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Are UFC salaries too low?

The sport is booming, but are the athletes getting paid their fair share? UFC, the biggest and most popular MMA organization, seems to be paying out some low salaries for their hit events. Here’s a good article by “wardog” of fightticker.com:

After reading the recent Ultimate Fight Night 17’s salaries for the fighters I came to a few conclusions. First, I am so happy that I was never bitten by the “fight bug” and entered MMA. At almost 40 I would either be at the end of my career and hopefully been towards the top and made some money but I doubt it. More than likely I would be one of those guys bouncing all over the place, punch drunk, fighting in small shows, or maybe I would’ve left a long time ago. Who knows. Second, and more importantly, I feel bad for some of these fighters really. I mean 10 thousand dollars as the main event? And I know the winners get bonuses and they can sell pieces of their shirts, shorts, and hats to sponsors to make extra money. But it still seems unfair.

Perhaps my scheduling is a little off here but let’s say as a full-time fighter you train 4-5 months prior to a fight, 6 days a week, 3 times a day. You then go into a fight where you are making ten thousand dollars and get KO’d in a good fight (not a 30 second KO). There is going to be some sort of mandatory suspension by the commissioning body. So let’s say you aren’t allowed to fight for 4 months. Excluding any sponsorship, you have then made from your fighting career just $10K in a 9-10 month time span.

If you trained 40 hours a week (which is a little bit less than some) it comes down to making about $6.90 an hour. And remember, you have to pay for corner men, trainers, living expenses, and other expenses out of this. And as far as sponsorship goes I am sure the guy making ten thousand a fight is not generating top dollar from sponsorship. And there are fighters who have been featured on main event cards who were asking for sponsorship on their MySpace accounts just last year. Plus, I would imagine that out of that $10K you’d also have to have an agent and an accountant to help manage your career. And don’t forget health insurance and other amenities normally provided for by corporate employers.

While there has been a slight increase in fighters salaries, especially for some of the bigger draws, it still pales in comparison to many other sports. And while some of these big name fighters receive a percentage of pay per view buys and even the gate receipt, the middle and lower-tiered fighters are probably not getting these cuts. So if you wish to fight in the UFC (we will stick to the big league here) you need to not only train full time, but sell yourself, and hope that you have a good group of people watching out for your interests, and then you better win! Otherwise you can call it quits.

I have met people through training (I train in disciplines like BJJ but I have no desire to fight in MMA) who seem to have potential, but would not consider MMA full-time. Some of these people have fought in MMA matches and won only to still choose a stable paycheck from a different career over pursuing a path in the sport. Now of course you can hear the famous “Do you want to be a fighter?” speech echoing in your ears, and some people may say that these people have no desire any way so they shouldn’t be fighters. But think about it this way: using the model above, you are guaranteed $10,000 and that’s it! What if you suffer an injury that keeps you out for a year or more? You have to figure out a way to make some extra cash, right?

I believe that it is time for the various athletic commissions to step in to do something if these organizations continue this trend. First, there has to be a pay scale of some sort established. An example would be that depending on a fighter’s placement on the card, that fighter would get a certain percentage of the gross gate. This would ensure that if a fighter gains notoriety and suddenly found themselves fighting on the main cards of PPV’s or were the main event, and had signed a long-term contract, they would at least get some of the money that they make as their fame grows. There should also be some sort of experienced-based pay scale, based on number of fights fought, titles held, etc. Again, this way some fighter locked into a long-term contract would still make a good amount of money towards the end of their careers.

Finally, while it has been talked about a bit, there does need to be a fighter’s union. The only way this could happen is if some “big name” fighters were to join. If it were made up of “unknowns” or guys major organizations can get rid of easily it will fail. And rather than taking dues from the fighters, this type of union should get their money from the MMA organization, again a gate percentage or PPV percentage. A “good” union would not concern itself with fighters’ contracts, who is ranked the highest, or any concerns aside from pay scales, benefits, and fighters well-being. This would insure that there remains the sort of individualism to the sport that many crave, but also so that there is a collective element that will ensure that fighters are treated right.

While I may not be a business savvy person in terms of crunching numbers there is something not right in the pay scales being offered to these fighters. While pay has increased in recent times it is still not enough, especially when the revenue for these companies have grown significantly.

But as MMA tries to gain “acceptance” with the “mainstream” the sport also has to realize that there is a perception that may go along with the sport outside of the cage. As a person who lives in a state where MMA is not legalized, but with a long history of organized crime influencing boxing, there is concern that does not involve the “brutality” of the sport. People who may not be MMA fans here have issue with how fighters are paid, what happens when a fighter is injured, and other non-fight related issues. And it is easy as the popularity of the sport increases to have concerns that it would be easy to “fix” a fight especially with such low pay scales.

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