Fan Feedback: UFC sponsorships and Mexico training

Submitted by Mark Libell

I wanted to write and share a few thoughts about the UFC/Reebok deal in the context of the the Mexico card as the Reebok deal is about to go into place July 1. I’ve heard a lot of commentary in the media comparing the UFC to NFL/NBA etc. with regard to advertising on uniforms and the league ultimately controlling the uniform’s content. 

I think the better analogy though is NASCAR, not because fighters and drivers have the same demands on them, but because both are sports where the competitor funds their product. NASCAR teams find their own sponsors to subsidize the costs of fielding a car. MMA fighters have to subsidize the costs of training. NBA/NFL/MLB/Hockey/Soccer all are sports where the league/team covers the costs of training and the athlete doesn’t have to worry about raising money for that.  NASCAR is privately owned by the France family while UFC is privately owned largely by the Fertittas. 

In NASCAR/MMA, the athlete is responsible for helping recruit sponsors to subsidize the costs of competing. NASCAR drivers are walking billboards, oftentimes with sponsors that may compete with sponsors of NASCAR the entity. They need all those patches on their uniform or stickers on their car though to pool the money to have the equipment necessary to compete at a high level. Unless UFC is willing to put fighters on salary, or cover the costs of training, fighters should be able to make money off of sponsors fight week. Look at the recent Mexico City card. 

Gilbert Melendez has taken grief for not going to Mexico City sooner and is viewed as having wasted prior purses because he said he couldn’t afford it. (some folks seem to think the cost of moving a training camp to Mexico is as cheap as a spring break trip to Cancun, not factoring in the number of people involved, the necessary food/supplements, quality lodging for everyone, etc). But when you consider a fighter is living off of maybe three fight purses a year, is paying 35-40% or more of that in state and federal taxes, is paying a cut to managers and trainers and sparring partners, and has no retirement from the UFC, I can certainly believe it wouldn’t make financial sense to pay for extra weeks in Mexico in a world where sponsors have been dropping fighters ahead of the July 1 Reebok deal taking effect. In the UFC of a year ago, pre-Reebok announcement, maybe Melendez lines up enough sponsors to offset the costs of 3 or 4 extra weeks in Mexico. 

To someone making $40,000 a year, Melendez or other fighters might appear to have it made making $100,000 a fight or more, but they don’t factor in what the actual takehome pay for that fight is after tax/training and the years at the beginning of a fighter’s career where they make next to nothing and have no health insurance and could be running up debts,and the years after retirement where there is no fight-related pension. Fighters make a choice to go into this profession, but mma fighters in particular receive a fraction of the revenue they generate and can have short careers with extended periods of inactivity during them. 

With sponsors dropping fighters ahead of Reebok taking effect, rolling the dice on not going to Mexico was probably the smart financial risk. It was a close fight that Melendez could have won in which case he would have had win and show money and not incurred the costs of extra weeks in Mexico. Cathal Pendred went to Mexico early, won a boring fight and said he lost money on the deal. Melendez even with a win was still several fights from getting another title shot, and has a chance to redeem himself in San Diego in July. It’s easy to say in hindsight because he lost that going to Mexico early was the smart decision, but the economic realities for fighters make those decisions much more complicated, and those choices will only get tougher once Reebok takes effect and you can’t have any additional fight week sponsors.