Just one week after the UFC revealed a controversial new uniform sponsorship deal with Reebok, the promotion was handed news yesterday (Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014) that another potentially game-changing set of circumstances would be headed their way in 2015.
But it wasn’t nearly as positive as the Reebok deal.
News broke from San Jose that current UFC fighter Cung Le and former fighters Jon Fitch and Nate Quarry had filed a massive class action lawsuit that alleges the UFC violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by creating a monopoly of MMA, thereby severely limiting fighters’ ability to make the money they could have in a free market.
The details of the case, which was laid out in a hefty 63-page press release, are long and arduous, but the fighters are backed by some powerful law firms that have won billions of dollars in class action settlements. The legal proceedings will likely take years to play out, but when a judgment is finally reached, the UFC could end up paying hundreds of millions back to fighters for lost purses, video game rights, sponsorships, and other wages.
The suit demanded a jury trial in Northern California District Court, and it’s unknown how the case will play out just yet. Antitrust litigation often takes years to play out in court, so it’s conceivable that a settlement may not be reached for some time. On the other hand, Le, Fitch, and Quarry could accept a large out-of-court settlement that could be re-distributed to the affected fighters.
Either way, the UFC’s day-to-day business practices heading into arguably the biggest year in their existence won’t be affected in the short term, yet there obviously could be some massive overarching changes that could in fact shift the direction of MMA as a whole.
Again, the exact details of just that may mean are sparse, and they’re going to take a whole lot of sorting out to reach a conclusion. The lawsuit encompasses fighters from the early days of Zuffa’s ownership of the UFC all the way to today, where Le still remains employed by the promotion (despite recently asking for his release).
There’s long been a major backlash brewing over the topic of fighter pay, as lower and mid-tier fighters receive seemingly paltry compensation that barely covers their many expenses.
It’s a touchy subject that is unique in that it’s not seen in other major professional sports. Leagues like the NFL and MLB have highly cohesive unions in place, with major bargaining decisions being voted on between team owners and players’ associations. There is nothing even remotely resembling that in the UFC or professional MMA as a whole.
A fighter’s union is long overdue, and it could be one of the most visible and positive results of the suit.
The UFC can always say that all a fighter has to do to earn more money is keep winning, and on the surface that’s true, in a sense. However, unlike other professional sports that are regulated by unions, UFC fighters aren’t guaranteed a set amount of money if their performance declines. Their per-fight salary can decline in the middle of a contract if they begin losing.
That’s like taking money away from an NFL or MLB team if they are losing mid-season, and it’s just something that you would never see in other mainstream professional sports.
Also at issue is the always-changing institute of the UFC’s sponsorship tax that companies are required to pay the UFC to advertise on a sponsored fighter. Of course all of that is going to go by the wayside once the UFC implements their own pre-made sponsors when the Reebok uniform policy goes into effect in July, but Quarry, who was in his prime when the UFC was first getting ultra-popular thanks to the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), has often detailed how his sponsors were forced to pay an increasing amount of tax for each of his fights.
Based on his experiences, which many other fighters have allegedly gone through as well, the UFC made it extremely hard for their athletes to get a truly lucrative deal, and they made it even harder on sponsors by supposedly not allowing them to sponsor any fighters not competing in the octagon.
Now it’s going to be even harder to make money off of outside sponsors, and while the UFC will certainly take care of their top stars, the up-and-coming (or struggling) fighters are going to further take a hit.
It’s true that MMA is a harsh and unforgiving game; a sport where most (if not nearly all) competitors will be let down of their ultimate goal. But at the end of the day, these fighters put their bodies through absolute hell and risk their own long-term health for the entertainment of the fans.
Sure, they get a certain amount of personal fame and glory, yet scientists still don’t know what the true lasting effects of a lengthy MMA career has on the human brain. Initial studies haven’t yielded the most encouraging results, so fighters undoubtedly deserve more than some of the laughable paychecks they currently receive.
They’re paid fractions of what many boxers make, which was another main tenet of the suit, and it could be argued that they put their bodies through a much more rigorous training regime given that MMA takes all forms of martial combat into account.
The decision of what ultimately happens will come down to whether or not a jury decides if the UFC’s business policy actually fostered noncompetition, or if it was just extremely aggressive, if it ever gets that far. After all, the whole thing could be thrown out the window shortly after the UFC is served.
However, the wheels of positive change have been set in motion regardless of what happens in the suit. Le will certainly have the potential animosity of his recently botched UFC Fight Night 49 drug test thrown in his face, and Fitch will most likely be asked about the bias from his then-shocking UFC release as a Top 10-ranked competitor.
All hard feelings aside, this isn’t about their ill will towards the UFC; at least not in a persona sense. It’s about treating fighters fairly and allowing them to at least have a shot at making what they could have in a competitive market. The UFC bought out major rival promotions Pride, Strikeforce, and Affliction, and while all those promotions were clearly faltering at the time, it could be argued that such actions lent to a noncompetitive atmosphere.
In the suit’s text, UFC President Dana White was quoted as saying, “There is no other guy” when speaking about the UFC’s domination of the MMA landscape. UFC CEO and co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta was quoted from a 2008 article in Forbes magazine where he compared the UFC to the NFL in that there was no competition in terms of other leagues.
Maybe that’s true, but the UFC executives are coming dangerously close to admitting that what they have been seriously accused of is true.
Perhaps Le, Fitch, and Quarry will have their case thrown out of court; maybe it will end up costing the UFC several millions of dollars in repercussions. It’s going to take a long time to find out.
But these three fighters chose to take a stand for better fighter pay, and it took courage to address something that has been a huge elephant in the room for many years now. In doing so, they opened the floodgates up for potential change, and that’s something that needed to happen if the sport is going to continue growing into the future.
Will all of this force the UFC to hand over some of their control of the MMA market? It’s tough to say right now, but at least they now know that not everybody is willing to roll over for them just because they’re the only game in town.