From day one, the UFC’s sponsorship deal with Reebok, under which the footwear and apparel company will provide uniforms to UFC fighters and essentially be the primary, if not sole (there is the possibility of one other) sponsor of athletes in the company has been controversial. Many fighters have complained over the years about securing sponsorships, it’s true — but questions arose about the Rebook deal almost instantly. Would fighters be short changed? How much was the UFC going to pocket? How would the money be distributed? Did this eliminate some of the fighter’s ability to be themselves, to promote themselves in the light they wanted to be seen in? Is this really a good deal for fighters?

They’re valid questions. With disturbing answers.

Make no mistake, the UFC is trying here. Yet thus far, the deal has been a lesson in how not to conduct business. First, keep in mind that fighters have no union. There is no collective bargaining, at least not thus far. This isn’t the NHL or the NBA, where there is strength in numbers. To date, each and every fighter in the UFC has gone out and signed their own contract, each has gone out and secured their own sponsors, via managers and the like.

They do have a voice, but ultimately, they’re at the mercy of their employer.

When the UFC saw a number of fighters struggling to secure sponsorship, and struggling to get paid even when they did have sponsors, they decided to act. Rather than eliminate the ridiculous “sponsorship tax” that charged potential sponsors an upfront fee, pocketed directly by the UFC itself, before a company could begin backing a fighter (with some exceptions for smaller entities like Dynamic Fastener), they eliminated sponsors all together, by getting into bed with Reebok. Reebok was to provide UFC uniforms. It would be their name on all the gear. And that included fight week, media events, everything right down to the socks and undies.

Initially, fighters were to get a cut of the six year, $70 million dollar deal based on their ranking within the promotion. However, that proved unpopular and problematic: the rankings are based on input from a select number of media members, a process that is not exactly transparent. Far too often, names in the top fifteen are there based on name value and popularity. Rafeal Cavalcante remains ranked tenth at light heavyweight, despite being 1-2 (1NC) in his last four fights dating back to 2012. He hasn’t fought since June 2014, and his only win in those four fights came over Igor Pokrajac, who has since been released by Zuffa. With no disrespect meant to the former Strikeforce champion, speaking in terms of sponsorship payouts, he’s taking up the spot of a more active fighter who could probably use the money more, not to mention the fact that at this point, he’s probably a bit over-valued.

So the rankings idea flopped, and the UFC opted to go with tenure. Again, that’s all well and great — if you have sufficient tenure under the Zuffa banner. While that includes promotions like the WEC and Strikeforce, ultimately, it still creates issues. Pride fights will not be credited, and only Zuffa-era fights under the WEC and Strikeforce will. That makes sense financially for the UFC, and when considering that they aren’t necessarily obligated to credit fighters for fights in a promotion at a time they didn’t own it, but it also does a disservice to the history and name value of certain fighters.

Then there’s the fact that some big name fighters could still land in the bottom tiers of the payout scale. Those with 1 to 5 fights under Zuffa will be paid $2,500 per fight. For 6 to 10 fights, a fighter would get $5,000. Consider this: Paige VanZant has just two fights in the promotion. Conor McGregor has five. Does anyone believe those names deserve five grand or less? Now, the UFC and Reebok have found a way around that, by signing them to deals directly, above and beyond the UFC uniform deal. That’s all well and great, but no way will that happen for every fighter with a little name value. Mark Hunt has nine fights under Zuffa. His tenth will be this weekend, against Stipe Miocic. Given his Pride fights are not taken into consideration, he’d stand to make just $5,000 in sponsorship money for the bout.

Does anyone believe Hunt is worth just five grand? Brendan Schaub, arguably lower on the totem than Hunt, has stated he makes six figures per fight from outside sponsors. On Twitter, he wrote that “I’ve made six figures in sponsorship in each of my last 6 fights” — but he will now plummet to just $10,000 per bout. While the UFC argues that fighters can still be sponsored outside of the octagon and fight week, and uses Ronda Rousey as an example, how many companies are looking to a guy like Schaub to be the poster boy for their latest product line without fight night exposure? Rousey, as a champion and cross-over star in the acting and pro wrestling worlds, is in a unique situation, and an exception, not the norm.

UFC flyweight Ray Borg has been one of the few fighters to speak out in support of the deal so far. Also on twitter, he commented “If you want more money work harder instead of asking for hand me outs.” The only problem is, working harder won’t get you all that much more. Yes, you have to keep winning, so in that sense, work hard — but it could take years for some fighters just to get back to where they were. Remember, this is a cultural shift for the UFC. They’re asking fighters to switch from scraping together their own sponsors, to taking only the scraps that are given, and for many, going it on their own may have been better than the alternative. The grass is always greener, right? Only in this case, it wasn’t.

Aside from Schaub, Matt Mitrione has come out strongly against the deal. “Congrats , you got the deal of the century. Unfortunately, it was at the cost of the fighters. Hope the bad press is worth it.” Tim Kennedy is another. Kennedy, who has spoken out about fighter pay in the UFC before, stating in the past that he could earn as much working as a garbage man, tweeted in the UFC’s direction “Am I to understand that for my exclusive apparel sponsorship I’ll make $2,500? I’ll pass. Thanks for the generous offer. ” before adding a second tweet that was even more telling. Directed at Bellator MMA CEO Scott Coker, Kennedy sent out “Hey Scott, miss your face.” Kennedy, of course, worked under the Strikeforce banner for Coker. And while he would technically make more than $2,500 under the Reebok deal based on his number of fights (he’d be in the $5,000 tier at first glance), the message is clear: Bellator, who have been steadfast in their refusal to interfere with fighters obtaining sponsorships, suddenly looks like the better option.

A lot of this goes back to fight culture, and the idea of promoters vs. leagues. Few professional sporting leagues have sponsors, other than official ones. Zuffa, and the UFC, want to position the promotion as a league, without the pesky issue of a fighter’s union. Yet traditionally, fighters have been able to be sponsored, more or less, by who they choose (dependent upon UFC sponsor tax rules). This is a major change, and apparently not a popular one. While a guy like Scott Jorgensen is thrilled, and rightfully so, he’s in the minority with over twenty fights.

There is another section of the UFC payroll that likely will benefit from the Reebok deal: new fighters just entering into the promotion, who would have had to hustle and bustle to secure sponsors with little to no name recognition, and who now get an easy $2,500. Champions and big names will also come out fine thanks to deals like that of VanZant and the higher pay for champions and challengers.

The critical demographic? At risk, if you’re the UFC? That’s the mid-card, outer top ten and top fifteen guys. And that’s where Bellator could win out. Phil Davis already jumped ship, opting to sign with Bellator when his UFC contract expired. While it doesn’t seem like the UFC went out of their way to re-sign him and don’t appear to be matching Bellator, make no mistake, they did make an offer. Now, Davis is free to sign whatever sponsorship deals he wants, and other fighters left out in the cold by this deal may see that, and make the jump. Especially those who were making more money off sponsorships than fight purses. What about a Myles Jury, who has a bit of a personal beef with Reebok, who he was previously in negotiations with to secure a direct sponsorship? Guys like Mitrione, Kennedy, and Schaub, all of whom have enough of a name to draw ratings in Bellator, and could benefit from exposure on Spike TV?

While the UFC isn’t at risk of losing all its talent overnight, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some defections moving forward, so in the end, Bellator wins, and as for fighters, it’s tough to say who got the better deal — unless you’re one of those looking at a massive pay cut. Then it’s pretty clear.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.

  • mike

    I also read, that dana is trying to compare this deal to a NBA/NFL jersey sponsorship. But those guys still get to keep their nike or whoever pays them to wear there shoes or whatever else.