UFC is big business, but many of its fighters are poorly paid, and lack benefits like healthcare so a new workers group hopes to bring about much-needed change
Four billion dollars. Regardless of the kind of life you live, thats an eye-catching figure.
If youre among the 500 mixed martial artists contracted to the UFC, that figure may as well pulsate across the Las Vegas skyline in neon green lights. Since the Hollywood talent agency WME/IMG purchased the UFC for a reported $4.2bn over the summer the richest in sport history the chorus of fighters expressing frustration with the UFC has only grown stronger.
On Wednesday, five distinguished veterans spoke in a similar tone about their financial concerns and how they might be remedied. This made the introduction of the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association unique from other attempts at organizing fighters affiliated with the UFC. For the first time, a prominent group of the UFCs big attractions declared their intention to support themselves and their compatriots.
The associations sole concentration is to fight for the rights of MMA fighters and force UFCs ownership to dramatically alter the companys decade-plus outrageous treatment of its athletes, the group said in a statement.
UFC without fighters is only three letters of the alphabet, said former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Its time for us to make our voice heard and make change happen for the best of the UFC and fighters.
Were all afraid, but its time to join up, added the 35-year-old, one of the most lucrative draws in the history of the UFC. Its a fight for what is right and what is wrong. We should never be afraid to stand up for our virtues.
St-Pierre joined Cain Velasquez, TJ Dillashaw, Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone in becoming the first headline-worthy fighters to advocate for more money, improved healthcare and other financial protections.
Without significant backing, fighters have primarily been forced to fend for themselves. I know a lot of fighters want to remain anonymous, St-Pierre said, but Im telling you guys, come see us. Its time to stand together.
Since a union was first mooted a few years ago, the idea has been met with apathy from the public and the fighters at large. A contingent of UFC veterans, most of whom had moved on from the company, aligned for an antitrust lawsuit against the UFC that was filed in 2014. Though the case continues to make its way through the courts, it apparently wasnt convincing enough to rouse fighters into making headway towards meaningful labor representation.
These were past-their-prime fighters derided as bitter and unimportant. This is a cut-throat business, and organizing MMA fighters in the UFC has always been a long shot for that reason alone. Never mind that for the past 15 years the UFC has been helmed by casino owners who shrugged their shoulders at sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board.
But when the sale went down and the Fertitta family handed control of the UFC to WME/IMG this summer, the baked-in sense of the way the MMA world worked was quickly challenged.
In 2015, the year preceding the sale, the UFC generated over $600m in revenue, three-quarters of which was from fights, according to documents. This was the most successful revenue year in the history of the UFC, and it prompted a cadre of fighters from MMAs biggest star, Conor McGregor, to Cole Miller, a mid-tier veteran approaching 20 consecutive Octagon-housed contests to voice discontent about not getting what they felt they deserved.
The media attempted to discover just how much of UFCs revenue was going to the fighters. As a private entity, the UFC never needed to answer directly. When its executives were seriously pushed, they said the split was in the ballpark of major American sports like baseball, football and basketball. Around half, Lorenzo Fertitta protested to ESPN in 2012, following a report that indicated the number was likely around 15%.
Throughout Wednesdays two-hour call, when the MMAAA was introduced, the fighters were joined by former Bellator president Bjorn Rebney.What the association is going to achieve for the athletes is a settlement to address the past wrongs, driving up [the revenue split] to 50% up from 8%, and a benefits package that provides a safety net, Rebney said.
Ironically, Rebney earned a reputation at Bellator for pursuing long-term contracts thought to be more restrictive than those UFC offered.
Bjorn created the most egregious working conditions ever to exist in combat sports, said manager Jason Genet. He forced fighters to sign with managers that would not question those contracts and punished those that did. He may be the most qualified to rid the sport of injustices that people like him ushered in or he will be the reason this fails. I will wait and see. None of my athletes will be involved.
Former two-division UFC champion Randy Couture, who attempted to fight for his freedom from the UFC in a court battle in 2007 before acquiescing and returning to the Octagon, says Rebneys motives are worth exploring.
I suspect that Bjorn is interested in creating an organization and being a promoter again and doing it with fighters, owned by fighters, sort of like what the Professional Bull Riders is, Couture told BloodyElbow.com. Thats my take on why Bjorn is involved here. Its certainly more than just an advisor to fighters.
Couture is involved with the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, a separate body that seeks to organize all fighters in the sport, not just the UFC, in a trade association. The MMAFA has spearheaded the antitrust lawsuit against the UFC, and Rebney noted this is reason enough for his group, the MMAAA, not to align with Coutures. The main reason being that he sees no point in signing over a third of the potential settlement over to lawyers.
Four of the five fighters on Wednesdays call are associated with Creative Artists Agency, an entertainment powerhouse rivaling WME/IMG. Rebney denied the formation of the new group would lead to a new rival to UFC, and noted that while Creative Artists supports the group because of the fighters involved, no explicit relationship exists between it and the association. That relationship is closer than Rebney let on, sources said, though he called any suggestion otherwise a conspiracy theory.
The structure and backing of the MMAAA remains a mystery outside of its 501c6 status. Rebney would not yet name its investors, and said the association will be headquartered in Anaheim Hills, California. Over the coming months those involved, particularly the fighters, will seek to expand its roster, relying on board members like Velasquez, Cerrone, Kennedy, St-Pierre and Dillashaw to recruit in the major MMA gyms across the US.
One of the goals of the association is a formal collective bargaining agreement, presumably before the UFCs media rights are up for renewal following the completion of its deal with Fox in 2018 that pays $115m annually.
WME is pushing for a $4.5bn deal over 10 years, according to the Sports Business Journal.
Could fighters strike to compel UFC to negotiate?
James Quinn, an attorney who in October advised St-Pierre that he should consider himself a free agent after claiming a breach of his UFC contract, made strong statements at the time regarding the need to challenge the UFCs contracts. Quinn has taken up the role of counsel for the MMAAA.
It is a great organization and I will help in every way I can, he said. This is about these terrific athletes standing tall together.
But Lucas Middlebrook, a labor lawyer, raised two concerns about the formation of the MMAAA.
If youre not certified or voluntarily recognized [by the National Labor Relations Board] the UFC has no legal obligation to sit down at the bargaining table with you, Middlebrook said. They can tell you to pound sand, and theres no legal repercussion you can bring on them. If youre the union or you were voluntarily recognized or certified, not only do they have to sit down with you they have to bargain in good faith.
Rebney rejected the idea that a union would be the best route, claiming it would be the worst possible option because it delays movement towards a new relationship between the UFC and its talent for four to five years.
Asked how serious they were about the prospect of a holdout, fighters on the call described a strike as an option of last resort and said their hope would be to resolve any issues face to face with the UFC.
Rebney said he was waiting on the UFCs call.
If that doesnt work, Kennedy, a middleweight contender in the UFC and an Army Ranger with tours of duty in Afghanistan, made his intentions clear.
Were here to never leave somebody behind, Kennedy said. Were here to make sure every step that no UFC fighter gets left behind.
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