Well for better or worse 2011 has been the year when the entire sport finally came to revolve around Zuffa. Sure it has seemed inevitable for years now but with JMMA’s woes and Strikeforce coming into the fold even the pretense of a war is pretty much over. So what now? We hear all sorts of huge vague plans and outrageous predictions out of Dana and company but we aren't privy to the specifics that go on behind closed doors. It's the weekend and I am stuck away from home bored so I figured why not toss some ideas against the board and see what sticks. So off into the fantasy world of "what would I do if I was Dana White?" Yes it's rambling and long winded but then if you are going to fan book an industry you might as well go for broke I guess. Feel free to add to, comment on or just make fun of the whole thing as I plan on blowing an entire Saturday on four issues I see here(split into three parts).
1. Head off the union talk at the pass.
So a side effect of MMA being an all Zuffa world is that the fighters don’t have the leverage in contract negotiations that they had before. Sure if your Dana White it’s great to be in this kind of situation but this is a path that ends in a revolt. Unhappy employees either leave or organize and when you are talking about this kind of situation leaving ends up as leaving the sport altogether. Well Zuffa can't have guys giving up the sport and I doubt they want to see guys banding together in revolt against the system so the greatness of their contract situation short term will eventually push them up against the wall. Before that kind of talk even gets started it’s time to head the situation off at the pass. Happy employees don't unionize, thus it's up to Zuffa to find a way to keep these guys happy (or at least keep the guys that mean something to the company happy). Locker room bonuses have worked great so far but paying fighters a backstage bribe to be pro-company isn't going to work all that well once the sport gets big enough to pick up major media attention (and major media's need for interesting and controversial stories). Sure they can just up fighter pay but lets face it no one is ever happy with their pay, no matter what it is in the end people end up thinking they deserve more. Just look at the NBA and NFL, they are paying vast amounts of money to players but the leagues are still in turmoil. The old adage "money can't buy happiness" exist for a reason.
So what would I do? Well if the goal is to keep fighters happy and content the first move I'd make is the one Zuffa just did, year round insurance. Great move on their part not just from the stand point of making guys happy but also it starts to separate them from the WWE business model and the well documented problems it has. It shows a legitimacy for the business of MMA that the business of pro wrestling just doesn't have. It's also one of the things that workers form unions to get.
Second you need to either ensure you get everyone plenty of fights offered or you need to change the way guys are paid. What would I do? Guarantee fights/pay as part of the contract. Put in there that a fighter is guaranteed to either get offered at least two fights a year and if he isn't then he will get paid for that fight regardless. Barring serious injury (something they just covered with the insurance deal) that would guarantee guys a yearly income level. Guys would know that they would at least get two paydays a year every year they are under contract. The out for the UFC is that I would make sure it’s worded as fight offers as opposed to actual fights (that way guys who turn down fights can't work the system). It gives the fighters an income guarantee and some peace of mind but also gives the matchmakers leverage in making the fights they think need to be made.
Third, standardize fighter pay. Set a minimum for fighter pay and make sure that your minimum is a livable wage. Lots of guys get fights on under cards that are as much job interviews as they are actually getting the contract so have the minimum kick in at say the third fight. By the third fight they generally know if they want to keep a guy long term or not so it would be a good point to make a big deal about full time pay. Set another minimum level for veteran pay at say 10 UFC fights. Sure there will be some guys making quite a bit more than this minimum level but that would give them a measure of personal importance too. A guy making 10 times the veteran minimum would be shown that the UFC thinks he ten times more valuable to the company that an average veteran fighter. By setting the scale you can also gain a measure of control of pay expectations. Add on to this I would also set up a guaranteed title bonus and bring that out of the locker room and into the light of day. A guy fighting for a belt would know in advance how much extra he would earn as would a fighter holding the belt. Sure for a lot of the big names it would be a token move by comparison (particularly for guys with ppv percentages) but for lower level guys it would be set out there as a financial potential milestone for the future. It's a public measure of upward mobility paying off.
Fourth, I would also go ahead and start preparing the framework for a fighter organization on company terms and use it as another benefit of employment. Instead of an adversarial organization set it up as a sister organization that takes care of the fighters. Something functionally separate from Zuffa but done on Zuffa’s terms. Offer up third party mediation of disagreements with the company and offer legal advice/representation for fighters dealing with issues outside of their Zuffa contract (such as problems with sponsors or issues with managers or even things not related to fighting at all like helping guys with personal legal issues). Run financial advice and management services through this too (particularly saving for retirement services). You could frame it as something they pay dues for and even kick in that Zuffa matches the dues they pay for the services. If you offer it up as a Zuffa perk why would guys join up to create their own adversarial organization? Heck having fighters actually come to Zuffa for legal advice would be a win/win even if the cost of the services was significant to the company.
Look prize fighting is never going to be what we think of as a true career, it's something that young guys do till their bodies give out on them(if they are good enough at it to even last that long). Still a company wanting to run the way Zuffa is wanting to run needs to make sure the fighters are on the same side with them and are content with what they are getting. No matter what they do they will never make them all happy but as long as they all aren't angry with the system the system can survive.