MMA Fighter Pay Lags Behind Other Top Sports

November 15, 2023
3 months

There is no dispute that making money in combat sports isn’t solely based on talent. Fighters need to hit a chord with fight fans. Just having a mean right hook doesn’t mean the person throwing it is a compelling personality.

Unlike in team sports, where a built-in fan base supports the logo, fighting relies on fighters selling themselves. For mixed martial arts, a relative newcomer to the major sports scene, fighters are always scrapping for more.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou discovered how much he was valued after leaving the world’s top promotion. Ngannou had difficulty getting his asking price before finding a home with the Professional Fighters League. Even with the PFL, Ngannou’s first major money-making appearance will be in the boxing ring against Tyson Fury. Many fighters have to hold separate full-time jobs just to survive the early portions of their careers.

Anyone following major MMA breaking news will see the issue of fighting pay as a common squabbling point between fighters, media, promotions, and agents. Everyone always believes they should be paid more. Fighting organizations also have to try and look out for the bottom line to ensure they can be long-term sustainable.

How to walk that balance and make things fair for both sides will be something that people fight about as long as fighting exists.

UFC Pays Lower Share of Revenue to Athletes

There are many MMA organizations worldwide, but the UFC is the dean among them. The promotion is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season and has the highest profile of any organization. Since MMA fighters aren’t unionized, like nearly all athletes are in American team sports, they are at the mercy of the UFC for what they are paid.

Fortunately for people following MMA fights, the UFC is publicly traded under TKO Group Holdings Inc. TKO operates the UFC and the WWE. The nice thing about this is that the organization has to file financial statements to show where their money goes. Recent studies of the UFC’s finances show they only pay 16 to 20 percent of their revenue to the fights, whereas the NFL pays around 50 percent.

Here’s a look at some reported minimum salaries of players for major American sports leagues.

Minimum Salaries for Athletes by Sports League (Per season)
$720,000$1.12 million$750,000$750,000$12,000 (per fight)

How Does UFC Stack Up to Other Combat Sports Organizations

Comparing fighter pay for MMA stars to other sports isn’t fair. Team sports have a guaranteed amount of events and commitments that athletes must participate in. Fighters can fight in as many if cleared by state athletic commissions or as few fights as they would like in a year. That limits earning power.

Finding out information on how big organizations like Bellator, Pride, and the UFC pay fighters is difficult. Not all athletic commissions make the promotions disclose their purses. Recent contracts released from ONE Championship showed that some fighters were paid as little as $1,500 to show and $1,500 to win. 

Bellator has also tried to include local fighters on their cards that aren’t signed to the promotion for a multiple-fight deal. While some of these fighters earn a spot later, many only get paid a few hundred dollars and may not fight again. 

Promoters May Take Care of Fighters Behind the Scenes

Some fighters, like Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, are on the record saying that sometimes the purses that are disclosed aren’t accurate. Bader says that Bellator took care of him beyond the $150,000 he made that was announced for his fight with Fedor Emelianenko. Many promotions, like the UFC, will offer fighters bonuses for having the fight of the night or having the most exciting finish to their fight.

In the UFC, they give out $50,000 bonuses. For a short time, the UFC was also involved in a partnership voted on by the fans to get fighters a bonus paid in crypto, but that quickly fell to the wayside as crypto scandals erupted.

Where Does Fighter Pay Go From Here?

Many fighters complained about their money-making opportunities declining as the sport became more commercialized. When the UFC started, fighters were allowed to sell their sponsorships for their fight trunks and make money off those. However, the UFC decided to work with a company to design a uniform look that all athletes must wear.

While the UFC initially promised that the apparel company would compensate each fighter, the actual amount of money received varied by fighter. Many of these companies also consider fighters independent contractors, meaning they don’t have to pay for health care or other travel, but also make the contracts exclusive.

Any fighter signed to a particular brand can only compete in that brand. They aren’t allowed to compete in any other competitions due to their contracts.

Will Fighters Ever Form Union?

Many MMA news websites have been stumping for a union for fighters for many years. A pending class action lawsuit against the UFC highlighted some of its questionable practices with fighter pay and contracts. That lawsuit is unlikely to force major changes.

Fighters coming together to form a union is an idea that has been tried before. In 2016, many high-profile fighters attempted to start the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association. Georges St-Pierre, T.J. Dillashaw, and Cain Velasquez were all involved. However, the effort quickly tapered out.

Some fighters have been advocating for a change to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000 to help it include a broader range of athletes. The Ali Expansion Act does not have MMA fighters at the moment. Any sort of expanded rights would greatly help the fighters in their quest for better pay and benefits.

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