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Free Agency in MMA – Risk vs Reward

Fighter pay is one of the most consistently hot topics in the world of mixed martial arts. When compared to other sports, MMA doesn’t pay out even close to the same percentage of revenue. A lot of this is due to the cost of running a global corporation that requires up-to-date marketing, public relations and funding for athletic commissions. But let’s pretend that it’s as simple as talking about how to get more money in the pockets of the fighters.

A lot of dialogue has revolved around forming a fighter union. Since fighters are independent contractors, they are solely responsible for representing themselves, negotiating pay and their own contracts (along with their managers and coaches). On paper this seems like a great idea because the fighters will be protected and have more leverage when negotiating. However, there may be more lucrative options since a union can come with dues, salary caps, internal politics and other hinderances.

Many fighters are choosing to explore free agency now that there are established alternatives to the UFC such as Bellator, Professional Fighter’s League and One Championship. This is encouraging a free enterprise in which the organizations have to compete for commodities. The commodities in this case are the fighters. This will eventually lead to higher pay because top organizations will want to have the best fighters on their roster, so they will have to compete with the pay rates of other organizations.

For a long time now, we have seen organizations like Bellator and Rizin pick up fighters who had been cut from the UFC due to losing streaks or lack of fan interest. But recently, we have seen big-name fighters electing to leave the UFC when their contracts expire. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, Sage Northcutt and “The Underground King” Eddie Alvarez recently exited the UFC in favor of One Championship, just to name a few. They all seem to believe that free agency helps them control their own destinies as martial artists.

There’s a serious shift going on in MMA. People are starting to understand that the money is being shared a little better than what it’s always been. In order to do that, you’ve got to test free agency, you’ve got to have a little bit of courage and if you do that you’ll be rewarded. Guys are doing that more than ever.

-Eddie Alvarez

This is fantastic development for fighters as a whole. They are starting to talk to each other, learn from each other and help each other without the aid of a union. Exploring free agency is not without its risks, however. There are no guarantees in life, so if you walk from a mediocre UFC contract, that definitely doesn’t imply that another organization will be willing to pay you more. At the end of the day, fighters still need to learn the art of selling and marketing their individual brands.

In 2016 we saw top welterweight Rory MacDonald decline to renew his UFC contract before facing fellow contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Rory subsequently lost the fight and therefore lost the ability to leverage the UFC for more money. The gamble paid off in the end as Rory is now one of the top billed fighters for Bellator, but it was a gamble nonetheless.

A fighter without name recognition or a branded persona may have difficulty exploring free agency. That doesn’t mean they should rule it out, but it is something to consider when thinking about your future. It would be like quitting your job without sending out a single resume to other companies first. A more viable option would be to strive to attain recognition in other top organizations instead of investing all of your efforts into making the UFC roster.

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to manage a career. Some have taken risks that have paid off while others have taken no risks and were left stuck in one place. It is crucial that fighters educate themselves, explore their options, strive to reach other top organizations besides the UFC and use their own brand development to leverage higher pay. In a free enterprise economy, those who play the game always have a 100% better chance of winning than those who don’t.

Cheers,

Bill

For more of my thoughts on recent MMA news and events, check out the latest episode of MMA on the Rocks.

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