Sizing up the competition: fighter activism in Mixed Martial Arts

Posted in Employment, labor and pensions Mixed Martial Arts

Authors: Hugo Margoc, Milomir Strbac

Despite the development of Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) as a mainstream attraction, a growing chorus of fighters have voiced concerns over fighter pay in MMA. Even the most notable of fighters have complained over the disparity in compensation between the organizations and other athletes on the basis that they are all stepping into the same cage to provide entertainment irrespective of star power.

A prominent example includes a high profile, organized effort to improve conditions across the board for fighters – the launch of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association in 2016 announced by Georges St-Pierre, Tim Kennedy, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone and T.J. Dillashaw. The aim was primarily to improve pay disparity and fighter employment agreements between fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”) and the UFC,[1] which is currently owned by WME-IMG. While this itself was not intended to establish a union, the signs of an effort to establish a collective agreement are present across the sport. In the past, other major sports have formed organized efforts to negotiate compensation and terms for a collective bargaining agreement, such as the NFL and NBA after initially forming in the 1950’s.[2] These sports at the time were also in their growth phases.

Current stars may not have the same incentive to form a collective effort, but future stars who have yet to build their brand very well might. Other MMA organizations, such as Bellator, have attempted to differentiate themselves by providing contract terms that are more favourable to fighters in terms of compensation and term length.[3] This type of arrangement could appear to be an attractive long-term home for future stars, consequently creating more options for fighters to negotiate favourable terms elsewhere. Since the sport is growing rapidly, MMA organizations will still benefit financially even with greater negotiating power of fighters. The UFC was recently sold for a record price of $3.77 billion USD. To put this in comparison, the organization was purchased by Zuffa, LLC in 2000 for $2 million USD.[4]

If this trend were to continue, however, it could raise interesting questions about how MMA organizations will negotiate with their talent in the long term. The possible impact is more relevant in the context of labour disruptions, such as the 2011-2012 NFL season lockout. Ultimately, MMA organizations would do well to consider how this trend will impact the future of their talent pools and what the best way is to address these growing concerns.

Footnotes

[1] Marc Raimondi. (November 30, 2016). MMAFighting. https://www.mmafighting.com/2016/11/30/13800624/georges-st-pierre-four-other-ufc-stars-announce-launch-of-mma

[2] National Football Players Association in 1956 and National Basketball Players Association in 1954, respectively.

[3] Alan Dawson. (June 23, 2017). Business Insider. http://uk.businessinsider.com/scott-coker-bellator-ufc-mma-2017-5

[4] Brett Okamoto, Darren Rovell. (July 11, 2017). “Dana White on $4 billion UFC sale: ‘Sport is going to the next level’”. ESPN. http://www.espn.com/mma/story/_/id/16970360/ufc-sold-unprecedented-4-billion-dana-white-confirms

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