UFC contracts laid bare, marginally fair

Ever see something that used to be top-secret, then wondered why it was so secret?

That’s what happened today when Bleacher Report flexed its investigative muscle (No, I don’t mean that sarcastically — they’re making progress) and came up with a UFC fighter’s contract. Then they got comments from Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta, UFC general counsel Lawrence Epstein, fighter agent Juanito Ibarra, Randy Couture and labor law professor Zev Eigen.

The result is well worth the read. But as with a lot of good journalism, it should start the discussion, not end it.

With that in mind, here are a few slide-by-slide thoughts:

(By suggestion, this has been edited to give more context.)

SLIDE 1 (overview): The comparison to the Yankees falls flat. How many people do the Yankees pay? How many in UFC — fighters, marketing, TV crews, Octagon crews, etc.? Lorenzo says 1,000 at any individual fight. (I’m assuming that the value of the Yankees does not include minor-league clubs, though it would include rights to some of those players.)

SLIDES 2/3: Ancillary rights (merchandising, fight reruns and so forth) are where the UFC arguments fall flat. Actors make money — not much, but a little — off reruns from their shows. Why should Zuffa be the sole profiteer on future runs of its fights?

The lawsuit to watch in terms of owning rights in perpetuity: O’Bannon v. NCAA. (That said, fighters are certainly in better shape than college athletes when it comes to video games and other ancillary rights. If O’Bannon loses, you have to wonder if fighters would have a chance.)

SLIDE 5: This includes the “champions’ clause,” in which the UFC maintains your rights as long you have the belt. All due respect to the expertise of Zev Eigen, but let’s save the “slavery” argument for unwilling workers, shall we?

SLIDE 6: As I read this, in the event a fight can’t happen, the fight still owes Zuffa a fight — and Zuffa still owes the fighter a fight. Not really surprised.

SLIDE 7: Juanito Ibarra: “Who is the genius that decided to pay an athlete less when he loses? Boxers don’t do that. No other sport, basketball or football, does that. They may have bonuses, sure, for making the All-Star team, but the foundation is built on guaranteed money.”

Is Ibarra seriously arguing that a boxer doesn’t get paid less when he loses? If I get paid $2 million to fight Manny Pacquiao and he knocks me out in the first round, am I getting $2 million for my next fight? Or is he arguing that bonuses are bonuses in the NBA, but bonuses aren’t bonuses in MMA?

SLIDE 8: This part is specific to Eddie Alvarez, and it has to do with his bonuses for each pay-per-view sale for his fights. Ibarra and Eigen are arguing here as if Eddie Alvarez is the only reason I paid $55 to watch a pay-per-view. That’s not the case in the UFC. Most cards are sold on the strength of several fights. Some fighters are exceptions who can sell cards by themselves — Eddie Alvarez isn’t one of those.

The better argument on UFC fighters’ behalf is actually farther down the card, where guys are making $6,000. There’s no argument to be made for Eddie Alvarez to receive Floyd Mayweather money.

SLIDE 9: This one shows what the UFC pays for travel for fighters and corner crew, and it’s surprising. UFC fighters generally rave about the treatment they receive when they travel to fights. I would have thought the UFC would have paid for two corner people for every fighter.

SLIDE 12: If you lose, the UFC can cut you. Harsh, perhaps. But that’s the nature of sports, as much as Eigen and Ibarra would like to claim otherwise. A lot of NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed. A lot of NBA and NHL contracts are short. And I’m covering a women’s soccer league in which a lot of players can be cut at any time.

SLIDE 13: The UFC asserts matching rights at the end of a contract. Again with the slavery argument? For a clause that says the UFC (the world’s biggest MMA promotion) can match the terms of a contract offered by someone else? Eigen isn’t helping his credibility here.

SLIDE 15: “Fighter acknowledges risks,” etc. Here, Eigen’s input is valuable. Fighters aren’t alone in signing contracts that say they understand the risks — even executives have to sign such things. Maybe journalists should sign them. “Journalist understands that Journalism is a soul-crushing activity that is hazardous to mental health and often leads to poor sleep and diet, resulting in further health issues …”

SLIDE 16: Limits on fighters referring to their UFC affiliations. This one just seems petty on the UFC’s part, and I’m surprised none of the Zuffa executives commented. Frank Mir can’t bill himself as a former UFC champion? Harsh. Maybe if it were “former UFC champion Frank Mir recommends Bill’s Underground Explosives Shop,” sure, but don’t other clauses in this contract limit such usage?

SLIDE 18: Commercial identification. This is a tricky one. Seems pretty obvious that if Bud Light has spent a zillion dollars to sponsor a fight card, a fighter might not want to walk out with a Miller Lite logo on his shorts. Beyond that, we hit a gray area.

SLIDE 19: Confidentiality. I don’t get this one at all. In most states, fighter pay IS disclosed. What is NOT disclosed is how much money they’re getting from sponsors. They may also get some locker-room bonuses, and I’m not sure it’s in the fighter’s best interests to see that money disclosed.

All of these discussions are worth having. But we’re still not much closer to the larger question: Are UFC fighters paid well enough? In other sports, athletes get maybe 40-50 percent of the revenue. The UFC, though, does much of its own TV production.

So take the total UFC revenue, then subtract the TV production costs. Do fighters get 40-50 percent of that? If yes, then a lot of the questions raised above go away. If not, then you have to wonder why Zuffa is nickel-and-diming these guys.

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