Yesterday the UFC brass revealed that their long-rumoured ‘fighter uniforms’ would be coming to fruition, and by July Reebok would be the sole apparel sponsors for fighters inside the Octagon and on fight week. Of course this has drawn out some polarising views, but what effect will it really have? The only answer has to be that right now we don’t really know. No definitive numbers have been given and it’s all conjecture at this point. That means I’m going to have to preface the entirety of this blog by saying what follows is a generalised view based on the situation, because we clearly can’t talk specifics just yet.
If you want to familiarise yourself with the UFC Uniform Deal with Reebok, you can look at the FAQ provided by the UFC HERE
, and the interview with UFC president Dana White above.
First and foremost I would say that any deal in which the vast majority of fighters will be compensated better is a good thing, and that’s what the UFC are alluding to in the early press interviews. However, it’s hard to know whether that will be the case given the disparity in all kinds of sponsorship situations, popularity, and much more.
Dana White has gone on record as saying, “Any reporter who says this isn't a fantastic deal is out of his mind." Given that they haven’t disclosed any figures this statement is almost baseless, but evidently he is confident that the deal is a good one.
For me one of the main issues is how the structure is so firmly attached to the rankings. They are separated into several brackets, each of whom will receive different pay scales. The champion sits at the top and gets the most, 1-5 get the next biggest portion, then 6-10, 11-15, and finally the unranked.
There are a range of reasons that this could be a cause for concern. The UFC’s rankings are voted upon by members of the MMA media. Already this makes me feel uneasy. Not every outlet is well known or respected, and not everyone voting comes in with any prestige with regards to their ability to rank fighters. These are the people that are effectively toying with the livelihood of athletes in a sport they’re covering, and that brings up all sorts of ethical issues. I wouldn’t be able to single out any individual as unreliable in this facet, but amongst the hordes of voters I’m sure there are agendas and biases amongst them.
The UFC’s ability to take people out on a whim also needs addressing. Admittedly White did state that the rankings were imperfect and there is some time to clean up issues with them before the July rollout, but that doesn’t take away all the problems. For example, suppose former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was to come back, or middleweight champion Rich Franklin decided on a retirement fight. Neither are ranked and should officially be making the same as a newcomer with an 0-2 record, or an unranked debutant. Again, can you see this being the case? Of course not. Concessions would have to be made and demands met, especially for someone like Lesnar who would command a big audience, and therefore the company would need to have the ability to stray away from their own rules when it suited them.
Again, without knowing the percentage cuts each ranked fighter would get, or what weight the divisions will pull, would the number number 9 115lbs female (in a division that can barely fill a top ten) command the same as the number 9 lightweight, where the division is full to bursting? These are things we need clearing up before we can judge which way the balance swings in favour of positive or negative.
The next potential issue would be with regards to individuality – though some say there are more and more “cookie cutter” fighters who are similar stylistically or bland in their demeanour. However, there are also fighters that stand out from the crowd for various reasons, fighters that have their own style. Think of a prime Chuck Liddell or Cro Cop, and what do you remember? It’s been said that different designs will be available but how much will Reebok be able to pander to the individual needs of a 500+ roster? Of course the top guys will have heaven and earth moved to make sure their specifications are met, but the young guy making his debut who is trying to build a brand? The one-style-fits-all bag of apparel will most likely be heading in his direction. As trivial as it seems, there’ll be no “Dana is my bitch”, “If sambo was easy it would be called jiu jitsu”, or even Harold Howard inspired weigh in attire. There’s no doubt Reebok will want to be selling as many units as possible and therefore they’ll listen to some fighters, Gustafsson’s blue and yellow has been a huge hit for example, so it’s in their interests to accommodate. Just how much they will is another one of the unknowns.
The liberal voice in me wants full freedom of choice and options for the fighter. Once it’s in the hands of your employer, just how do you take them back? They’re providing your underwear and that smacks of some dystopian fiction. Some might be happy with having what they see as mundane decisions taken out of their hands, but others won’t. It benefits the UFC as it standardises the roster and helps them build their brand, whilst taking out some of the individuals. Taking that away will go towards protecting them from the loose cannons, and stops them being as marketable outside of the UFC because they haven’t had the same chance to express themselves. Hark back to Pride and all the characters you remember, and the small things that made up a part of what they were. That’s what endeared fighters to people, and why hardcores still live out the Pride Neva Die nostalgia. This could well be thinking too much into it, and who knows what stops Reebok will pull out to create unique designs. It just seems unlikely that anybody but the elite few will have much of a say in the matter.
On the point of freedom, the UFC will also be distributing and controlling the money available from Reebok. In positive terms, there go the days of underhand sponsors not paying what they owe, or taking six months to retrieve a cheque. That security is great and every fighter and manager will be grateful. But UFC fighters are independent contractors when it suits, and employees when it suits. Of course they have freedom to go elsewhere, but that’s a discussion played out many times before. The UFC is THE big show. Just about every fighter dreams of getting there right now. This could help to give the likes of Bellator a corner in the market as the less restrictive option, and that in itself could be good for MMA as a whole, but will take a long time to develop. It opens the door and would give combatants another reason to engage with different promotions where the grip of control isn't as tight, but it's hard to see any show becoming more prestigious than the UFC in the forseeable future.
The consequences of this might be meagre in terms of fighters heading elsewhere, or it could cause somewhat of an uprising. A long talked about union has been quashed time and time again before it can get off the ground, but is there now more impetus than ever as the options for the athlete get narrowed and squeezed down? Those who don't toe the line haven't always been looked upon fondly by the UFC so a movement such as that would take some risk, but who is willing to risk their livelihoods, and the paycheques that feed their kids? A job in fighting is never secure, especially in a cutthroat performance driven business, so guaranteed money is always welcome (guaranteed as long as you still have a contract that is).
The UFC knows that they hold the market on elite MMA, that’s why they could implement the infamous sponsorship tax. They know brands have stuck by fighters through the hard times in the beginning where returns were scarce. The payoff is when you get to the Octagon, but even that has taken a further dent. Of course it was limited by the aforementioned tax, but now it has been all but written off. You can still have your sponsors, but not for the fight, fight week, fight promos or anything official. There are no banners and no ad spots on clothing. There’s nothing other than the fighter’s social media outlets to promote them – as useful as that can be – but the big pay off is gone.
Who suffers? The smaller companies that support grassroots fighters, the bigger companies that have helped UFC fighters get by before now, and potentially the fighter (depending on the cost of sponsorship money he’ll lose compared to what he’ll gain from Reebok). Again, this isn’t information we know and every fighter will be different. It will no doubt work well for some and not so well for others. I know UFC fighters who haven’t had a single penny from “sponsorships” in the Octagon and they’d be glad to have a piece of the pie – any small piece is better than a free pair of shorts in the elite of MMA. There are others who have gone out of their way to market themselves in a smart manner and have accrued useful partners. They’ll lose out on their work, or at the very least have to create new and inventive ways to get them more exposure – none of which compares to the fight night in front of millions of eyeballs, and UFC promotional material.
On a domestic level, and that’s 99% of the MMA that goes on in the world outside of the UFC, will companies still see the benefit of getting involved if they can’t feature prominently at the end of it? Where’s the aspiration for them? It might wipe certain players out of the sponsorship game completely and that’s a blow to thousands of fighters who will never make the UFC. It makes the lower leagues somewhat less attractive too. Of course some don’t fight for money, just for the love, but the killer athletes are less likely to be attracted if it’s harder to provide for their families on the way up.
The guys that make little to nothing in sponsorship will be pleased they don’t have to beg, steal and borrow to make ends meet. A few grand a fight and a couple of fights a year could well go towards making a standard living wage available from the UFC. They win if that’s the case. They can focus more on fighting and not on haggling or selling themselves. As all workers have felt the pinch, so have fighters and sponsorships have been harder to come by. Maybe this will help alleviate one of those many pressures when you know exactly what you'll be coming out with post-fight, and when the funds will be available to you. Bob’s Builders might stick by you, and your local supplement company will still give you a tub of protein for free, and you’ll get that cash hitting your bank in ten days without fail.
People are quick to point out that GSP never wore Under Armour in the cage and did extremely well, and Ronda Rousey wears UFC branded gear but still has huge sponsorship deals. They’re hardly the typical example though, and that’s just not feasible for most fighters.
The UFC brass are not stupid. Dana states that all of the sponsorship money will go to the fighters (though the official line states ‘the vast majority’), and the UFC “won’t make a dime” on it. Maybe not on the money earmarked for sponsorship, but of course they’ll benefit in the long run. This is a high-level deal with one of the world's biggest brands; it adds more legitimacy to them by association. Reebok UFC clothing in every sports store, a cut of sales, and the constant bombardment of the UFC brand everywhere; this can and will grow their stock. If the fighters do get a fair shake of the stick when figures come out then there’s no reason why the UFC shouldn’t profit too. This is business after all.
To surmise, inbetween my first and last paragraphs I’ve written a whole bunch of words, all of them without knowing a single reliable number to attribute to a fighter’s income from the new deal. It could be great if the figures are way higher than we anticipate, but there are certainly still issues. It’s hard to see a deal reaching figures that will see the drip down to unranked guys as life changing, but I will happily stand corrected if that’s the case.
Reebok may well have the best interests of the progression of MMA at heart, and helping the fighters. They may go all out to provide for them and to help them build their own brands to have more success. Cynicism in big corporations leads me to think it might not be as personable as I’d hope – it’s not often you see what is effectively a monopoly err on the side of worker fairness – but I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Zuffa have moved MMA forward moreso than any other and evolution is always needed to progress. Change can be uncomfortable. We might look back and wonder what the hell we were worried about. Only time will tell.
Let me know what you think via www.twitter.com/JayFurnessMMA and www.facebook.com/JayFurnessMMA.