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Coronavirus pandemic sheds light on Endeavor’s mismanagement of UFC cash flow

Karim Zidan delves into the UFC’s reckless defiance of the coronavirus pandemic and how it is likely linked to Endeavor’s underlying financial woes. 

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After attempting to defy local government consensus and advice regarding the 2019 novel coronavirus — known as COVID-19 — amid a global pandemic, the UFC has finally taken the decision to postpone three of its upcoming shows, the last of which was scheduled to take place on April 11, 2020.

UFC President Dana White informed his staff on Monday afternoon through email that the promotion had every intention of moving forward with the planned shows but that the White House’s recommendation on Tuesday to stop gatherings of 10 or more people made UFC events a logistical impossibility.

“We did everything we could to relocate our next three events– London, Columbus, and Portland. But every day, there are new restrictions put in place on travel and large public gatherings that are making it impossible to stay on schedule. We can’t even hold an event in Vegas, our home town, because there’s a ban on all combat sports events in Nevada until at least March 25.

“As you heard me say, I’ve been in the fight game for 20 years, and this is what we do—we find a way to keep our events going no matter what. If fighters miss weight, if fighters get hurt, or if states won’t regulate us, we figure out a way. But this is different. The whole world is being affected right now, and nothing is more important than the health and safety of you and your families.”

Over the past few days, the UFC held a Fight Night event in Brasilia, and attempted to relocate four of its upcoming shows due to the nationwide limitations on large-scale gatherings and travel restrictions, This includes Saturday’s UFC London card, which lost 11 out of 13 fights, including the main event between Tyron Woodley and Leon Edwards, after Trump extended his travel ban to the United Kingdom and Ireland. And while the UFC expected it would hold the vast majority of its relocated events at the APEX facility in Las Vegas, that plan fell apart when the Nevada Athletic Commission suspended all combat sports events in the state. Still, UFC President Dana White insisted that nothing but a complete government shutdown will stop the UFC from going on with the show.

“Unless there’s a total shutdown of the country where people can’t leave their houses and things like that, these fights will happen,” White said on SportsCentre. “We’re gonna move on. These guys will compete. We will find venues, and we will figure this thing out. I mean, the only thing that’s going to stop us is a complete government shutdown where everyone is confined to their homes.”

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While White and the UFC were defiant in the wake of a global pandemic — even going so far as to attempt to hold the upcoming shows on a reservation in Oklahoma — the promotion was finally forced to face reality, at least for the time being. Unlike Bellator MMA, which paid its athletes their show money for its canceled event last Friday, it appears that UFC fighters have not yet been compensated for their canceled or postponed bouts. This emphasizes the UFC’s poor treatment of its independent contractors and the leverage it has over its roster of fighters. It also shines a light on parent company Endveaor’s mismanagement of the UFC’s cash flow, which likely explains why the promotion was so desperate to put on shows during a global pandemic.

Big Payouts & IPO Flops

In February 2020, the New York Post revealed that the UFC doled out $300 million in dividends to some of its biggest investors, including celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, Gisele Bündchen, Ben Affleck and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. Other beneficiaries include UFC president Dana White and Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, all of whom reportedly pocketed more than $3 million each.

The massive payout marked the first time that the UFC issued a dividend payment since Endeavor purchased a 50 percent stake in the promotion back in 2016. It is also more than twice as much as the UFC paid its entire roster of fighters in 2019.

According to the New York Post, UFC fighters cost the promotion less than “16% of its $900 million in revenue” in 2019, which is less than $145 million. This is in stark contrast to the 48-50% revenue split in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League — organizations that also cover player expenses and provide salaries through the league and franchises. And yet, Mark Shapiro, president of Endeavor, told the Post the UFC pays its fighters “significantly more than any other MMA organization.”

”They deserve it,” he said.”Fighter compensation has gone up commensurately with the success of UFC.”

However, this does not appear to be the case. According to BloodyElbow’s John Nash, the UFC made $700 million in 2016 and paid out $148 million to its fighters, which is significantly more than they paid out to the roster in 2019, despite making approximately $200 million more in revenue.

There is also reason to suggest that Endeavor decided to dole out $300 million in dividends because of its failed effort to raise $600 million in an initial public offering (IPO) last year. In September 2019, Endeavor pulled its plan for a public offering of shares amid concerns from investors regarding the company’s financials, as well as market instability. The company’s IPO filing showed staggering debt up to $4.6 billion and an operating loss of $107 million. When Endeavor finally pulled its IPO offering, insiders speculated that the company “may have to pay out some retroactive bonuses to calm the waters.”

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While Endeavor president Mark Shapiro denied any link between the dividends and the IPO flop, sources told the Post that may not be the case.

“Because an idea did not work, the UFC is now going to be the next source of cash until Endeavor goes back out again to try to go public. It’s now draining the UFC in order to prop up the rest of the company,” according to the Post’s source.

The UFC is a significant addition to Endeavor’s portfolio because of its annual cash flow, which is in the hundreds of millions. However, since the company has now drained the UFC’s cash reserves, the promotion is in a tight position to recoup in 2020, and that was before COVID-19 became a global pandemic that shut down much of the market.

Since Endeavor is likely in a difficult position, it explains the pressure on the UFC to continue hosting events despite the undeniable risks to the fighters, staff, and public safety. Even without a live audience and attendance gate, the UFC earns a significant amount to broadcast its events, including Pay-Per-Views, on ESPN.

In short, Endeavor is happy to take advantage of grossly underpaid fighters — fighters that are not represented by a union and have no collective bargaining power or a fair share of the promotion’s revenues — as long as they continue to keep the UFC profitable and, in turn, boost Endeavor’s portfolio for investors. It should also be noted that Endeavor’s mismanagement of UFC cash flow is taking place while the promotion is defending itself in a class-action antitrust lawsuit brought forth by former UFC fighters in 2015 who claim that the promotion suppressed wages using anti-competitive and unlawful practices.

UFC fighters deserve to be paid for their canceled bouts, and the most likely reason they have not — despite other promotions like Bellator MMA doing so — is because the UFC’s owners drained its cash reserves to soothe its celebrity investors.

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