By Zach Arnold | January 15, 2012
Photo credit: Zuffa LLC (from interview Lorenzo did with Joe Rogan)
If you don’t have time to watch the full show video, you can read a relatively detailed summary right here.
After watching this morning’s Outside the Lines video piece on the issue of how much Zuffa pays their fighters, I came away conflicted in terms of how damaging or not-damaging the segment was.
Let’s state the obvious — after watching the lengthy segment, there’s nothing new that you and I learned from it. All the issues that have been discussed over the years on this site, on message boards, on Sherdog, and other media outlets were covered in the ESPN piece. The dreaded champion’s clause in contracts, no Muhammad Ali act for MMA, arguments over how much UFC is paying out as a % of business income to fighters, the use of shower/off-the-book bonuses, the FTC investigation into Zuffa buying Strikeforce, so on and so forth. If you’re a hardcore MMA fan, you already know these issues and have an opinion about where things stand.
However, if you’re not a hardcore online MMA fan and you don’t pay attention to the business side of the industry, it was quite a jolt to see ESPN talking about topics like the ’sponsor tax’ openly. Whatever the size of the audience may be for the show (100,000? 200,000?), Outside the Lines is the same program that made waves a couple of months ago with the tapes of now-fired Syracuse coach Bernie Fine’s wife talking about issues relating to Bobby Davis, a former ball boy for Syracuse’s basketball team. I think this, more than anything else, is why UFC has been trying to prepare its fan base online the last few days for what was coming.
There were parts both good and bad about the segment. UFC says that they taped the video interview between Lorenzo Fertitta and John Barr so that they would have evidence to put online to show that, somehow, ESPN unfairly edited what was shown on TV. This tactic by UFC is one used by smarter politicians who have aides taping interviews so that if the media takes statements out of context that the campaigns can release the footage unedited to counter the media narrative. With that said, I really didn’t see much editing from ESPN on the segment that warrants the freak-out reaction that the company has demonstrated in the press. If anything, I think the company’s strong reaction online before the interview aired only drove more people to want to see what the fuss was all about. As for Lorenzo’s interview performance, he did about as good of a job as you could expect someone in his position to do.
However… if there was one ‘wedge’ moment created by ESPN during the interview, it would have to do with the number (%) that UFC pays its fighters. Rob Maysey, our old friend, says the number is around 5-10%. Monte Cox, the one agent who would go on camera for ESPN, also spoke out about UFC fighter pay. John Barr asked Lorenzo if UFC paid its fighters on the a similar level to what the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB pay their athletes (the estimate being pushed was 50%). Lorenzo stated that UFC pays their fighters on a similar level. This huge gap between what Rob and Lorenzo claim is paid out is probably the big takeaway if you’re in sports media and you watched the segment.
As for who actually went on camera to speak out against Zuffa? Ken Shamrock spoke for a couple of minutes and, while I understand what he was trying to say about how much power UFC has in MMA, he didn’t articulate his points well enough to the casual sports fans who tuned in to see what the gripe is about. Ken said that if you’re a fighter right now, you don’t have anywhere else to go to make a good living if you anger Zuffa. For most sports fans, they hear a remark like that and their immediate takeaway is, ‘well, if you don’t like what the pay is, go find another job.’ So, in that sense, I didn’t think Ken’s testimony here was all that effective.
The guest panel with Bob Ley during the segment was Ricco Rodriguez (sporting a sweater vest), Josh Gross, and Rob Maysey. If you’re a Zuffa defender, you obviously don’t think this is a fair panel at all. But that’s kind of the point that ESPN, without screaming, was trying to hammer home. John Barr made it very clear that fighters and agents did not want to go on camera to talk about Zuffa because of fear of losing their jobs. As you watched the segment and you realized that the only guys speaking out are those on the outside (Ken, Ricco), the immediate impression conveyed by ESPN (in my opinion) is that UFC’s ‘independent contractors’ are so scared to speak out that it’s like watching political dissidents in a country run by a totalitarian regime. That, I think, more than anything else is why UFC got so hot and bothered by this segment.
The main question to ask is this — is this OTL segment going to stop the Zuffa machine from continuing to run its business as they are currently running it? No. Did ESPN raise the stakes by basically taking topics that the online MMA audience has been talking about for years now to a television platform? Yes. The only way people will end up caring about this OTL segment down the road is if what Lorenzo says in his financial claims are so off base that there becomes a major credibility issue.
Will major MMA web sites address the topics ESPN broached in a serious manner or will this quickly turn into a ‘defend UFC at all costs?’ bee hive mentality? I expect the latter but wish the former would happen. Michael David Smith:
But the fact that ESPN couldn’t get any active fighters to speak — and especially to reveal specific dollar amounts — was the biggest flaw in the report. The report did make a strong case that highly paid UFC fighters make far more than low-level fighters make. In that respect the UFC follows a pay model similar to that of Hollywood studios, where a handful of stars make the bulk of the money, and the bit players are left with much less.
It’s not a bug if it’s viewed as a feature by the reporters.