Saturday, January 22, 2022

Dana White, UFC close out arguably best year to date with storm clouds of fighter pay looming in the distance

If there was anyone most deserving of an MVP award following such a difficult 2020 for just about everyone across the landscape of professional sports, Dana White would’ve been an easy choice.  

Despite his often controversial methods, the brash UFC president found a way to safely circumvent the many obstacles brought on by the coronavirus outbreak to not only ensure business as usual for the fight promotion, but to attract a new legion of fans to the sport by being the only active sport during some of the darkest days of the pandemic.

So what did White and company do to top that performance in 2021? Fueled by the return of an active Conor McGregor and an enormous distribution deal with broadcast partner ESPN, the UFC is set to close this calendar year as its most lucrative in the company’s 28-year history.   

McGregor’s two appearances alone — a pair of high-profile TKO defeats to Dustin Poirier — combined to produce nearly 40% of the promotion’s pay-per-view buys in 2021, per BloodyElbow.com’s John S. Nash. Yet the financial reality for the promotion, as the UFC continues to eliminate any remaining negotiating leverage left to the fighters thanks to a series of smart deals, meant that the revenue produced by McGregor accounted for merely 7% of the promotion’s total income.  

Whether one agrees with its handling of fighter pay or not as the topic continues to become a hot-button issue, the UFC holds all of the cards at the moment and has smartly used its control to maximize everything from profits to overall fan experience. And following such an incredible year featuring enticing fight cards just about every weekend, it’s hard to imagine this moment — right now — as being anything but a mountain top for White’s aggressive vision.  

Whenever a problem comes his way, White and his team have had the answer.  

From aligning with liberal state commissions like Florida and Texas to make sure arenas stay packed regardless of public health concerns to creating his own “fantasy island” to escape in Abu Dhabi, White has stayed one step ahead of his competition. And even though the promotion still hits the road for PPV events, the UFC has deftly kept all of its smaller Fight Night cards in house at the UFC Apex facility next door to its home offices in Las Vegas where the lack of ticket revenue has been offset by the elimination of travel and production costs.

For anyone who has followed UFC’s meteoric rise from Zuffa’s purchase of the dying brand in 2001 through its $4 billion sale to Endeavor in 2016, it’s fair to wonder whether 2021 will one day be looked back upon as the best of times for UFC given the storm clouds that have slowly been forming.   

Whenever he’s asked publicly about fighter pay, White has been historically dismissive that there’s an issue at all. But it’s clear UFC still holds the kind of control over its athletes, who are independent contractors and not employees, that no other professional sport can rival.  

Fans routinely benefit from the UFC’s matchmaking principles that the best routinely fight the best, which is something MMA’s far less organized combat cousin of boxing could only dream of. And it’s hard to imagine any kind of significant change until the fighters themselves figure out a way to join forces and stand firm against the promotion, whether that be in the form of a union or fighter’s association to represent them.  

While it seems unlikely a major change on that front will come anytime soon — look no further than the aborted 2016 launch of the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association for proof — the lengths heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is going to in order to potentially fight out of his current contract ahead of his January return against interim champion Cyril Gane is something to watch closely.

Most pro sports leagues pay around 50% of total revenue to its athletes where UFC, according to reports, shells out roughly 15%. That, along with draconian contract clauses that allow the promotion to extend a fighter’s contract automatically after either winning a championship or turning down a fight offer, are some of the issues Ngannou has been taking public during his ongoing dispute.

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Ngannou and White could be heading into some treacherous waters. Getty Images

UFC has succeeded during this era in creating a world of haves and have nots, which has eliminated the need for most elite fighters to ever complain publicly about their income largely because of how long and hard the road was to finally get to a comfortable place. But it’s difficult to imagine this type of controlled success continuing in MMA as it continues to cross over into the mainstream due to the success of UFC and the exposure created through its relationship with ESPN. 

It’s almost inevitable that more high-profile conflicts will emerge from the likes of Ngannou and former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, the latter of which hasn’t fought in nearly two years while demanding fair pay commensurate to his level of accomplishments. YouTube star turned professional boxer Jake Paul, for example, has built much of his platform as a pugilist upon explaining to his large social media subscription base of over 50 million just how little UFC fighters are paid in comparison to himself.

While it will take more than someone like Ngannou threatening his own UFC future to take a stand over what he feels he is worth, his involvement within this current debate with company brass is crucial. Should UFC continue to take a hard stand against him without compromise, it’s inevitable that other top stars will only follow his lead.  

Given how dangerous this sport can be on a fight-by-fight basis, it’s difficult to look at UFC’s overwhelming success and not argue the fighters themselves deserve better. It’s equally clear that once the fighter pay issue is ultimately resolved that the control UFC currently enjoys over matchmaking, which directly fuels fan experience, will never be the same again.  

From that standpoint, UFC fans should savor the flavor as the promotion’s most consistently spectacular calendar year comes to a close. These, indeed, are the best of times as it’s inevitable that a change is going to come.  

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