The game has changed. Well, at least the free agency game in MMA has changed. What was once essentially nonexistent in the sport now seems to be the new hot topic. You’dl have to go back to the Pride FC days to find any other time like this in MMA free agency. Right now, fighters actually have options and there are promotions offering the fighters very comparable contacts to the ones put forth by the UFC.
This recent trend is very healthy for the sport, especially benefitting the fighters. With Bellator snatching guys like Benson Henderson, Phil Davis, Wanderlei Silva and, most recently, Matt Mitrione, it opens the door to the idea of leaving a top promotion such as the UFC. Fighters can fight out their UFC contracts and then dip their toes into the free-agent waters to see just how much they are worth.
What is more interesting is what led to this new landscape in the sport: the UFC Reebok deal.
The deal has completely wiped out a fighter’s ability to wear sponsors on their shorts, display sponsors on their banners or even just wear a t-shirt from a sponsor other than Rebook during fight week. These things have been a source of income for fighters since the early days of the sport. As of July 2015, that income stream dried up for fighters under UFC contract. Yes, they get some money for wearing Reebok, but most fighters are taking a huge pay cut when compared to what they made from outside sponsors.
This is an issue that is not currently present in Bellator. Fighters who fight under the Bellator MMA banner are free to put as many sponsors on their shorts as they like. Virtually every fighter who has signed with Bellator after they were previously with the UFC has stated publicly the sponsor situation in the UFC played a huge role in their decision-making process. Bellator is playing this card as well in its negotiations, as it should. In the press release announcing Mitrione’s signing, the company couldn’t help but to bring up the shoe incident that Mitrione suffered through — he was forced to go barefoot — while doing media before his UFC fight against Travis Browne.
Along with the Reebok ordeal, the UFC has other issues in correlation with the sponsorship structure. It is an issue we have heard come up again and again in recent months: fighter pay. The top stars make a whole lot of cash, but what about the rest of the roster? The UFC has notoriously low-balled some fighters in the past. But let’s not focus on that too much right now. Let’s just try to focus on the recent departures. Again, virtually every single one said Bellator easily offered more money, whereas some of the UFC offers were very incentive based.
Another reason why so many fighters are testing the market is because they did not like the offer they received from the UFC to re-up their contracts. Let’s take Rory MacDonald, for example. MacDonald revealed earlier this week in an interview with MMA Fighting that his upcoming fight against Stephen Thompson will be the last in his current contract. He also went on to say he and his team tried to negotiate a new deal before the contract runs out, but the two parties couldn’t come to terms. Translation? The UFC did not want to pay the asking price MacDonald and his team set. Therefore, one of the world’s best, and youngest, welterweights is set to hit the open market in the coming months.
Stories like that of MacDonald are becoming increasingly common nowadays. It is something the UFC will have to adjust to because it wasn’t typically a prior issue.
This is a very good thing that has happened recently in the sport. Everyone stands to benefit from this, but it is also important to know why this phenomenon has taken off within the past year. From Bellator making major changes in the front office to the UFC making some not so fighter-friendly decisions, this story is only going to grow. It will be interesting to see how both companies will adjust to this free-agency boom period we have entered. If the recent events are a preview of what’s to come, strap in. Amazing and unpredictable times lay ahead in this ever-evolving sport.