MMA’s Fighter Pay Problem

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to excel in MMA, yet a large number of mixed martial artists barely make more than the U.S. minimum wage when you factor in all the hours of training necessary to be successful.

Of course, the big-names make a pretty good living, but even folks like current UFC middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, and welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre, are still greatly underpaid compared to athletes of similar stature in other sports.

MMA is obviously still in its infancy, so it’s a little unfair to compare it to the major sports. Fighter pay has gotten better with the growth of mixed martial arts, just not as much as it should have.

No one has it worse in MMA than the newly turned professional fighter.

Harsh life of the rookie MMA fighter

For the person who decides to give MMA a try, getting paid $1000 for their first handful of professional fights isn’t out of the norm, and some even have to settle for lesser purses. To make things worse, sponsors aren’t exactly lining up to paste their logos on unknown fighters performing in front of a few hundred folks, so most newbie pros don’t have that extra income coming in.

At that pay scale, even if a fighter fights 6 times a year and wins all his/her fights (assuming pay is doubled if they win), that’s only $12,000 a year. And that’s before training dues/manager fees, healthcare costs, and Uncle Sam getting his cut of the action.

A person who works 40 hours a week flipping burgers at a fast food joint, getting paid the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, makes about $14,500 a year (assuming they take a two-week vacation) without having to worry about broken bones and serious head trauma.

For that very reason, most low-level MMA fighters have regular jobs, since it’s virtually impossible to get by with their earnings from fighting. The fortunate ones are able to make money with the knowledge they’ve acquired as martial artists by teaching classes or such, while others are forced to get regular jobs like everyone else.

Things get a bit better as MMA fighters move up the rankings. Mid-tier fighters make about $10,000-$30,000 a fight, and getting sponsors at that stage becomes a lot easier. As long as they win a majority of their fights, they can expect to make the same amount as college-educated professionals. However, given the amount of effort MMA fighters put into training, and the life-lasting injuries they pick up over the years, it still seems like a crappy deal.

Without sponsors or other side income, a decent amount of mid-tier fighters wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

How much should MMA fighters be paid?

The UFC is clearly the premier MMA organization in the world, and their fighters are also the highest paid. On one hand, the UFC seems to take better care of their athletes than any other mixed martial arts promotion. But on the other hand, their fighters only get a small fraction of the profits generated.

For example, the UFC 155 fight card generated a live gate of about $3.2 million, while the total disclosed fighter payout was about 1.3 million. Even if the promotion paid out an extra $1 million in undisclosed earnings, that still leaves them with $900,000. The pay-per-view numbers for UFC 155 haven’t been released, but even with a conservative 500,000 buys estimate at $44.99 a buy, that’s another 22.5 million dollars. Then there’s advertising income, and sponsor taxes.

Of course, the UFC also has a lot of expenses, but when you look at the numbers, it’s obvious the company is raking in some serious profits.

Given how well the UFC has positioned itself, it doesn’t look like they’ll have serious competition anytime soon. That means it’s up to the fighters to figure out how much their services are worth, and demand appropriate compensation.

It’s hard to see that happening without most of the top fighters in the UFC teaming up to form a union. Athletes in major organizations like the NBA, MLB, and NFL have established unions and the results are clear. Until the 2011 lockout, NBA players received 57 percent of basketball-generated income (they now get 51 percent if you’re wondering).

It’s impossible to put a number on exactly how much of the revenue generated by UFC goes to the fighters since the promotion doesn’t disclose its earnings, but it’s certainly nowhere close to 51 percent. That means the most promising young athletes in the world will continue to pursue sports where they’ll have more control of their careers, get paid a lot more money, and perhaps a pension when their careers are over.

David is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and boxing practitioner who has watched and studied MMA for the past 8 years. Follow him on Twitter @davidkingwriter and check out his blog.


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