This Friday, the world of MMA will converge on the Venetian hotel for the MMA Awards, which will feed athletes’ bank accounts as well as their egos.
That’s because fighters work for themselves, not directly for corporations.
Every win, every award, every Tweet can boost their fan base, all the better for selling tickets, pay-per-views, and product tie-ins.
I asked the award show’s returning co-host, Brian Stann, to give me insights into the financial states of fighters.
“Wins bring money. Wins get you better match-ups. They get you higher placements on fight cards, which bring in more endorsement dollars,” Stann said.
“These awards — because they’re fan-voted — they mean a lot to these men and women. You’ll see a lot of people who do get nominated kind of campaign for themselves a little bit on social media to win.”
Here’s a big deal: The UFC inked an exclusive apparel deal with Reebok in December. That means fighters can’t take money from companies to put logos or banners on clothes during bouts, nixing that source of income.
“Fighters have got to think outside of the box to get major endorsement contracts,” Stann said. “Instead of a sponsorship model, it’s got to go truly to a spokesperson model.”
In other words, fighters have to create their own money-making brands, much like NFL, NBA and MLB players do — even though fighters don’t get salaries like athletes do in those labor sports.
Stann said the only thing he wanted to say to me at the moment about fighter pay is this.
“When you are a successful UFC fighter (especially in the top 15 rankings), and you have some staying power, and you win consistently enough, it’s not real difficult to make six-figures a year,” Stann said.
“But you’ve gotta have the charisma. You’ve gotta get the spokesperson contract. A lot of things have to fall in place, like winning awards like this, so you can separate yourself from the pack.”
If you’re not in the top 15, and you have no charisma? Good luck.
Stann said stars at the awards show (WorldMMAAwards.com) get along for the most part, because top-level fighters respect what each person lays on the line.
“It’s a job that a huge percentage of people can never cope with: ‘OK, I’m going to go fight. My pay is a based on a 50 percent pay scale, so if I win I get twice the money and I get this bonus from this sponsor.’”
I asked him why MMA fighters haven’t devolved into the showbiz press conference throwdowns that make boxing press so volatile.
But he correctly disagreed with me, pointing out how MMA has been moving toward that showbiz model for years, with fighters who have the charisma to back up big words.
For instance, Michael Bisping is a polarizing, brash, confident smack-talker who makes “very, very good money because of it.”
“No matter what fight Michael Bisping is in, he finds a way to make it matter to fans to tune in,” Stann said.
Plus, there have been big talkers in Brock Lesnar, the Diaz brothers, Chael Sonnen, and BJ Penn. And there’s Conor McGregor and, of course, Ronda Rousey, who is (authentically) serious business.
“She’ll be honorable, but if you say one thing to cross that woman?” he said. “You’re going to get the eyebrows low and tight, and she’s coming to do one thing, to kick your butt.”
“Martial arts foundations are built on character and respect and honor,” Stann said.
“But once you show there’s financial incentive to breaking through the barrier, and opening your mouth a little bit, and being a salesman, you’re seeing more and more guys now jumping on that train.”
Stann joked that this new generation of fighters, with their more well-rounded athleticism, coaching and marketing savvy, make older fighters like Stann, 34, seem like “broken-down cars.”
I told him MMA fighters do seem to be upgrading as quickly as Terminator machines progressed in the “Terminator” movies, going from clunky Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Terminator made out of liquid metal.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “The first Terminator was like Randy Couture. Now you’ve got Terminator 6, and it’s Jon Jones.”
Contact Doug Elfman at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.