Former Strikeforce, UFC, and WWE champion Ronda Rousey made a major impact on combat sports and sports entertainment. And while she may be out of the fight game, as one of the major forces in MMA for years before leaving, she’s still got a lot of insight into the working of the UFC and the combat sports landscape.
Recently ‘Rowdy’ was a guest on Steve-O’s new Wild Ride podcast, where she was asked about a whole host of topics, including her recent adventures in WWE and the rigors of mixed martial arts. Eventually the subject of fighter compensation came up, and Rousey gave her two cents on the UFC’s sponsorship structure. (Hat tip to Derek Hall at MiddleEasy)
(Topic begins at 37:38 in video below, also available here)
“Well, I mean it’s not that they get nothing,” Rousey said, when asked about the UFC’s Reebok deal. “It’s that everybody gets a split share. So instead of having a whole bunch of people having a whole bunch of individual sponsors all over themself, everybody gets a share of the Reebok sponsor, whatever they’re paying.
“If you think about, like are any of the NFL players allowed to have individual sponsorships?” she continued. “I mean are basketball players allowed to put, you know, CondomDepot.com on themselves? It gets to the point where like, (in the) WWE are you allowed to come out to Guns-R-Us on your titties? It’s kind of the standard that has been set by other sports. They UFC was unique in that, and when they were smaller, that was part of the hustle. As they got bigger and mainstream some of those smaller characteristics kind of got lost, because if they wanted to be looked at on the same level as the NBA and the NFL and f–king baseball and all that s–t, they have to kind of adapt their model a little bit more. And I would like to see bigger sponsors, more money, like, bigger deals getting made so that what is being made is being split up and divvied up between all the fighters is actually, you know, gets to be more and more and more and more. Just something I hope will mature along with the sport. But you know, who knows?”
While she makes a point that under the Reebok deal everyone is guaranteed sponsor pay, it is a situation that is far from ideal. For some fighters the move ended up being a de facto pay cut, since they were making significantly more in private sponsorship money already. Add the fact that fighters can only wear Reebok apparel during fight week for appearances, unless they wear clothing items that don’t show a label—especially a competing brand. The measures begin to add up and become more draconian.
Having fought in Strikeforce and later in the UFC prior to the Reebok deal, Rousey should be familiar with that whole scene change. She makes a great point that fighters are at minimum getting a guarantee and not getting stiffed by shady sponsors. It’s good to have that in your back pocket, but it can also limit earning potential. And has been cited by many veteran fighters as a reason they were happy to leave the UFC.
A fighter coming in and only having 4-5 fights isn’t having their income supplemented by that much. Sure, NFL, MLB and NBA players don’t have individual sponsors on their uniforms or jerseys, but much like UFC fighters they can have individual sponsors outside of fight week. More importantly, they also have unions that give them major leverage when it comes to negotiations regarding things like league revenue for TV rights going to former players and league or team sponsor money going to players. UFC fighters don’t have any of that kind of organization to advocate on their behalf. The Reebok deal was something that they had to be accept without fighter input. As the UFC’s deal with Reebok nears its end, it seems highly likely they won’t have any say in the next apparel deal either.
Furthermore, her points ignore things like Brock Lesnar having sponsors on his shorts in WWE. It’s not common, but it’s a significant outlier and there may be a possibility for another megastar (like say, maybe Rousey herself should she return to wrestling) to also have a sponsor on their attire during matches. She does express a desire for larger sponsors to provide bigger paydays for fighters. Although she doesn’t address the need for these due to paltry fighter pay in the early days, which created the need for sponsors in the first place.
While the glory days of Condom Depot and Dynamic Fastener are behind us, those companies put some good money in fighter pockets before the sponsor tax hobbled that practice and the Reebok deal killed it for good. Sure, everyone does get a split, but whether it’s more money than they could raise on their own, is highly debatable. And it keeps them even more dependent on the company. Since they can’t take their sponsors with them to another organization. And are less likely to have built the kind of independent relationships during their time in the UFC that would making keeping sponsors easier.
The Reebok deal may have given everyone a share, as Rousey says. But it took a lot out of fighters’ pockets at the time as well.