There's been a lot said about UFC fighter pay thanks to an ESPN piece (seen above) on the subject, the argument being that UFC grossly underpays their fighters compared to the revenue the company brings in.
We've been over this countless times so I won't bore you with the details of it all, but the facts are the facts: Top boxers make a lot more than top UFC fighters. This has been part of the trouble whenever someone says that boxing needs a UFC-like structure; the way fighters are paid is so different that it could never, ever work. You aren't going to suddenly get Floyd Mayweather fighting for $2 million or whatever. Timothy Bradley made over $1 million for a nothing fight against Joel Casamayor on the Pacquiao vs Marquez undercard. I mean once you're at a certain level, it's apples and bowling balls.
UFC has released something of a response video from Lorenzo Fertitta, which was recorded during the ESPN interview, and the results aren't quite as compelling as they want them to be, I'm afraid.
Fertitta argues that ESPN, a massive corporation, pays fighters very little for their Friday Night Fights program:
I know what Fertitta is trying to do here, but unfortunately, the argument falls short on, well, just about every level.
First of all, ESPN is not a fight promoter. This is an enormous difference. For a UFC card on FX, the UFC is pretty much in control of everything. ESPN just airs fights. They have the right to turn down a proposed fight, but that's about it. Everything is really up to the promoters of the actual fight card.
They are a network that broadcasts a low-budget boxing series for nine months out of the year. To compare Friday Night Fights to a UFC show on cable is an attempt at trickery at best. It's just not the same thing.
The budget for FNF is small: $100,000 per show. This is not a big-time showcase for top fighters. It is, more or less, somewhere for prospects and mid-tier veterans to fight. At its best, like last season, Friday Night Fights turns into another version of ShoBox: The New Generation, which airs frequently on Showtime -- with a $50,000 budget per show, often used to great effect over three strong fights.
Fertitta claims, and I'm sure he's telling the truth, that someone fought on Friday Night Fights in a four-round bout for $275. What Fertitta doesn't reveal -- or perhaps does not actually know -- is that anyone in a four-round fight that winds up on the broadcast, on TV, was positioned in a swing fight that was going to air only if there was time remaining in the two-hour time slot. There are no four-round fights purposely scheduled to air on ESPN's series. A four-round fight is the lowest level of professional boxing, and frankly to call the majority of four-round bouts "professional boxing" is kind of a stretch; the fighters don't often resemble what we're used to seeing on TV, even from the middle-of-the-pack guys that get on ESPN or HBO or Showtime. It's kind of like comparing high school football to the NFL most of the time.
The UFC line is that everyone on their roster is there because they're among the best in the world. Obviously no one is being paid $275 to fight on a UFC card, but Friday Night Fights is not known to be, nor is it advertised as being, a showcase for the world's best boxers.
Fertitta's argument is lousy. There's no other way to put it. It's not a good comparison, it doesn't give them an out, and frankly I don't know why he even brought it up other than UFC guys like to bring up boxing as a comparison when they think it's good for their cause, and they say it's not on their radar when it isn't good for their cause. This time I think Fertitta misjudged his cause a little bit. It's such a bad argument that it wasn't even worth the time it took to lay it out.
And really, the two sports don't compare as business models. As Dave Meltzer of Yahoo! Sports notes, the way the sports operate is completely different. UFC is responsible for a lot more than most boxing promoters are, and the way they present their product is not the same:
UFC, as a business, is structured completely differently than the big four team sports, which pay closer to half of total revenue to the athletes. It’s also structured differently than boxing, where the major name fighters earn significantly more than UFC’s biggest draws. Georges St. Pierre recently said that he earns $4 million to $5 million per fight, but that figure likely includes sponsorship revenue. UFC has costs associated with producing and marketing shows, front-office expenses, and international expansion costs boxing organizations don’t have.
Additionally, the UFC’s draw is different than boxing. In boxing, most pay-per-view shows do fewer than 50,000 buys, but big draws like Manny Pacquiao can do significantly more than one-million buys, and at a higher price point than an UFC event. Floyd Mayweather vs. Victor Ortiz, for example, grossed $78 million just on pay-per-view revenue. Conversely, if UFC 141 was Zuffa’s biggest show of the year and did 800,000 buys that would be a gross of closer to $36 million, and Zuffa only gets a percentage in the range of half of that.
The usual UFC mouthpiece Dana White has largely abstained from the discussion, and refused to be interviewed by ESPN, but he's had his typical angry reaction on Twitter, and gone back to his old stance that anyone who ever says anything negative about the UFC has "an agenda." For the most part, White's "us against the world" mentality has helped UFC over the years, but just speaking from my own personal viewpoint, I think that's not going to be particularly helpful in the present or future. UFC wants to play with the big boys in sports now. That means attention from big boy sports media, and that inevitably leads to criticism and a realistic assessment of their product and their business. The rah-rah days are dying, and it's because of White's ambition as much as anything else. He's brought them here. Now they have to accept where they're at and what comes along with that standing.
Do I personally think UFC underpays fighters? I don't know. I don't have a perfect answer for that. I think Fertitta's argument comparing UFC to Friday Night Fights is horribly flawed at best, but I don't know if I can say that they're underpaid any more than I could say that many boxers are overpaid considering their lack of true value in drawing fan interest. Bradley make $1,000,000-plus for a tune-up fight against a shot veteran isn't a good thing, necessarily. It's good for Tim Bradley (and I have no problem with it so long as it doesn't interfere with making good fights), and on that card it was no big deal since Pacquiao and Marquez brought in a big gate and big PPV numbers and all that, so there was plenty of money to go around. I obviously believe it would be better if the UFC fighters made more money, but that's because I think the fighters deserve it. I don't know what it would mean for their business model, and I'll admit that I simply don't know that.
So to be clear, this is not meant to be anti-UFC, anti-MMA, anti-Dana White, anti-Lorenzo Fertitta, or pro-ESPN. The ESPN piece was pretty good, but I agree with Josh Nason of Bloody Elbow when he says it wasn't damning.