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Opinion: UFC’s Crypto.com fan bonus doesn’t really address fighter pay issues

The new UFC/Crypto.com fan bonus is a nice gesture, but it leaves core problems unsolved.

Crypto.com offered a fan-voted bonus for fighters at UFC 273
Crypto.com offered a fan-voted bonus for fighters at UFC 273
Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The UFC and its $175 million sponsorship partner, Crypto.com recently announced a new program to provide fan-voted bonuses during UFC pay-per-view events. The deal, which was rolled out during Saturday’s UFC 273 is set to pay out a total of $60k in bitcoin to 3 fighters as voted on by the fans, for each PPV event. And while all that sounds fine in concept, the reality leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

First and foremost, there’s the simple idea of access. The UFC usually plans 12-13 pay-per-view events per year and 28-30 Fight Night cards. With bigger name fighters getting more opportunities to fight on PPV cards than lower ranked and lesser known competitors, that means the Crypto.com fan bonus won’t be available to a significant percentage of athletes on the UFC roster.

By their own accounting, five of the UFC’s top-10 fights in 2021—including the Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez scrap—took place on Fight Night cards. Limiting this deal just to PPV talent will pretty definitely cut out a number of very good fights and very good fighters from the chance to receive any kind of extra compensation.

Say what you will about the UFC’s Venum outfitting deal (or the similarly structured Reebok deal before it), but at the very least, everyone on the roster gets a cut of it. And their share is based around the amount of time they’ve spent in the promotion, not their placement on any one particular fight card. Neither of these things may do more for fighter pay issues than offering a distraction for the UFC to hide behind, but it’s clear which one creates the more robust example of revenue sharing.

That doesn’t even begin to get to the idea of a fan voting system, though. And from the very beginning, UFC 273 showed problems with theirs. Most notably, the fan bonus voting opened at least one hour ahead of the actual event start time.

There was a link on the UFC’s homepage that led to a voting page. That link allowed me to vote for three fighters at around 5:20 p.m. ET. After I submitted my vote, I received a confirmation that my vote had been counted. UFC 273’s first fight didn’t take place until after 6:30 p.m. ET. Considering that Petr Yan—who lost his title fight against Aljamain Sterling in the evening’s co-main event—ended up as one of the night’s winners, it seems likely that more than a few fans were voting based on the results they anticipated, rather than the ones they saw.

Bloody Elbow reached out to Crypto.com to find out more details as to why the voting opened so early and allowed votes to be accepted before the card began. We did not receive a reply.

Results like that are an easy way to highlight the fact that these kinds of voting systems are almost always incredibly arbitrary. The fan bonus is not a new idea for the UFC. In fact, the UFC even tried it once before. In December 2010, they allowed fans to vote on the “Fight of the Night,” guaranteeing two lucky athletes $100,000 each. It did not go well.

Predictably, fans voted the night’s main event as the best fight on the card. That contest saw Georges St-Pierre defeat Josh Koscheck in a one-sided outing. St-Pierre landed 110 significant strikes in the five-round bout to Koscheck’s 16. Koscheck’s offense over the final 10 minutes of the fight amounted to one landed significant strike.

White said of the vote, “They blew their chance. That’s it. It’s over.”

Most likely, the scrap that should have won was the preliminary card bout between Sean Pierson and Matt Riddle. However, that battle, which Pierson won, was not broadcast.

“A prelim fight was the ‘Fight of the Night’ in my book,” White said. “And we’ll take care of those guys.”

Any fan-voting system, by its very nature, is going to be a popularity contest. And while organizers may hope that the best performance is what becomes the most popular one, the reality is that the person that’s already the most popular is usually going to have a massive advantage.

Yao Ming of the NBA’s Houston Rockets played five games during the 2010-11 NBA season. Despite his inactivity, he was voted — by the fans — as a starting player for the NBA All-Star Game. In a sport where things like All-Star game appearances can be crucial to athletes when negotiating contracts, Ming being voted a starter meant someone else likely missed out big. As often as not, popularity, not accomplishments are the driver when fans vote.

The other notable issue with using fans to decide winners is the potential for trolling. A few years ago, the British government thought it would be a good idea to allow the public to pick the name a polar research ship. When the votes were tallied, the winner with 124,019 votes was “Boaty McBoatface.”

Former BBC presenter James Hand, who suggested the whimsical name, later apologized.

The ship was eventually named after Sir David Attenborough. Attenborough’s name finished fourth in the voting behind Boaty McBoatface, Poppy-Mai, Henry Worsley and It’s Bloody Cold Here. Attenborough received only 10,284 votes. It may have been the most reasonable option on the board, but why give people the chance to make choices if you’re only going to have to change the results later.

In terms of the UFC’s crypto fan vote, what’s stopping a social media campaign from being launched to push any random selected fighter to the top of the polls? If enough people decide before UFC 274 that Fernie Garcia is getting a bonus because he’s got a fun name, does it matter how well he actually performs?

This also raises the question about oversight in general. When money is involved, it’s always a good idea to remove any appearance of potential malfeasance. Ideally, an outside firm that can be audited would take care of tabulating fan votes. A step that would allow for fans, fighters and the UFC to be sure that, at the very least, the correct people received the correct bonus.

Eventually, that brings us to the last and most crucial set of questions. Just what is this Bitcoin bonus even, anyway? We’ve reached out to Crypto.com with a few basic points that could use sorting out: Like, how long do fighters need to keep the funds invested with Crypto.com? Are there any penalties for early withdrawal; are there fees that fighters will have to pay to convert their Bitcoin to cash if they want to? Does Crypto.com guarantee these funds in case they’re hacked or otherwise stolen from a fighter’s account?

To date, we haven’t had a reply.

The winners of the UFC 273 fan-voted bonuses were Khamzat Chimaev ($30,000), Alexander Volkanovski ($20,000) and Petr Yan ($10,000). Chimaev and Volkanovski won their fights, while Yan lost a split decision to Aljamain Sterling. The ($50,000) ‘Of the Night’ bonuses went to Chimaev and Gilbert Burns for “Fight of the Night” and Volkanovski and Aleksei Oleinik for “Performance of the Night.”

I’m all for any program that puts funds in the pockets of fighters, but it really does seem as though this fan bonus system does very little to address any real issues with UFC pay.

The revenue split between the UFC and its independent contractors is vast. Even assuming a direct cash correlation from Bitcoin to US Dollars, twelve $60k bonuses a year for ten years would amount to just over $7 million of this reported $175 million dollar deal. Until that chasm begins to close, these kinds of minuscule improvements to individual fighter pay are little more than smokescreens that serve to hide the UFC’s strong arm position over its labor pool.