UFC Discretionary Bonuses and Revenue vs. Fighter Payouts

BOSTON - AUGUST 28: Marcus Davis fights against Nate Diaz during their UFC welterweight bout at the TD Garden on August 28 2010 in Boston Massachusetts. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

In the traditional stick-and-ball sports, the athletes make somewhere in the neighborhood of 55% of team revenues (it varies from sport to sport). We have no idea how much fighters take from the UFC pie because we don't know 1) what the hell Zuffa's financials look like (as a privately-held company) and 2) have no accurate grasp on fighter salaries due to discretionary bonuses that Dana White and co. like to hand out at events.

At the UFC 130 press conference, Dana discussed the bonuses with MMA Junkie:

"We're the only promoters, and we might be the only bosses in the history of the [expletive] world that pay guys more than what the deal is," White told MMAjunkie.com.
...
"There are different factors into why guys will get a discretionary bonus," White said. "There's never these deals made where it's like, 'OK, this what we're going to pay you on the contract, but then we'll cut you a discretionary bonus of this.'

"First of all, sometimes an event becomes bigger than we anticipated it to be. Sometimes there's more money involved than we budgeted or thought could happen. What do we do? We share with them.
...
"The other reason a guy might get a bonus is because me and (UFC co-owner) Lorenzo (Fertitta) are sick, insane fight fans, and we might be sitting there in our chairs, and when we jump up out of our [expletive] seat and start screaming, 'Holy [expletive],' we're writing that dude a check, no matter what."

White went as far as saying the bonuses are to the benefit of the fighter:

"When you're the guy that gets - and I'm just using this as an example, when you get a million-dollar bonus - let's say you get a million-dollar bonus. People come crawling out of the [expletive] woodwork, man. Every uncle, cousin, nephew, people you didn't know you were related to need money. Everybody comes asking you."

More quotes from White, and a look at the publicly-available UFC finances after the jump.

White, on why fighters don't talk about their bonus money:

None of you have ever done a story where guys come out and say, 'Yeah, here's what happened: I fought a great fight, I came out, and this was my bonus.' You know why? Because they don't want you to [expletive] know, and they don't want anyone else to know, either. That's their business, just like you guys wouldn't want what you make every year reported in the paper.

Every so often I take a look at the PPV and gate numbers versus the salaries reported to the athletic commissions. The numbers, not surprisingly, always tilt grossly in the UFC's favor. For instance, here are the numbers from the last 10 UFC PPVs in states that report salaries:

Card Total Payout Revenue Split
UFC 126 $1,605,000 $21,725,000 7.39%
UFC 125 $1,112,000 $8,924,780 12.46%
UFC 121 $1,793,000 $28,487,000 6.29%
UFC 118 $1,608,000 $17,050,000 9.43%
UFC 117 $1,329,000 $16,560,000 8.03%
UFC 116 $1,373,000 $33,053,990 4.15%
UFC 115 $1,619,000 $17,221,787 9.40%
UFC 114 $1,741,000 $30,145,000 5.78%
UFC 109 $1,184,000 $9,148,000 12.94%
UFC 108 $1,045,000 $9,469,670 11.04%
Total $14,409,000 $191,785,227 7.51%

Total Payout is the reported salaries to the commission plus announced bonus awards. Revenue is the gate receipt plus an estimated $25 for each PPV buy. All data from Wikipedia.

In addition to discretionary bonuses, we also do not know how much the UFC spends on marketing, PPV bonuses for main eventers (reliable data, in any case), production, and other expenditures. We also don't know how much they make from advertisements in the cage and on the PPV broadcast, merchandise sales, foreign TV deals, etc.

Let's play a thought experiment with the data we have. Take UFC 115, which is nearest the average of the ten shows. For the fighters to receive 55% of the revenue on that show, the UFC would have to award just under $9.5 million in bonuses. That's roughly $350,000 per fighter. Outside of Chuck Liddell ($500,000), no one on that show made more than $235,000 (Mirko Cro Cop, including win bonus and submission of the night).

Until Zuffa takes the company public (unlikely) or the fighters bargain collectively (unlikely) or someone leaks information (unlikely), we'll never have a firm idea at what the UFC's accounting looks like.

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