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ESPN and UFC Battle Over UFC Fighter Pay

In case you haven’t heard, ESPN aired an Outside The Lines segment and published an accompanying report titled “UFC fighters say low pay simply brutal” over the weekend on UFC fighter pay that ruffled a lot of feathers, especially with the UFC. If you follow Dana White on Twitter you probably noticed Dana going apeshit on ESPN and the two reporters who put the pieces together, John Barr and Josh Gross, and this was before he even saw the final OTL piece that aired yesterday morning.

I’m not going to dive too deep into the report — MMA Fighting’s MDS and Yahoo! Sports Dave Meltzer already did that if you’re looking for solid, measured analysis of it — but I will address the crux of it.

The report quotes a bunch of anonymous UFC fighters who refused to go on the record for fear of retribution, which really doesn’t accomplish anything other than making the UFC look like bullies. Lorenzo Fertitta vehemently denies that fighters aren’t allowed to speak out, but looking back at how Roger Huerta was benched at the end of his UFC career after complaining about pay to FIGHT! Magazine, it does seem like keeping quiet is the wiser choice.

Nevertheless, what the report boils down to though is the percentage of revenue the UFC pays it’s fighters. Fertitta says it’s “not far off what the other sports leagues pay as a percentage of revenue,” which is around 50%, however Rob Maysey, founder of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, went on the record, calling that an “absurd statement.” Based on his estimation it’s more around 5%, but he doesn’t have the whole picture.

And therein lies the problem with this subject. No one has the full picture except the UFC, and unless they open their books, which they won’t and don’t have to being a private company, we’re not going to get the full picture.

Moreover, even if we did have the exact number we would we have no way of telling if that number is fair to the fighters or not without knowing how much the UFC spends to grow the sport and keep the machine running. For argument’s sake, let’s say the number is somewhere in the middle, say 30%. Okay, that looks low compared to the other major sports leagues, but the UFC operates on a completely different business model than those sports. How do we know if the UFC would be able to sustain their business if they raised it to 50%? We don’t. What we do know is many other promotions, most notably Affliction, went out of business by not managing their payroll correctly, so the UFC must be doing something right to still be here going strong even after a down year. We may know they’re not overpaying their fighters, but no one except them can definitively say they’re underpaying them or not.

Bottom line: It is virtually impossible to form an informed, intelligent opinion on the fairness of UFC fighter pay without knowing all the facts. So while this report has certainly kicked up a lot of dust and sent many people into a tizzy, most notably Dana White, it never finds the real answer it was looking for.

You can check out the OTL piece above and the UFC’s response below which includes the UFC’s edit of Lorenzo’s interview with ESPN and the full uncut version of the interview.

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