The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 has come out with guns blazing over the last few months. They successfully lobbied to keep regulated, professional MMA out of New York this year when many people thought it was a done deal once Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges. Along with the Teamsters, they started a campaign to organize UFC fighters. And now they're going after UFC wage inequality.
In an effort to promote the movement to organize fighters, the Culinary Union has started a website called Fighters' Agenda containing posts supportive of the unionization cause. The most recent post titled "Women Fight Cheaper" claims female UFC fighters are "paid less in base salary when compared to male fighters." It goes on to note that female UFC fighters earn 61% as much as their male peers and only 41% when Ronda Rousey's excluded from the analysis, far below the national average of 82% according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics.
From the Inside: A look at Reebok fighter pay
On the heels of the announcement of Zuffa's Athlete Outfitting Policy compensation structure, UFC Middleweight Josh Samman takes a look at the numbers and what to make of them.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone, myself included, who doesn't think female UFC fighters got the short end of the stick with the new Reebok sponsorship deal. But does the UFC also gender discriminate on base fighter pay to tune of 40-60% as the Culinary Union suggests? This would be massive, if true.
Luckily, just as they can analyze data, we can too. They examine all UFC events in Las Vegas from Nov. 16, 2012 (UFC 154) through Jan. 3, 2015 (UFC 182) for a total of 18 events. I'm not a fan of their chosen start date as the first women's UFC bout didn't take place until Feb. 23, 2013 at UFC 157 when Ronda Rousey survived a brief scare and went on to armbar Liz Carmouche.
My dataset includes every UFC event in which I have fighter salary info from UFC 157 through the TUF 21 Finale this past July. It includes 18 Nevada events and nine from other states for a total of 27 events containing 568 male fighter-bouts and 52 female fighter-bouts.
If we do a basic calculation of average show money, female UFC fighters earn $15,442 while male fighters make $39,088. But anyone who follows MMA knows that pay depends on how much a fighter's fought, how much they've won, how popular they are and if they've had a chance to negotiate a new deal past their first contract. Popularity is hard to measure but one way to at least attempt to control for the other factors is to break out the data by the total number of bouts a fighter's had.
The chart below shows the distribution of male and female UFC fights during the sample period with total fights calculated using all UFC, WEC and Strikeforce events in FightMetric's database.
Does anything stand out to you? Anything at all? Yes, 52% of female fighter-bouts during the sample period have been promotional debuts. 77% of the time a female has entered the UFC Octagon, she's had four total fights or fewer. By contrast, 77% of the time a male has entered the UFC Octagon, he's had 13 total fights or fewer.
The next chart presents the average show money for male and female fighters broken out by total fights. It should be pretty clear now where the $39,088 and $15,442 numbers come from.
To better compare apples-to-apples, let's condense the chart to the 13 total fights where men and women overlap.
How does salary inequality look now? Remember that the majority of female fighter-bouts are in the 1-4 total fight range. Even this chart can be a little misleading as everything to the right of the black bar has two female observations or fewer.
In a final attempt to compare apples-to-apples, we can remove title fights and pay-per-view headliners since those are the bouts where pay-per-view points are more likely to come into play and show money would be less representative of a fighter's true salary. This excludes all Ronda Rousey fights. We'll also remove Eddie Alvarez's anomalous debut at UFC 178 where he earned $100,000 to show when the vast majority of fighters start at $8,000.
Again, everything to the right of the black bar has two female observations or fewer so, for statistical purposes, attention should be focused to the left.
Do female UFC fighters earn 40-60% less than their male counterparts? Of course they don't. Anyone doing unbiased analysis knows there hasn't been enough time to see how women end up getting paid. In the final chart, over 80% of the time women have entered the Octagon they've had three total fights or fewer which means they're highly likely to be on their standard, base contract - essentially the same one men get. The real test will come a few years from now once our kick-ass female fighters have had enough time to negotiate beyond their first contract.
We can't say how much female UFC fighters would currently be earning in sponsorship money if there were no fighter uniforms. It certainly appears that most of them have gotten a raw deal in the near term with the Reebok sponsorship agreement. But when it comes to show money, does the UFC engage in gender discrimination? As of today, the empirical evidence suggests that the Culinary Union's position has been weighed, has been measured and has been found wanting.