Combating the UFC Monopoly: Tennis As a Model for Organizing Fighters

A successful player association puts tennis in the spotlight for fans who want to understand how collective action can succeed in MMA.(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Now that the sport of mixed martial arts, at the highest level, is run by a single business entity controlling almost every top fighter in the industry, there has been renewed interest in a Fighter's Union. No one is exactly sure what such a Union would look like, or with fighters considered independent contractors by contract, whether a Union is even possible in today's pro business environment. While pundits turn to baseball, football, and other successful collective bargaining powerhouses in the sports world, the true analogous institutions are as far removed from the cage as you can possibly imagine. Don your white sweater and a pair of Nikes and join me at the country club for a brief history of tennis.

For years tennis was an anachronism. Played at the highest level mostly by wealthy folk, professionals were considered gauche. Until 1968 you weren't even allowed to compete at major tournaments like Wimbledon unless you retained your amateur status. But once money got involved, these wealthier and more sophisticated athletes weren't willing to prop up their business partners, doing all of the real work for a fraction of the revenue. By 1972, the top players were fed up, meeting secretly in a stairwell to discuss their futures.

The Association of Tennis Professionals was the result of that furtive discussion. Run by Jack Kramer and Cliff Drysdale, the group charged players $400 to join. The two men removed whim from the process of organizing tennis tournaments, creating a computer ranking system that dictated who the top players in the world were and matched them accordingly.

Together with tournament directors (essentially the promoters of various events around the world) and the International Tennis Federation (the staid older generation that ran Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam tournaments) the players helped control their own destiny for 15 years. But even that was not enough.

By 1988, players were feeling used and abused. The game didn't make sense to them, an endless parade of events that signified nothing. They were overworked, exhausted, and not being used appropriately. Led by the number one player in the world Mats Wilander, the men took their own futures into their hands (led by Billy Jean King, women had taken similar steps more than a decade earlier after King was paid 1/6 what her male counterpart earned for winning the Italian Open). They hired former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan to help guide them forward. The New York Times explained:

The A.T.P. is primarily concerned with securing more work and better pay for more players. The I.T.F., the corporate voice of the national tennis associations, is primarily concerned with the rules of play and the worldwide promotion of tennis. A third force consists of agents and entrepreneurs who promote independent professional events as a segment of the entertainment industry.

The men have been slower than the women to learn an obvious lesson: You cannot promote big tournaments without big names -the kind of players who produce the best tennis, sell tickets and attract media coverage and sponsors.

The players decided they were capable of promoting their own tour, creating the ATP Tour in 1990. The key to this successful usurpation of power was unity. Eighty five of the top 100 players signed a letter supporting the Association. Eight of the top 10 players put their money where their mouth was, signing a contract to play with the new group. It wasn't a pretty parting. When Hamilton Jordan asked for a conference room to announce the players' decision to the press, the United States Tennis Association declined. The ATP Tour held their inaugural press conference in a parking lot at the U.S. Open.

The similarities between MMA and tennis are staggering. Like in tennis, stars matter in MMA. They draw the eyeballs and the attention. Like in MMA, tennis players tend to fluctuate through the game quickly. At the bottom part of the top 100 there is a near constant turnover as players try and fail to make it to the top. Like tennis, MMA could benefit from an impartial system of matchmaking to determine, objectively, who is the best in the world.

Like tennis players, MMA fighters hold their futures in their own hands. They can play a major role in deciding how the sport will look going forward and earn a substantially higher share of the revenues. They can demand and receive health care, training expenses, and the other perks that make it possible to compete at their best. All it takes is collective action, temerity, and will. Do fighters have balls as big as tennis players? It will be interesting to see.


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