week or so the MMA community has been rocked by a hard hitting ESPN expose about fighter pay.  OK, in reality the MMA community has struggled to care about a short, slightly one-sided but nevertheless thoughtful piece about fighter pay and the UFC has kept it in the news by banging on about how unfair it is.

Now to summarise the video.  ESPN basically made a piece that asks whether the UFC remunerates its fighters fairly, featuring clips from an interview with Lorenzo Fertita.  They more or less answer that no they do not, they could pay more to the lower tier fighters.  The piece also makes a clear accusation that UFC fighters are not free to talk about pay or unionizing for fear of reprisals.

So far so not particularly contraversial.  Following the release of a preview and article about the piece, Dana White stated that the UFC would release their own taping of the full interview.  They did that, as well as a response to the video including interviews with some of their most loyal fighters backing them up.

By now most people's interest had been pricked, not really because the story was so exciting (labour disputes are pretty common in sports and this was nowhere near even a dispute, just some hushed reports of minor grumblings) but because it is always fun to see Dana White over excited.  The UFC followed that up with a video of the full interview with Lorenzo Fertita.   The video is pretty long, but I watched it all and found it quite interesting as Fertita defends the UFC as behaving like a 'good business' and being 'what America is all about'.  The UFC is run very successfully as a business, with a focus on the marketability of fighters and performance related pay.  This business model is without doubt great for the UFC, but is the UFC's business model good for MMA as a sport?

John Fitch Is Held Back

As fans we are often torn between wanting to see the best fights and wanting to see the best fighters.  This in turn leaves a sports business like the UFC in a tricky position.  Take Jon Fitch, for example.  Until recently, he was the second best welterweight in the world and completely dominant of everyone except Georges Saint-Pierre.  However, he has more than his fair share of haters, since many people do not like what they perceive as a wrestling heavy offense with too few strikes and submission attempts from the top.  The UFC had to weigh up Fitch's lack of popularity with the fact that he was thought of by almost everybody as by far and away better than the rest of the field and that he was unbeaten in six fights since losing to GSP.  Now, a purely sporting organisation would (as far as I can see) have had Fitch fighting for the title before the likes of Dan Hardy.  As an organisation focusing on its growth as a business, the UFC left Fitch floating around with a mixed bag of opponents.

Brock Lesnar Is Fast Tracked

Fitch is hardly the only example.  Another example of this clash between business and sports development was the fast-fowarding of Brock Lesnar's UFC career.  Lesnar was brought into the UFC after just one pro fight and matched up against an experienced top fighter in Frank Mir.  He lost but two fights later he was fighting Randy Couture for the heavyweight title.  Now, Brock won that title and later defeated Mir and there is no doubting that he was a gifted fighter and at one point one of the best in the heavyweights division.  However his career did not contain the tests and paying of dues that other fighters have to go through.  He was fast tracked because he would guarantee pay per view buys north of one million.  That is another clear example of the business development being at odds with the sport.

Lorenzo Feritita's ESPN Interview and the UFC's Business Mentality

Now we come back to Lorenzo Fertita's ESPN interview about UFC fighter pay.  While the levels of fighter pay may or may not be an engaging topic of discussion, the style of payment is much more interesting.  I have posted the interview in full here.  Feritita does not make too many particularly pressing points, but it is interesting to get a feel of the business side of the UFC and the corporate culture they wish to create.

Fertita comes across as a good guy running a business based on the philosophy he and many other business leaders in the US and around the world thinks works best.  He even says at one point "This is what America is all about".  Meaning the way he and his brother risked their own capitol and now reap the rewards for having the guts to make the risk and the hard work and vision to pull it off.  He was also alluding to the companies scheme of (for the most part) pairing fighter salaries with win bonuses, plus Fight, Submission and Knockout of the Night bonuses and other undisclosed discretionary bonuses.  The UFC is like any other business, if you perform then you succeed or, as Fertita puts it "You eat what you kill".  Now, while that might be what America is all about, it is not what sports should be about.

I feel like, since the fighters at the bottom of the card take the same risks as the headliners and have heavy expenses like training camps to pay for, they deserve not just a fair rate of pay, but a steady one.  Especially when you factor in the likelihood of injuries at any given point, which could lead to not being able to fight and therefore a loss of pay.  From a sporting perspective the "...of the Night" bonuses and discretionary bonuses for good performances (where 'good' means 'exciting') reward only those with what the company deems are exciting styles.  As a sports fan, that does not seem fair.  I would like to see a steady yearly salary, perhaps with win bonuses on top of that.

It seems a bit like a different side of the same story we see with stand ups during periods of inaction in the cage.   Now, this is ostensibly because the fight has reached a period of inaction but in reality it comes in response to boos from the crowd, as long periods of ground fighting frustrate some of them, particularly the much coveted casual fan.  If the contest was organised with purely sport in mind, then it seems like the fight should take place wherever it lands and that at the end it is judges' places to judge whether or not that constituted stalling or inactivity.

A Union or Fighter's Organisation

At the moment there exists a Mixed Martial Arts Fighters' Association, founded by Rob Masey.  This is by no means a union. nor are fighters willing to back it.  According to the ESPN report, fighters are reticent to talk about any problems they have with pay deals because they fear sanctions from the UFC.  It is fair to assume those worries extend to collective bargaining for pay.

A union exists in most major sports organisations so that the people who provide the entertaining product receive a large enough slice of the financial pie for their efforts.  The UFC is different however. They have been clear in the past that they prefer to make the UFC a strong brand, with individual fighters coming second.  This makes sense because (as we have seen with Brock Lesnar's retirement and GSP's long lay off) in MMA fighters can come and go and a strong brand minimises the fluctuations that come with fighters of varying popularity.  The UFC then, provides a lot of the entertaining product.

Regardless of who does the work though, a union would provide a much needed balance of power.  At the moment it seems like the UFC calls the shots in too many aspects of the future of MMA.  As Fertita says in the video above, they are the ones lobbying legislators to allow the sport and they had a massive influence in devising the unified rules.  Now that they are big enough to attract almost all top tier fighters to their organisation, they control pretty much every aspect of the top level of the sport.  A union would give fighters the opportunity to influence their employers on things like medical insurance, year round salaries, training and sparring partners.

Now there are two stumbling blocks to the idea of an MMA union.  The first is straight forward; there is little motivation for GSP, Alaistair Overeem, Anderson Silva, etc. to join, because they already enjoy great working conditions.  The lower level fights, on the other hand, do not have much sway.  If they threaten a walk out, the UFC might well just find someone else.  The second is slightly murkier and relates to things alluded to by the ESPN story and the the Fertita brothers' casino business in Las Vegas.  The Fertita's casino staffare not members of a union and the management have been accused of discouraging them from joining..  People have also claimed that UFC fighters risk losing their jobs by speaking out about pay and conditions.  You can see Fertita chat a bit about unions in the video below (from September last year, but mostly preempting what he said in the uncut video above) but it is also worth searching for the Fertitas and culinary unions on the net.  Anyway, Fertita has said that he is absolutely neutral about unions in the UFC and he has said the same about culinary unions too.  The difference is that the culinary union in Las Vegas claims that he is being slightly disingenuous.  So the union discussion is pretty sketchy to say the least.

So there you have it

The UFC is an incredibly successful business.  It is run by some strange but engaging characters with values shared by many other successful businessmen.  They also seem to be genuine fans of the sport.  However there are a few clear areas, including fighter pay, the way title shots are handed out and the ways fighters are incentivised that show that this way of running a sport impacts upon its fairness and impacts upon the fighters' careers as athletes.  It is up for discussion whether these impacts are worth it, since without the UFC we would not have much of a sport to love.

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