I've talked about this before ( here, here, here and here) with most folks dismissing out of hand this issue as a pertinent concern. In the wake of Josh Gross' piece outlining the potential problems with the UFC's new merchandising agreement comes an excellent piece in Sherdog today expanding on those concerns. However, the article also does a nice job of playing devil's advocate on behalf of the UFC's perspective. To wit:
"You have to look at the UFC as a unified business," said Burstein, who has represented Oscar De La Hoya and Lennox Lewis, among others. "All of the fighters are employees of the UFC. It's not unusual in the intellectual property area that, an employer gives you a career, and without them, you wouldn't be able to sell shoes. You're (also) dealing with something extraordinarily successful over a short time. As there is (promotional) competition, superstars could develop their own deals. I don't think it's too far over the edge. This is not boxing promotion."
This is actually a very fair point and one I often fail to give proper attention. In the world of MMA, there is no marketing and exposure equivalent to the UFC machine. Their reach into the mainstream and key demographics is unparallaled, which should give them tremendous bargaining power and leverage when negotiating deals such as this.
On the other hand, though, is the simple question: what if a fighter is no longer an employee of the UFC? The issue of taking your likeness and rights with you when you leave seems paramount in my mind and a relevant concern to all but the Chuck Liddell's and Anderson Silva's of the world. Notable quote:
A manager for several UFC fighters said that he was "blown away" by the language in the contract. Ranging from the perceived language of Zuffa getting merchandising rights in perpetuity, to lack of revenue auditing rights to ensure royalties are fully paid, he was also concerned about potential gray areas of the agreement. Particularly, if a fighter leaves the UFC, the agreement could severely limit his ability to make money through the numerous endorsement opportunities that have become a dependable revenue stream in addition to fight purses.
"Say a guy becomes an actor. Imagine if he decided to not fight anymore," said the manager. "Now the UFC owns the rights to him and his autobiography. The UFC keeps sending out emails, warm fuzzies, saying ‘Wow, so-and-so just signed this big deal with us. If you don't get on this boat, you'll miss it.' (UFC President) Dana White is the master of this."
I would contend this has to be the line between acceptable and unacceptable for most. While I find the notion of making "The Ultimate Fighter" participants signing this agreement quite unethical, one also has to place the onus on the fighter to be responsible for being cognizant of the terms of agreements they are entering. What I object to more openly is the bail and chain the UFC is trying to attach to the heels of fighters who may not always call the UFC home. Insofar as fighters are employees of the UFC, I push responsibility to them and their management to sign the appropriate deal. But I cannot see, except in very specific cases, any ethical reason for holding onto these rights once the fighter no longer has a formal promotional relationship with the UFC in favor of another organization. Let's hope cooler heads prevail.