In July, UFC President Dana White announced that the company’s co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta had sold their majority ownership stake of the company to representatives from WME-IMG group for over $4 billion. While White also some of his small ownership stake, he struck a deal with the new owners to stay on as the UFC’s president. This ended a 15-year era in which the UFC went from a dying organization operating out of smoky bars to hosting a huge pay-per-view event in a brand new Las Vegas arena. But with the Fertitta brothers moving on to other possible ownership opportunities, it means that two of the most anti-union operators in sports are no longer at the helm of the UFC. It won’t be easy, but now seems to be the best time in the UFC’s history for the fighters to band together and unionize. There have been some fighters who have publicly expressed their changing attitude towards the UFC after seeing how much money the company pulled in for the sale, but others remain skeptical. With all that being said, the path to a UFC fighter’s union is still an uphill battle, and some huge stars may have to take a risk to start a revolution.
About a month after the UFC announced they sold the company to WME-IMG, a new organization called the Professional Fighters Association launched their website with a specific message for UFC fighters. A press release featured on the home page of the site made it very clear what the association’s intentions were.
“The Professional Fighters Association (PFA) has been established today to represent the collective interests of the fighters employed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC),” the release said. “It is the goal of the PFA to organize these hard-working athletes so that they may collectively bargain their terms and conditions of employment pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The PFA will not only be a union of fighters, but it will be governed solely by fighters… The scales have been tipped in favor of the UFC for too long. It is time for the fighters — the one’s responsible for the UFC’s success — to receive their equal share.”
— Fighters Association (@FightersAssoc) August 11, 2016
The release talked a big game, but there have been attempts at forming figher’s unions before, and they all fell flat. The difference between those efforts and the efforts of the PFA is who’s at the helm for the association. Jeff Borris is the president of PFA, and a powerful sports agent who represented some of baseball’s biggest names–including Barry Bonds. Borris has been through multiple labor stoppages in different sports leagues with his clients. In an interview with MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani, Borris explained that a meeting with Dana White and fellow agent Lloyd Pierson was what made him want to start a fighter’s union.
“He kind of scoffed at the idea [of a union]” Borris told Helwani. “I walked out of the meeting and I turned to Lloyd and told him ‘I’m gonna unionize these guys.'”
Borris hasn’t been shy at all in communicating with UFC officials after forming the PFA. He was front and center at a press conference the UFC held for the UFC 202 event, and was later asked to leave the media day for the fighters. He called new UFC owner and fellow famed super-agent Ari Emanuel in hopes to open a line of communication and get the new ownership’s view on the possibility of unionization. According to Borris, the call didn’t go very well.
“He, in a tone only my wife speaks to me in, says ‘Don’t ever call me again. I don’t want to speak to you. I don’t want to have anything to do with you,’” Borris told Helwani. Borris claimed he then sent Emanuel the following text message:
“I think that’s unprofessional. I’ll let you get away with that now. But once we become a union and we’re certified by the National Labor Relations Board, you’re gonna have to take my phone call and you’re gonna be forced to.”
I certainly respect Borris’ confidence and drive to get this union going. However, what he needs the most and has very little control over is the attitude of the fighters themselves. UFC as an organization has a terrible reputation when it comes to fairly compensating fighters. Fighters are employed by UFC as independent contractors, but also must abide by a uniform code and cannot have outside sponsors on their uniforms as they did in many years past. With this desperation for fighters that are lower down the card to make more money, it leads to a more cutthroat, everyone for themselves attitude rather than a unified ideology. Take UFC 200 for example. The UFC’s biggest draw, Conor McGregor, was removed from the event for failing to meet media obligations set by the UFC. Instead of fighters using their voices to say how unjust it was that he was removed from an event for not traveling extensively to press conferences, fighters begged Dana White to take his place for less money than McGregor would’ve made. It will take a lot of work to convince fighters that they should risk their spot in the UFC to stand up against their bosses and demand more money and benefits.
There haven’t been many fighters that have spoken about joining the PFA or throwing their full support behind a union. A big name like McGregor may have to get involved to put any real power behind the big unionization effort. However, some fighters have taken time to speak out for the need for a fighter’s union. Women’s bantamweight fighter Leslie Smith has been a longtime proponent of a union. Recently Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone said he was on board for a fighter’s union. Cerrone was fined by Reebok for wearing an American flag patch on his fight shorts, a patch he’s worn for every professional fight he’s had.
“It’s like, if guys are getting fined or guys are acting up, we work as a team of fighters to decide should he get fined, how much should he get fined, so it’s kind of another family to fall back on and approach a situation that we have problems with,” Cerrone told MMAFighting. “Right now we have no say.”
While there is some momentum for a union to be started by the fighters, it’s still in the very beginning stages. There are a lot of benefits to a fighter’s union, but it might greatly cut into the UFC’s profits. Since the UFC isn’t publicly traded, their books aren’t open to public view–thus, no one really knows how much unionization by the fighters would hurt the UFC’s bottom line. However, in my opinion it is essential that the UFC eventually allows the PFA to create a formal fighter’s union. The UFC says they signed an exclusive uniform deal with Reebok to make the sport more legitimate and like the NFL, NBA, etc. All those professional sports leagues also have player’s unions. They come to a collective bargaining agreement every few years and split revenues almost evenly among players and ownership. The UFC is nowhere near that and in my eyes it makes them less legitimate as a sports league. A lot has changed recently in the UFC, and the need for a union and collective bargaining is higher than ever now that the public and the fighters know exactly how much the organization is worth. What lies ahead is a long battle between Borris, fighters, and the powerful bosses of the UFC. It will likely be reminiscent of one of those brutal five-round fights that have made the UFC so famous.