I've had a program ready to run for almost a week. It was ready to analyze the Reebok sponsorship deal the second we get concrete information on the dollar amounts for different sponsorship tiers. After months of waiting, and a change from ranking-based tiers to tenure-based tiers, today's the day we get a glimpse of what the UFC fight world might look like going forward.
We're going to do this by examining the recent past. What would fighters have earned from 2012-2014 had the current sponsorship structure been in place? It's not perfect. The Reebok payments might get inflated over time. Some Strikeforce prelims were not always captured by FightMetric so, for example, Adriano Martins and other former Strikeforce fighters could have numbers that are slightly off. But we should still be able to get a good glimpse at what's going on, all things considered.
Tenure tiers are based off a fighter's cumulative number of Zuffa bouts, including the one in which they're presently competing. Zuffa bouts include all UFC fights, WEC fights from Jan. 20, 2007 (WEC 25) and later and Strikeforce fights from Apr. 9, 2011 (Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley) and later. So, for example, Tyron Woodley fought in only his ninth Zuffa bout against Dong Hyun Kim at UFC Fight Night: Bisping vs. Le in Aug. 2014. Woodley's first six Strikeforce fights don't count on his Zuffa record.
Here's the official payment structure according to an image posted earlier in the day (now removed) by Cody Gibson:
We know certain champions and popular non-champions already have or will have side deals with Reebok. For those fighters, it seems likely to me that the numbers listed above would represent base compensation with an undisclosed amount subsequently added to it. In this respect, some results will be underestimates. By how much, we don't yet know.
In everything that follows, I use a fighter's cumulative number of Zuffa bouts, whether they are a title challenger and whether they are the current champion. Interim titleholders are treated as champions, but when they fight the actual champion I treat them as a title challenger. This only affected Carlos Condit's fight against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 154.
Let's start with annual and overall totals. Here's what UFC fighters as a whole would've earned in 2012, 2013, 2014 and for all three years combined.
Fighters would've earned from 4.6 - 5.6 million per year as a group over the past three years, and $15.5 million in total. If 2014 was an injury anomaly in terms of champions and big name fighters, we can scale up 2013's data to the 2014 number of fights and get $6.7 million. I don't like that estimate, though, because it probably doesn't accurately represent the amount of 1-5 bout fighters needed with the UFC's expansionary schedule from late-2013 on.
We can try to estimate 2015 by being generous and adding two cumulative bouts - the average fighter competes in around 1.7 fights per year - to each fighter's 2014 schedule and assume there are no new fighters and no old fighters get cut. When we do this, fighters are estimated to earn around $6.44 million in 2015.
How does the money flow through different sponsorship tiers? First let's look at the percent of UFC bouts in each sponsorship tier over the past three years.
Over half of UFC fights have involved a fighter with 1-5 bouts of Zuffa experience (a.k.a. the $2,500 range). Another way of looking at this is that only 22% of UFC fights have involved a fighter with 11 or more Zuffa bouts or Joe Soto-ing his way to a title shot.
Here's another way of looking at the distribution of fights.
One-third of UFC bouts involve a fighter making his UFC debut or second appearance in the Octagon. And it definitely isn't easy to reach high tiers. Over the past three years, only 6.7 percent of fighter-bouts were in the 16-20 bout tier or above (including title challengers and champions).
When we aggregate the money by tier, things look a little different.
Even though they make very little, the lowest tiered fighters earn the most money as a group since there are so many of them. By sponsorship tier, the money is spread relatively evenly - all things considered - except for the old fuddy-duddy, 21+ bout grinders who aren't fighting for the belt anymore. However, if side deals were incorporated, you can bet the right-most bar would shoot up.
I was going to break things down by weight class but didn't see much value in spending the time other than to show that young weight classes get hurt with this system - something we already know.
Which fighters would've made the most sponsorship money in this system? It's all about volume and tier status. Here's the Top 20 fighters over the past three years:
DJ, Rousey and Bendo are our volume and tier status champions. And two of DJ's 2012 bouts were against Ian McCall in the $5,000 tier. This leads to the Top 20 UFC fighters by average sponsor money per bout.
The rock-solid champs take this list. It also gets invaded by some one-time title challengers such as Joe Soto, Carla Esparza and "Thug" Rose Namajunas. If we get rid of many of these one-timers, what we're really looking at is many of the people with a good chance to have a side deal back in the day.
With a six-year $70 million sponsorship package in place, Reebok would have to pay fighters an average of $11.67 million per year. My numbers seem to come out much lower. There have been reports that these numbers are minimums because there might be other sponsors, but other sponsors aren't included in the reported Reebok numbers. Will the payment tiers be inflated over time? Will side deals with champions and popular non-champions cover the difference? We just don't know right now. This information represents inferences we can currently make using the past three years as a guide.
Want to go crazy and see what every fighter would've earned from 2012-2014 and in total? Go to town here with a massive table covering all UFC fighters.
Are you a UFC fighter? Did you earn more or less in real life than your hypothetical numbers? We'd really love to know.