In March, Alex Kirshner wrote in Slate, referring to the NFL, that “competitive integrity and cash go hand in hand.” With the rise in legalized sports betting and its partnerships with betting sites like Draft Kings, the UFC has also realized that fact. The difference between the two entities is that the NFL understood that fact years ago. Unfortunately, for the UFC, that lightbulb didn’t become bright enough for the promotion to notice until mid-October 2023 when the promotion, via the desk of Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s Chief Business Officer, released the following memo:
From: Hunter Campbell, UFC Chief Business Officer
To: All Athletes and Managers
We are writing to advise you of a change to the UFC Athlete Conduct Policy to which each UFC athlete subscribes under our Promotion Agreement and/or Ancillary Rights Agreement. As you know, the UFC Athlete Conduct Policy requires UFC’s contracted athletes to act in a legal, ethical, and responsible manner and avoid conduct detrimental to the integrity of the UFC organization. In light of clear direction that we have received from regulators responsible for the regulated sports betting industry in the United States, we are compelled at this time to recognize in the UFC Athlete Conduct Policy certain restrictions relating to wagering by our athletes, members of their teams and certain others.
As you may already be aware, most states in which regulated sports betting is conducted prohibit athletes from wagering on promotions or events with which they are affiliated. Many states also extend this prohibition to the athletes’ training teams, family members and others that have access to “inside information” relating to the athletes and their events. In some instances, violations of these prohibitions could result in criminal charges. The UFC’s contracted athletes are not exempt from these prohibitions, which state legislators and regulators have implemented for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of our sport. In order to assist our athletes in understanding their obligations under the laws of the majority of states in which sports betting is permitted, and in further support of these integrity measures, UFC has incorporated a wagering prohibition into the UFC Athlete Conduct Policy expressly prohibiting athletes from wagering on any UFC match. We have also provided some additional information to assist athletes determining the potential scope of state-imposed wagering restrictions on others. Note: This policy does not prohibit UFC athletes from entering into sponsorship agreements with sports betting companies. UFC athletes may continue to pursue such sponsorships in accordance with applicable law.
We appreciate your dedication to our sport and your efforts to ensure its integrity. If you have any questions about the UFC Athlete Conduct Policy, you may contact me.
Please click here to review the full code of conduct, including new amendment on wagering.
The NFL has been, at least publicly and from a public relations standpoint, on top of players betting on NFL games since 1963, when it suspended two of its biggest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for gambling on NFL games. According to a 2002 story in the the Journal of Sports History, following those suspensions, the NFL owners gave the league the authority to increase sanctions and raise the ceiling on fines. But perhaps most importantly, according to that story, the situation with Hornung and Karras provided the NFL with cover to “create the perception that the commissioner safeguarded the games image and integrity.”
Today the NFL gambling policy is five pages long and applies to “all full- and part-time Club and League personnel including League office employees, players, owners, coaches, athletic trainers, game officials, security personnel, consultants, Club employees, game-day stadium personnel and other staff.”
The message that the suspensions of Hornung and Karras gave the NFL “the perception that the commissioner safeguarded the games image and integrity” was not lost on UFC president Dana White when he said that the UFC Code of Conduct update was “more optics than anything.”
What was lost on White and the UFC was the fact that it should have dealt with this issue of allowing fighters, coaches, teammates and others with potential inside information to bet on fights a long time ago. If not as soon as Zuffa purchased the promotion in 2001, then perhaps in 2017 when the UFC warned Tae Hyun Bang and Leo Kuntz that they could be investigated for fight fixing, or perhaps in 2018 when the Supreme Court overturned the 1992 federal ban on commercial sports betting. However, the UFC failed to act at any of those moments to put safeguards in place. Instead, the promotion waited until after it signed a five-year deal with Draft Kings worth a reported $350 million in 2021 and until sports betting was legal in some form in most states in the U.S. before it updated its code of conduct.
Another thing that happened before the UFC did anything about fighters and coaches betting on the promotion in which they competed was that a prominent coach — and ex-UFC fighter — appeared on a huge MMA podcast and bragged about how much money he was making betting on UFC fights.
The UFC’s inaction bit them in 2017 when Bang was found guilty of taking bribes and sent to prison in connection with a plan to throw a fight. However, since that incident took place in South Korea and happened before the Supreme Court opened the door for legalized gambling in America, the promotion quickly moved on without much damage. The same cannot be said of the most recent incident. On that occasion, a fighter of the aforementioned coach, entered his fight with an injury that appeared to have leaked to some bettors.
That coach, James Krause, has been suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The fighter, Darrick Minner, has been released by the UFC. Further, the UFC informed fighters who work with Krause’s Glory MMA gym to find a new coach or face the prospect of not fighting for the UFC as the investigations into the massive betting line change in the hours leading up to Minner’s UFC Vegas 64 fight against Shayilan Nuerdanbieke play out. In addition, two Canadian provinces have suspended betting on all UFC fights.
Smart people run the UFC. It needs to be clarified why the promotion did not prevent fighters, coaches and camps from betting on UFC bouts before 2022. A promotion that tells fighters they must wear branded fight kits, that they cannot have outside sponsors during UFC events, that they must be drug tested and give their whereabouts to the administrator of that drug testing policy, is clearly not above dictating terms to its independent contractors. That the UFC waited so long to do so with gambling is mind-boggling.
Whatever the reason, the UFC waited too long to act, and now it’s having its time in a very bright and extremely unforgiving spotlight. However, there is a bright side to all of this. Much like the NFL did with Hornung and Karras, this incident allows the promotion to spin this into a public relations win, putting all the blame on one bad apple and then using an accepting fan base and their influence in the media to spread that message.