Five UFC fighters and a former fight promoter held a conference call with reporters this afternoon, in which they announced the formation of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association, a trade association that hopes to win substantial increases in pay and benefits for all UFC fighters. While those on the call went long on their problems with the UFC and what they hope to achieve, they were, at best, frustratingly vague on how they will actually accomplish anything.
Fighters Tim Kennedy, Georges St-Pierre, Donald Cerrone, T.J. Dillashaw, and Cain Velazquez were joined on the call by the founder and former CEO of Bellator, Bjorn Rebney, and they spoke in that order. After about 15 minutes of statements, they spent almost two hours taking questions from reporters. Rebney was clearly the spokesperson for the group and most comprehensively articulated its strategies; Kennedy and St-Pierre were clearly the leaders of the fighters.
The fighters’ grievances are and should be clear to anybody with even a passing interest in mixed martial arts. They believe they are dramatically underpaid relative to the revenue and profit they generate, compared to other professional athletes; that they have little recourse when injured participating in a violent sport; and that there are no comprehensive benefits for current and former fighters. All of this is objectively true. Rebney laid out what the group hopes to win:
- A substantial settlement that will compensate both current and former fighters for past wrongs
- An increase in the percentage of UFC revenue that fighters receive from the eight percent they claim (this is probably accurate-ish, but it’s complicated; the point is that they receive a very small slice of the pie) to 50 percent, on par with other professional athletes
- A collective bargaining agreement with the UFC that includes benefits such as medical, 401(k), and pensions
Details about how these goals would be achieved weren’t proffered. “There is no substantial benefit to the fighters sitting here with me to lay out our comprehensive strategy so the WME-IMG-UFC conglomerate knows what is coming,” Rebney said, and he repeated a version of this line to other variations on the question. He also said that the MMAAA had not reached out to the UFC, and would not reach out to the UFC; eventually the UFC will have to reach out to them.
One thing that was made quite clear is that the MMAAA is not a union, but a trade association. Rebney laid out the following logic:
Simply put, a union is the worst possible option to date for UFC fighters, because it delays everything another four to five years. If everyone at this table was hit by a bus as we leave the hotel, I would plead with UFC fighters not to form a union, and here’s why. A union is an option under the law that is designed to let employees address grievances with their employers. UFC fighters are independent contractors, so if you were to spend a year or two years organization a union, and if, a huge if, were able to get it formed, the UFC would walk into Las Vegas the next day and file suit to enforce the independent contractor status, and that legal fight would take years to resolve. And then a high likelihood, 90 percent, the UFC would win that fight, and UFC fighters would be where they are right now, except it would be 2022. We are an association.
Similarly, Rebney dismissed a lawsuit—such as the current antitrust suit against the UFC filed by two former fighters—as an opening salvo. The reasoning of the (former?) fight promoter who counsels fighters not to form a union and not to sue over what objective legal observers routinely describe as blatantly illegal contracts is that 33 percent of any winnings from a lawsuit would be handed over to lawyers, not fighters.
The most comprehensive plan detailed was a question-and-answer session, seemingly scheduled for today, that the group was inviting fighters to call into. MMAAA staffers, it was further offered, will be criss-crossing the country and visiting gyms to speak with fighters. (Those staffers are part of a large “team behind the team” that includes the public relations firm that organized the call, O’Malley Hansen, St-Pierre’s lawyer Joe Quinn, former Bellator employee Zach Light, and an office already set up in Orange County, Calif.)
Rebney declined to say who was funding the MMAAA, only saying that he was approached by individuals two years ago about starting such an organization, and that they were in it to right wrongs, not to profit. He and Kennedy—an unreconstructed right-winger and friend of Alex Jones—were adamant that CAA, the super-agency that represents four of the five fighters on the call and is the main competitor of UFC owner WME-IMG, wasn’t financially backing the MMAAA, but simply supported their fighters’ attempts to win increased money and better working conditions.
Having ruled out the formation of a union or the levying of a lawsuit, either of which might force WME-IMG to the bargaining table, it seems the MMAAA still believes they will have to negotiate with the fighters. Here is how Rebney described WME-IMG’s position:
On a four billion-plus acquisition, approximately two billion is debt. Let’s assume it matures over five years with a 7.5 percent rate, that’s three-quarters of a billion in interest payments due over four-and-a-half years. How do they cover those interest payments? Well, you increase revenue. How do you increase revenue? The primary way, because 76 percent of your revenue are PPV, domestic licensing, and international licensing, you have to expand those revenue streams. What is the bugaboo to each executive at a top network that spends millions in live rights? Labor stoppage. This group has significant power.
Broadly, without knowing specific finances, this seems true. SportsBusinessJournal reported that the UFC is looking to increase their domestic TV rights deal from $115 million annually to $450 million when it expires in a couple of years, and Bloomberg reported that the UFC’s sale to WME-IMG involved raising $1.8 billion in debt.
At the end there is a mention of a strike, but it was repeatedly stressed that Rebney was merely realistically arguing that WME-IMG and its potential television partners fear a labor stoppage, not that the MMAAA is threatening one.
“Let’s not even talk about a strike. We may not have a sport in five to ten years because the athletes cannot stand this,” said Kennedy. “We are talking about an unsustainable trajectory. If you have talked about every fighter that has left the UFC, those motherfuckers cannot walk.”
Given the lack of specifics, the ruling out of forceful action, and the inclusion of Rebney, a number of reporters on the call expressed skepticism and challenged the group’s interpretation of the landscape.
Kennedy explained that the MMAAA board is made up solely of the five involved fighters—Rebney is an advisor with no voting power—and that fighters would control decision making. (This was a veiled shot at the Pro Fighters Association, which has faced accusations that agents wield too much power.) Regarding criticism of Rebney’s involvement, Kennedy responded, “We have been looking for the best horse to get behind in this race. No horse is perfect.” That’s true, but it’s questionable whether this one can even make it to the starting gate.
The UFC made approximately $600 million in revenue in 2015. Using the MMAAA’s numbers, they hope to bump fighters’ share of revenue from $48 million to $300 million. The UFC under WME-IMG is already slashing costs, and the MMAAA knows WME-IMG is desperate to reduce their debt load. So the hope is to gain an additional $250 million annually—roughly the annual amount the NBA won by locking out NBA players in 2011—without a union, without a lawsuit, without a strike, and with a strategy that seems to consist solely of talking with current UFC fighters and trotting out broken-down former ones to make a sympathetic case to the public.
Leaving aside that fighters are compensated poorly for participating in a brutal sport that potentially subjects them to brain damage and poor physical health for the rest of their lives, and that only a select few win enough money to live comfortably once their careers are over, the fact is that they have enormous leverage: MMA promotions are near worthless in a business sense without the involvement of fighters like those who stood up on behalf of a better fight game today. They’re more than entitled to solid health care and benefits, more money, and more power—and they have the leverage with which to get it.
The shame of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association’s debut today isn’t that they said that. It’s that they ruled out the use of every mechanism by which they might get what they deserve.