Dollars and Sense

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If you polled every employee in the United States and asked them the one thing they’d like to change about their job, I’m guessing that the words “salary”, “pay” and “wage” would come up repeatedly. It’s no different for MMA fighters who frequently complain about the difficulty of making ends meet on their fight revenue. Fighters have the same bills that we non-fighters do in addition to compensating their trainers, coaches and managers. Times are tough all around.

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The various promoters (i.e. UFC and Bellator) are often painted as the bad guys in the great salary debate. After all, they’re the ones raking in TV money, big name sponsors and, in the case of the UFC, pay per view revenue. Surely the promoters are just being greedy and not sharing enough with the fighters, right? Not so fast.

ESPN’s Josh Gross authored an article discussing the subject in which, through his analysis of pay per view records and live gate numbers, he determines the yearly UFC gross sales between $350 million and $450 million. Bloody Elbow’s Matthew Ross correctly points out that Gross’s article fails to mention a few key details and deduces that the UFC nets somewhere in the neighborhood of $218 million each year. For comparison sake, the NFL’s salary cap for 2013 is $123 million. In other words, each of the NFL’s 32 teams is allowed to spend $123 million to fill their 53 man roster.

  • NFL Team: $123,000,000 / 53 man roster = $2,320,754 per player
  • UFC : $218,000,00 / 383 fighter roster = $569,190 per fighter

So why, then, are some fighters only paid $6,000 to fight? Several reasons.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback, Joe Flacco, signed a 6 year / $120 million contract following this season that will pay him roughly $15 million in 2014. According to our breakdown above, that’s $13 million more than he should be paid if everyone was on equal footing. So where does the extra $13 million come from? It comes from the salaries of his teammates. In order to pay their SuperBowl MVP quarterback enough to sign him, the Ravens were forced to release some of Flacco’s teammates and trim salaries from others. Is that fair to the other players? Are the Ravens more at fault than Flacco himself?

The UFC works much the same way. Established high level fighters like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have been quoted as saying they’ll make upwards of $4 million – $5 million per fight. Keep in mind that these fighters often fight multiple times per year. They potentially haul in as much as $30 million between the two of them if they both fight 3 times during a calendar year. The more money the UFC pays them, the less it has available to pay lower level fighters. Is it fair? Probably not.

It’s also important to consider that part of the reason the UFC can attract viewers in the first place is because of fighters like GSP and Silva. The fact that they appear on a card raises the earning potential of that card tremendously and many fighters reap the benefits by association. Looking at it from the UFC’s point of view; if you have to pay someone a lot of money, are you more comfortable giving it to Anderson Silva or a relatively unknown fighter on the undercard?

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Savvy fighters have figured out that they have tools at their disposal to capitalize on their 15 minutes of fame. By doing their part to hype fights and sell pay per views, they not only increase the revenue potential for a fight card, but they also increase the revenue pool for all fighters. Chael Sonnen and Josh Koscheck are prime examples of fighters who have used their words, as well as their fists, to make a name for themselves.

Let’s also not forget that fighters are free to ink sponsorship deals with any sponsor they choose. Granted, not every sponsor is allowed to appear on UFC programming but that shouldn’t stop fighters from supplementing their yearly earnings. UFC staple Clay Guida famously appeared in several SafeAuto commercials. The money made by Guida in those commercials is not included in his yearly earning from the UFC.

So what can we take away from all of this? Could the UFC and Bellator do more to smooth out the contract earnings across the board? Probably. Could the fighters take it upon themselves to capitalize on the relatively short time in the fight business? Probably. There is definitely money to be made in the fight business for those that are smart enough to seize their opportunity.

Brian Doerfler is the Social Media Manger for TITLE Boxing and TITLE MMA.