The Best MMA Writing of 2013: Jonathan Snowden illuminates the truth about UFC contracts

Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting

The Best MMA Writing of 2013 puts the spotlight on Jonathan Snowden over at Bleacher Report who was able to talk to the UFC brass and Lorenzo Fertitta about UFC fighter contracts and the pay structure.

One of the most contentious issues in MMA has always been the issue of fighter pay. If someone who flips burgers for a living can assemble the gravitas to strike against his/her master, then why not a collection of individuals who can what do what Mortal Kombat characters are capable of (well...except these)?

The hardest part about discussing fighter pay is that we've never had access to the kind of information that would lend itself to a full tilt discourse boogie.

We catch vivid glimpses every now and then. In fact one of the bigger stories earlier this year was John Cholish, who explicitly criticized fighter pay; a criticism that captured Dana's inevitable outrage. The expenses of training, pre-fight medicals, and travel expenses are enough to exceed show money, so just what exactly are fighters getting paid?

Dana threatened to take away the famous discretionary bonuses following the public discussion. Needless to say, the contracts from which these issues arise has typically been shrouded in mystery.

Enter Jonathan Snowden. For BE readers who don't read Bleacher Report, you may remember Snowden as a bit of a rabble rouser. More devil's autocrat than advocate, he could always be relied upon for an honest, and often brazen opinion.

But he's also always done and continues to do exemplary work. Especially this year (no matter what sport). And especially on this topic.

Getting information straight from the source is a big deal, even for the cynics. In talking to Lorenzo Fertitta, Snowden gets Lorenzo to start out with one of the crucial distinctions that prevents the UFC from paying fighters major league money (that of promoter and producer):

"First and foremost, we absorb 100 percent of all production and marketing costs associated with the event. The NFL gets a license fee from Fox. Even boxing gets a licensing fee from HBO. Those media entities then roll in and operate the entire production. They do all of the marketing. So those expenses are not borne upon the actual league or entity. In our case, we televise the entire card. There's over a thousand people who get paychecks when we do these events."

Is this enough to justify general pay? Or the terms of the contracts themselves? For some people the first two articles of the contract with respect to ancillary rights might jump out as too sweeping. Other than Nick Diaz fans, article III of the contract is fairly reasonable in asking fighters to cooperate in promoting events. Other elements of the contract are where I suspect the discussion will be as intense as ever.

For example, a fighter's pay rate will increase over time, but only if they're winning. Article VII with respect to 'Incidentals' looks to be what inspired Cholish to fret over his out of pocket costs (since the UFC does not cover more than two people when it comes to travel, which is often unrealistic for fighters who expect to have more than one person in their corner). Then there's article X. Despite a fighter agreeing to a six fight contract, six fights aren't guaranteed if you lose a bout (even just one). Northwestern University labor law professor Zev Eigen does not mince words in response:

The term unilaterally benefits the employer with no reciprocal benefit to the fighter. It's completely one-sided, completely unfair and seems to suggest that any term is a material term for purposes of the employer. Every breach could be a material breach for the fighter, but nothing is for the UFC.

Despite these revelations, don't expect the issue to fade. The discussion about a fighter union is one John Nash did an excellent job of summarizing, concluding that an association among fighters would be their option given their status as independent contractors.

In reaching out to Snowden, he was kind enough to provide a postscript:

"I was really pleased that the UFC decided to participate in this story. My goal was to present the reader with all the pertinent information, as well as an explanation of what it all meant from experts with various perspectives. The UFC's involvement was crucial to making that a reality. The promotion's willingness to discuss its contract and the rationales behind various clauses really changed the tone of the article in a good way.

Before this, all we could do was speculate about the current business relationship between the UFC and its fighters. Now, when journalists and fans want to discuss the business of fighting, we are armed with a little bit more information than we had before. I'm glad to have had a hand in helping further the conversation."

For the entire piece click here.

You can reach Jonathan Snowden @mmaencyclopedia.

For the previous installment, click here for the incredible Charlie Rowan story.

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