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The Economics of MMA: Fight Night and the Sponsorship Game

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via WEC. Popular fighter Miguel Torres is Sold Out, head to toe.
via WEC. Popular fighter Miguel Torres is Sold Out, head to toe.

Welcome to a series of stories focusing on the business side of MMA. We all love MMA action, the vicarious thrill of men and women doing battle. But the action behind the scenes is almost as fast and furious as anything that happens in the cage. We'll look at the backroom bonus, contract negotiations, and the pay per view bonus later this week. First, in the wake of the Matt Mitrione scandal, let's explore the revenue possibilities of sponsors.

When you're a fighter, everything is for sale. Whether it's a patch on your crotch or the shirt on your back, every piece of visible real estate has value for a fighter who is about to appear on television. The agent's job is to fill that space, maximizing income and building relationships for the future.

How much a fighter is worth to MMA apparel companies and other sponsors varies wildly. A popular fan favorite main event level fighter may make more than $100,000 every time he steps into the Octagon. Top fighters often have a yearly deal with a company like Tapout or Bad Boy, some that even pay them six figures annually. Big stars can also clear $10,000 per appearance in a night club or at a car dealership. The top deals are negotiated by a handful of managers/agents, notably Dean Albrecht (Quinton Jackson, Frank Mir, Miguel Torres, Demian Maia, Joe Stevenson), Robert Roveta (Denaro Sports) and DeWayne Zinkin (Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, AKA).

Main eventers without that kind of fanbase are likely to pocket $10,000 or less from their t-shirt sponsors. That number shrinks significantly as you move down the fight card. When you reach the untelevised undercard, many fighters are lucky to get $1,000, and are often paid by getting free gear and other perks from their sponsors.

For a fighter with guaranteed television exposure, income possibilities often depend on who your agent is. Many fighters, even big names, miss out on opportunities because they use family, friends from the gym, or unscrupulous young agents who don't know the game as well as old hands. One mid level fighter saw his sponsorship money jump from just over $5,000 to more than $40,000 when he switched management.

"It's not what you're worth," one prominent agent said. "It's what you can negotiate."

Each agent has a different approach. Some build brand loyalty and their fighters become closely associated with a particular company. Others, most prominently Chuck Liddell and Zinkin, negotiate everything on a fight by fight basis. While it's easy to pick out Liddell's iconic mohawk, it's harder to remember his t-shirts. Unlike athletes of his caliber in other sports, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods with Nike, Liddell isn't associated with any brand. While per fight payouts may have been maximized, his success might have been at the expense of a long term relationship.

The main pieces of potentially lucrative real estate on a fighter's body are the t-shirt and the shorts. The T-shirt deal varies dramatically. Apparel companies want to see their brand and their product on television. That's why Matt Mitrione, who recently complained about receiving only $5000 in sponsorship revenue for his UFC 119 fight with Joey Beltran, wasn't in the best position to maximize income.

"He was on SPIKE TV," an MMA agent with several UFC clients told me. "While that's great exposure, it often doesn't come with a walkout. The fighters are usually shown for the first time in the cage. That's a harder sell."

A televised walk in to the arena, literally minutes of free advertising to a captive audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers, can increase t-shirt revenue for a televised fighter who isn't yet a star from $1,500 or $3,000 all the way up to $10,000. For sponsors, television time is critical. It's why you see fighters scrambling to put their t-shirts on after the fight. Several times fighters interviewed in the cage after a win by Joe Rogan have forgotten to put on all their gear. The result is the loss of thousands of dollars when penalties in your contract are invoked by a furious sponsor.

Fight shorts aren't a commercial product that companies are able to sell to the general public. What they are is a billboard for advertising that could appear in front of a television audience for up to 25 minutes. Short space is sold in four pieces: the crotch, the butt, and both thighs. The top agents have been able to score more than $30,000 per patch, but that's rare. For a television fighter who isn't a major star, the crotch and butt space are worth from $500-$2,000. Each thigh ranges from $250-1,500. Savvy agents can sell these spaces at a premium if they pitch it right.

"I represent one guy who is a great wrestler," an agent told me in confidence. "When I sell the space on his butt I tell the company 'Look, his ass is going to be in America's face for 15 minutes while he pounds on this guy.' That's incredibly valuable space."

Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and the upcoming The MMA Encyclopedia. Follow him on Twitter and right here at Bloody Elbow.