Sports Politics: Time for an MMA Fighters’ Association?

LOS ANGELES

BUTCHER ON LA-Last week I was honored to sit in with the founder of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA) and two MMA fighters at a meeting with my congressman’s district staff. I won’t use the fighters’ names because at my core I am a union organizer and these young men, bursting out of their dress shirts, are as brave and courageous as any worker I’ve ever sat with. 

“I’m headed to an 8-week training camp. It’s an intense sport and I can’t really do anything else besides train,” explains Fighter 1. “Then, I’m expected to sell blocks of tickets to promote my own fight.” The “wage” for actual fights is quite low, for instance, $400 + $400 (that means the fighter gets $400 for showing up, another $400 for winning.) The rest of his or her income is solely determined by ticket sales. 

“I’m on Food Stamps,” the fighter admits. 

Rob Maysey of the MMAFA adds detail about the random and unfair setting of rankings: The promoter establishes the rankings -- not based on anything objective or related to merit; if fighters refuse to sign away their rights, likenesses, everything, sometimes for a lifetime, they don’t fight.

In most major sports, collective bargaining agreements specify the sport-player split. The NBA contract, for example, sets the players’ share at 49-51%. Estimates for MMA fighters is between 5 and 15%. 

Fighter and fledgling advocate Mark Hunt explains the state of the sport: 

“After purchasing the UFC back in 2000 for just $2 million, the Fertitta brothers transformed it into an International corporate franchise with some $600 million per year in revenues, and most recently sold the company for a staggering $4 billion. 

“One reason why potential buyers found the UFC so attractive is that reports have suggested that only 10% of its revenues go to its fighters – the men and women who literally shed blood for the sport. 

“Another selling point is that the UFC effectively control the MMA market and are basically able to set the agenda without any consideration given to the athletes who fight under the UFC banner.” 

“The time is exactly right,” Fighter 2 explains. “We’ve got a bill in Congress, introduced by a Republican who was an MMA fighter himself and who really gets the issues.” 

H.R. 5365 was introduced on May 26, 2016 “to amend the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to include fighters of combat sports in the safety provisions of such Act.” Its working title is the “Ali Expansion Act.” 

Variety ’s Gene Maddaus introduces the bill’s sponsor, Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), “a former MMA fighter who is now a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. Mullin has proposed legislation that would force the UFC to share financial information with fighters and create an independent ranking system, both steps that would give greater leverage to fighters. The UFC has been adamantly opposed to the bill, called the Ali Expansion Act.” 

“Maybe this new group will see the importance of the athlete to make sure the sport is sustainable,” Mullin told Variety. “The UFC has treated fighters like they were a commodity….The way it works right now, if you get a UFC contract, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it mentality,” Mullin said. “The UFC controls the rankings system. You control the rankings system, you control the fighters. Because the only way you’re going to fight at the top level is if you get ranked by them. This language specifically says that a third party will have the jurisdiction to have a true rankings system. Then if you’re fighting for a championship belt, you’ll know it’s because you deserve it, not because the guy above you wouldn’t sign a contract slanted toward the organization and not the fighter.” 

“When WME/IMG bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $4 billion, it signaled that it sees tremendous upside for the global expansion of the sport. But the agency is also taking on risks, as some fighters are waging a struggle for greater power in the sport, which could pose a threat to the UFC’s [[[ http://variety.com/t/ufc/ ]]] business model.” 

“The Ali Act doesn’t create protection,” (Rob) Maysey said. “Let’s not kid ourselves; nothing will. But what it does do, without question, is it returns some leverage to the fighters. As of right now, the promoter controls things almost entirely. If I can control who you fight, if you fight, and whether you ascend the ranks or not, you’ll sign whatever I tell you to. You have to. If you don’t sign, I just don’t promote you.” 

Most of all, Mullin said, it will grant some measure of protection for a group of fighters that currently enjoys very little, which is why he suspects the UFC has “a whole bunch of (lobbyists)” in Washington D.C. to combat it. 

“They don’t want to change it because it’s perfect for them right now,” Mullin said. “But is it perfect for the fighters? And I realize there’s not going to be any one solution that’s perfect for everybody, but can we improve where we’re at today? I think we can.” 

As MMAJunkie.com notes in “With Ali Act, a long battle for MMA's future is just beginning:”  If passed, it would add MMA and kickboxing to the sports covered under the Ali Act. It would also force major changes upon promoters like the UFC, some of which might profoundly alter the way the UFC does business. 

That, according to Mullin, is part of the goal. As a former fighter himself, the 38-year-old Republican lawmaker describes himself as passionate about the sport, while at the same time fearing for its future. 

“The fighters today are phenomenal athletes, while we were more brawlers,” Mullin said. “It’s become a professional sport. But would I encourage my kids to try and make it? Would I encourage my kids to go into it? Is it a sustainable career? I mean, for the top one percent, is it even sustainable for them? 

And the answer is no. No it is not.” 

“UFC fighters are among the toughest athletes competing in sports. Fiercely competitive, they enter the octagon knowing they could be cut, bruised or placed in submission holds that could render them temporarily unconscious. With each fight, they run the risk of suffering career-ending injuries. 

“But mentioning ‘fighter pay’ to this same group of men brings forth a completely different side. They become consumed with fear. Flight instincts take over. 

“UFC fighters show no fear in the octagon, but they are scared to talk publicly about what they say is unfair low pay for the sports' non-stars. 

"‘Career suicide,’ one current fighter said here for ESPN.  

"’It would be the end of my career,’ said another current fighter, a former champion, when asked for an on-the-record interview about the UFC's fighter pay scale.” 

It’s time, the fighters and their association agree. 

"We have seen more public sentiment in favor of fighters taking some sort of action together to better their plight," Maysey told MMA Fighting.  "What better evidence exists that the leverage between fighter and promoter is way out of balance than the $4 billion sale price? [The UFC owners] don't get that valuation unless they are drastically reducing the compensation fighters get. Now that the sale price is public, it's not just Maysey saying it, it's not just the MMAFA saying it. It smacks them right in the face. You can't deny it."…

“Every time that I've helped other unions, there has always been something that at the time pushed them and gave them momentum to collect the cards and get it going," (Lucas) Middlebrook said. "This could be that time, that [UFC fighters] see the sale and how much money the people at the top are making. And they're starting to think, we need to band together and protect ourselves." 

"They fought it like it was the plague," said Middlebrook, who also represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants and mechanics. "It's the same thing with the UFC. The employer is used to complete control. They have each of the fighters sign these agreements where they're giving up essentially their rights to profit off of being in these [video] games, when you show up, what you can wear. They have complete control. The UFC, they would lose some of that control, because these things would then have to be collectively bargained. So you wouldn't just be able to say, ‘Here's your contract. Sign it or you're not fighting.'" 

“If I’m a fighter and I’m reading the headlines of the $4 billion valuation, my next call would be to the fighters’ association to get on board,” he said. 

If he were conducting due diligence for the buyers, he said he would be most worried about “fighters demanding an objective revenue split consistent with other major sports.” 

What Can I Do to Help the Athletes of the MMA? 

Stand with the fighters of the MMA! Contact Congress in support of H.R. 5365. Share and engage in the organizing of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association! 

Follow them on Twitter @MMAFA 

Additional information and resources: 

 

Letter of support for the expansion of the Ali Act to athletes of the MMA

Together, we are writing to express our unwavering support for passage of the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, the proposed amendment to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act (Ali Act) to all combat sports including mixed martial arts (MMA). This amendment is desperately needed by combat sports athletes and to enable these sports to prosper and thrive. The lack of financial disclosures and coercive contractual practices that plagues MMA not only deprives each athlete of rights already offered to boxers, but also prevents investment in the sport and, as a result, stunts the sport’s natural growth. 

Fighters are hamstrung in their ability to negotiate fight purses as promotions, unlike in boxing, are not required to disclose to fighters the revenues earned from such bouts. Just recently boxer Chris Algieri invoked the Ali Act to obtain financial disclosures from his promoter to assist him in negotiating his purse. For no seemingly logical reason or good reason, fighters in other combat sports are not provided the same disclosures. 

Coercive contractual practices crippling the natural growth of MMA include, but are not limited to: (i) the use of exclusive and non-public contracts; (ii) the assignment of ancillary rights from the athlete to the promoter far beyond the term of the promotional agreement; (iii) champions clauses that prevent champions from ever becoming freely marketable; and (iv) secret discretionary payments that are utilized to keep the athletes subservient and silent.

Athletes in MMA and other combat sports compete without benefit of independent, objective rankings criteria. Indeed, no credible or objective rankings criteria have been adopted by any promotion in MMA. 

The Ali Act seeks to prohibit promoters from being “able to rig the sport by placing favored boxers who have signed away promotional rights in the top rankings,” and for those boxers who refuse to cooperate, from being “arbitrarily dropped from the ranking or prevented from moving up.” In fact, promoters in MMA have stripped fighters of their championship status altogether, or worse, refused to allow them to compete against their champions at all. 

The Ali Act requires rankings to be based on merit, not contractual subservience.

Standardized, objective rankings serve to increase public confidence in the sport, and means “new opportunities for honest boxers who are trying to fight their way up the rankings.” 

Additionally, the sport achieves “more integrity and respect” since boxing fans “will know that championship matches are being fought by true champions.” Indeed, the public would be outraged if Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, simply replaced the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, or worse, kept them out of the playoffs because the New York Yankees bring higher ratings or more favorable contractual terms. A promoter’s ability to write fighters in and out of rankings arbitrarily serves to drastically reduce a fighter’s marketability and leverage. This practice is rampant in MMA, impugns the integrity of the sport, and serves to strip fighters of virtually all negotiating leverage at the time their marketability should be at its peak. 

The Ali Act addresses these exploitive business practices by requiring objective and consistent rankings criteria. This provision was inserted into the Ali Act to prevent promoters from abusing boxers and monopolizing the sport by requiring boxers to sign away all their rights in order to obtain an important fight or maintain their current status in the rankings. In short, the Act attempts to prevent promoters from forcing boxers into coercive contracts as a condition of participating in a given match.

The Congressional findings taken directly from the Ali Act apply with equal validity to MMA and other combat sports. Like boxing before, “rankings” and “contender” status in MMA and other combat sports are largely pure manipulations by the promoter, and often not the result of merit at all. To obtain title status, a promoter requires fighters to sign coercive, long term contracts with extension options and sweeping assignments of ancillary rights that go far beyond rights necessary to promote bouts. Fighters who refuse to sign these contracts are simply not provided “championship” status by promotions. Worse, promotions have simply stripped fighters who have already obtained championship status. 

Despite the fact that the athletes themselves have earned the right, through their performance, to fight the best in their respective weight classes, major promoters in MMA almost uniformly require exclusive, long term promotional agreements from any fighter fighting for a title. As one witness testified before the Senate, “this is akin to forcing a professional tennis player or golfer to sign an exclusive, long term contract with the promoter of whatever event they were seeking to win. The athlete would then only be able to compete when the promoter approved, against only those opponents who also were forced to agree to terms with that promoter.” 

The Ali Act curbs exploitive business practices and protects honest competition and the integrity of sport. As stated in the legislative history of the Ali Act, an industry free of restraint and exploitive and unethical business practices will lead to increased competition, “and fair, open competition is key to any sport’s success.” 

Removal of these artificial and anti-competitive restraints will dramatically reshape the MMA industry. With the removal of these artificial restraints, substantial new investments from deep-pocketed investors will be made in MMA. These investors, currently sitting on the sidelines unable to effectively compete in a free-market system, will provide not only more opportunities and earnings power to the athletes, but also additional tax revenues and jobs throughout the nation. Such organic growth will benefit all stakeholders in the sport of mixed martial arts by increasing revenues in all industry segments. 

We strongly support the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act sponsored by Representatives Markwayne Mullin and Joseph Kennedy III, and urge its passage at the earliest opportunity. The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act is desperately needed not only for the protection of the athletes, but also to enable these sports to reach their natural, unfettered potential. 

-- Signed by growing list of current and former fighters. 

Check out their websites if you’re interested in a deep dive into UFC finances or if you’d like to hear from the organizers of the MMAFA directly.  

For fun, frivolity, and fascinating bizarreness, read Betsy Woodruff’s article in the Daily Beast about Dana White, president of the UFC who spoke at RNC. She shares some of White’s ball-full comments writing that “Donald Trump loves to inveigh against the evils of political correctness. And perhaps nothing is less politically correct than saying one plans to teabag a stranger’s mother. The uncharitable quip is very much in character for White. Over the years, he has displayed a fondness for criticizing Twitter users’ mothers, calling people ‘clown shoes,’ and suggesting that his critics listen to John Mayer -- or worse.”

 

(Julie Butcher writes for CityWatch, is a retired union leader and is now enjoying Riverside and her first grandchild. She can be reached at juliejbutcher@gmail.com) Photo credit: Esther Lin. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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