Promoted to the Front Page by Anton Tabuena.
Kid Nate recently rewarded Bloody Elbow readers with an informative post laying out MMA's current promotional situation. A lot of ground was covered, several different voices highlighted. In the short-term, I believe Nate is right in hypothesizing that the obstacles hindering Strikeforce and DREAM ultimately leave fighters with fewer options and, thus, less leverage in contract negotiations with everyone's favorite 800-pound gorilla, Zuffa. To illustrate this point further, let's go back in time a bit and channel Mike Fagan. To wit:
The comparison of MMA to stick-and-ball sports is always a tenuous one, and this topic is no different. An argument could be made that the talent that makes up the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL benefited from the structure and sustainability of one monolithic organization than the fractured talent pools of an alternative universe. However, the spectacular rise in player salaries, while correlated with the success of the respective organization, would not have been possible without the emergence of powerful unions, who established a pseudo-market on the basis of a player's right to free agency.
Individual sports like tennis, golf, and bowling offer no better comparison either. Athletes don't sign contracts to play for the ATP or the PGA; they become members of the tour and compete for predetermined prize pools. And even that didn't stop tennis players from wrestling control of the world tour from directors in 1988.
When it comes to collective bargaining, to the chagrin of Mr. Amadi, pro wrestling provides the best, if imperfect, comparison. Vince McMahon has thwarted the unionization of wrestlers since the 80's with a very simple strategy: keep the top names happy. Hulk Hogan wasn't just the top star in pro wrestling for a decade. He became McMahon's de facto strikebreaker.
Fagan hits on something at the end of the above excerpt that many MMA fans hate to acknowledge, and that is the obvious structural similarities between this sport and professional wrestling. In my mind, those similarities are undeniable. However, the comparison breaks down somewhat due to the obvious fact that one is a true sport and one is scripted sports entertainment. Yes, Hulk Hogan could be deployed as Vince McMahon's "de facto strikebreaker," but McMahon didn't have to worry about Hogan being jettisoned from the top of the professional wrestling mountain as long as he had complete control over the narrative. In other words, Hogan's charisma was his own, but his standing was never in doubt.
Dana White can build a fighter up with his vast resources or choose to freeze out another. What he can't do is insure that a fighter stay on top from a competitive standpoint. The Zuffa brass has far less power than does Vince McMahon due to the fact that a coveted fighter can be beaten any time he steps in the octagon. The UFC always must be on the lookout for better, up-and-coming fighters in order to keep their standing as the top MMA organization in the world. The need to continually bolster the roster with top talent places upward pressure on fighter wages, union or not. Furthermore, the power can't be concentrated seemingly forever with just a few top stars. Turnover at the top of the MMA world has proven to be pretty quick. With that in mind, I just don't buy that the UFC can shell out big money to a few and effectively keep the majority of fighters' pay at a artificially low levels.It would be great for the fighters if pay increased across the board at a break-neck rate for the foreseeable future. The fact is, however, that that is not a sustainable situation. A true winner among the competing MMA organizations will likely emerge, and it appears that the UFC is practically there. This is the case with the "stick and ball sports" and even professional wrestling. MMA fans and pundits should not bemoan UFC dominance, but realize that it's the next step in the process of growth. American sports fans generally want the top competitors together under one roof so they can determine who is the best of the best. That's why the NFL dominates football; that's why all other major sports are lead by one body. The notion that a truly dominant organization has more leverage in negotiations with networks and sponsors than does an organization with close competitors is of great value to the sport in question.
Has CBS control of Saturday Night Fights really been beneficial to the growth of MMA? Has their "neutral" team of commentators and producers elevated the perceived integrity of the sport? If Strikeforce or EliteXC would have had more power, they might have had better quality control over their product. Actually, the common predicament for the aforementioned promotions on CBS was a product of lack of bargaining power. The sport of MMA really needs a proven player, not one desperate to grow or even survive, to present a quality product to a larger viewing public.
When talking of MMA competition, the focus is usually on competition as it relates to short-term demand for fighters. Obviously, if there are more promotions with TV time to fill, demand for fighter services will drive up fighter pay in the short run. If these promotions can't, however, put forth a profitable product, then the long-term prospects for fighters aren't so wonderful.
But there is another level of competition that we really haven't discussed thoroughly, and I believe it to be of paramount importance. That's competition between like products. For MMA to be successful in North America over the long run, the flagship product must be perceived to be on par with that of other sports. As stated above, sports fans want to know that they're watching the best mixed martial artists competing for titles, just like they know that the best basketball players in the world are playing for championships in the NBA. The real fight isn't between Strikeforce and the UFC or DREAM and the UFC. The real fight is among all sporting products (pro wrestling included) for the coveted attention of the public and, ultimately, the public's closely guarded disposable income. Allen Barra boiled this last point down succinctly, though somewhat harshly, a little less than a year ago in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Baseball analyst Bill James once wrote: "One of the unwritten laws of economics is that it is impossible, truly impossible, to prevent the values of society from manifesting themselves in dollars and cents. This is, ultimately, the reason why athletes are paid so much money." The reason, Mr. James argued, that ballplayers make so much and medical researchers so relatively little is that, "[W]e are, as a nation, far more interested in having good baseball teams than we are in finding a cure for cancer." He might have added that the principle applies as well to pop icons and movie stars.
It isn't some vague indefinable "they" who pays the players. It really isn't even the owners. It's you, or rather, it's us. If we put our money where our mouths are and support cancer, AIDS or Down syndrome research and then buy our tickets with what's left over, athletes and rock stars will actually be paid what we pretend they should be paid.