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Opinion: UFC fighters have a looming problem with Reebok

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While numerous articles have already been written about the money almost all fighters seem to stand to lose through the UFC's Reebok deal, there are other long term problems on the horizon as well.

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There are several aspects at play that make the UFC's new Reebok deal a fairly unpopular idea with many fighters and media members. Most obviously and importantly, fighters stand to lose a large amount of money, right off the bat. Whether the UFC underestimated the sponsorship market, or whether they see the reported disparity as a necessary evil in the long term goal of making fighters less financially independent from the Zuffa umbrella while eroding the power of MMA managers (which is the direct business fallout from the Reebok deal), Reebok seems to be hitting fighters fast and hard, right in the pocket.

That is the obvious problem, the problem we know about, the problem that needs solving quickly. However, there may be a bigger problem lurking down the road for fighters in the UFC and their ability to gain financial success under the Reebok tier system. Sara McMann has recently brought up the idea that the new Reebok structure is unfair to women, as it places undue weight on Zuffa experience which means no women qualify for the upper tier sponsorship levels, yet. In reality (at least in the way she's presenting it), it's a problem of divisional youth, one that should go away given a long enough time frame in which to operate (potentially, unfortunately, longer than 6 years).

While women's bantamweight and strawweight are extreme cases, men's flyweight is under a similar problem, as only three fighters have more than 10 fights, meaning practically everyone in those divisions will be making $5,000 or less. Like I said, that's a problem that could go away in time. But a secondary problem, and one equally related to those divisions won't be solved by months or years, as it's a problem with the UFC's fight booking structure itself.

Crunching just a few numbers shows what the eye could guess in an instant: The UFC books fighters in between featherweight and middleweight at a higher rate than the rest of their divisions. Over the first six months of 2015 (including the 4 fully booked events yet to take place) the UFC has put on 152 fights for their approximately 324 featherweight to middleweight fighters. Or, a "booking ratio" (as I'm calling it) of 46%. Essentially, almost everyone in those divisions has gotten a chance to fight at least once (152 fights potentially involving 304 fighters). On the flip side, All the other divisions above and below were booked for just 78 fights, covering the approximate 219 fighters who fight there, or a booking ratio of 35% (78 fights potentially involving 156 fighters).

There's no reason that the 145-185lb fighters shouldn't be getting more fights overall, after all there's more of them. But the fact that they get booked at a higher rate means that they also get more opportunities to climb the sponsorship tiers. To put it another way, while the 219 fighters at light heavyweight and above and bantamweight and below make up 40% of the roster, they only get booked for 33% of the fights.

Interestingly, this really dovetails nicely back into Sara McMann's argument about this being a bad deal for women. Arguably, men fighting above 185 or below 145 could always go up or down in weight if they wanted to get booked more often. Women fighters, however, are pretty much stuck where they are. The large divide between 115 and 135 means it's even going to be difficult for most of them to switch between their own divisions (as it appears 115 is getting booked more often than 135), putting aside the idea of getting in to the prime filler weight classes the UFC uses to fill out most of its cards. That's the kind of long term problem that could leave the Reebok pay scale permanently skewed if it's not addressed.

One interesting point to note is just as much a part of Zuffa business-as-usual as their uneven fight bookings, it's the rate at which they cut fighters. Only 32% of the last 75 fighters released from the UFC (numbers from UFCFIGHTERSiNFO) came from outside the 145-185lb divisions. So while those fighters make up 40% of the roster, they make up a fair bit less than 40% of the fighters released. Even some fighters with losing records in those lower & higher divisions tend to get a longer time frame on which to get more fights. How exactly that evens out financially for them, however, is hard to tell. The basic math appears to support the idea that fighters get cut at about the same regularity with which they get booked. So, even though bantamweights might last longer than lightweights, they get the same number of fights before they get released, those fights just happen less often. That's not much of a bandage for the wound of lower sponsorship pay.

The only real solution I can see is one I've been advocating since the idea of Reebok tiers were first announced. Essentially the tiers should be established relative to the division. Thus having 6 fights at women's bantamweight would be worth more than 6 fights at men's lightweight. Those numbers would change as divisions became more experienced, eventually evening most of them out, but it'd be a way to stop early pay inequity. And it would solve the long term problem of some divisions not getting booked at regular intervals. If your division is stagnant, you'd be able to make bigger sponsorship jumps with each fight than a similarly experienced fighter in a more active division. Hopefully that, or something similar to it, is getting kicked around in the UFC offices, or they stand to have more than a third of their roster stuck in the slow lane to better pay.