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Thursday, November 20, 2008
UFC Management to All UFC Fighters: "Sign Away Lifetime Rights to Your Own Likeness, Or You're Fired"
by Ivan Trembow
After spending the past several months applying heavy pressure to its roster of fighters to sign new merchandising agreements and now releasing/firing fighters who won't, the UFC's management has inadvertently made the strongest case that has ever been made that MMA fighters need to have a union.
The merchandising agreements that Zuffa is attempting to threaten fighters into signing (ie, sign it or you're going to be released) requires the fighters to sign over to Zuffa/UFC the rights to those fighters' own likenesses, and not just for the length of their contract, or for five years, or for ten years. The fighters must sign over the rights to their own likenesses for the rest of their lives and even beyond.
When many fighters balked at signing such a ridiculous contract, the members of Zuffa's management did what they normally do whenever there is a contractual disagreement: They played hardball.
Any new fighter coming into the UFC had no choice in the matter: You either sign the contract that permanently signs away the rights to your own likeness, or you won't be signing with the UFC. Among the fighters who have shown no willingness to sign away their lifetime rights to the UFC is Fedor Emelianenko, the #1-ranked heavyweight in the sport.
In the cases of fighters who are already under contract to the UFC, Zuffa used a different de-facto threat: Sign the merchandising contract or we're going to release you.
After a little back-and-forth that likely consisted of something like, "No, seriously, we're not going to sign away the lifetime rights to our own likenesses" and then, "Yes, you are, because you've got nowhere else to make money in this business and you have to sign whatever we tell you to sign," the other shoe finally dropped and the UFC has started releasing/firing fighters who will not sign the merchandising contracts.
The first high-profile causuality of this edition of "The Threatening Game" was Jon Fitch, who is the #2-ranked welterweight fighter in the world according to MMAWeekly's World MMA Rankings. Fitch is tied with Royce Gracie for the all-time record of most consecutive wins in the UFC, as he went 8-0 in his first eight UFC fights before finally losing to #1-ranked welterweight Georges St. Pierre by unanimous decision this past August. Even with the loss to St. Pierre, Fitch remains a strong #2 in the worldwide welterweight rankings, in part because of his stellar record and in part because of the fact that he previously fought, dominated, and TKO'ed the current #3-ranked welterweight Thiago Alves in a UFC fight.
Of course, none of this matters to Zuffa. Fitch didn't give in to their threats, so now he has been released/fired. So has Christian Wellisch. The UFC intends to release any other fighters who do not sign the merchandising contracts, and that list could include such high-profile fighters as Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, and Cain Velasquez.
In a Yahoo Sports article, Zuffa president Dana White actually framed the issue as if the fighters who don't want to sign away the lifetime rights to their own likenesses are the ones who are being unreasonable. White said, "We’re looking for guys who want to work with us and not against us, and frankly I’m just so f--king sick of this s--t, it’s not even funny."
Regarding fighters like Fitch who won't give into the UFC's demands to sign the merchandising agreements, White said, "F--k him. These guys aren’t partners with us. F--k them. All of them, every last f--king one of them.”
Regarding undefeated heavyweight prospect Cain Velasquez, whom White previously pushed as being potentially the future of the heavyweight division, White said, "Cain f--king Velasquez, with two f--king fights, wants us to change it for him? That’s f--king nuts. He can get the f--k out."
Also on Wednesday night / Thursday morning, White told USA Today, "We don’t do anything wrong. We treat everybody the right way and we treat people the way that we want to be treated.”
As he dug a bigger hole for himself, White used the same kind of rationale in the Yahoo Sports interview that he has used in private negotiations about fighters not having anywhere else to make money if they don't sign with the UFC: “Do these guys understand what is going on in this world? I’ll tell you, this economy is f--cked up. It’s totally f--cked up. It’s bad, real, real bad. The [television] networks are in trouble and don’t have money. The sponsors are in trouble, and they have no money. If they don’t have money, they go out of business. It’s a whole other world out there, believe me, and let these guys go out there and see what they find.”
Of course, the statements about the economy have nothing to do with the merchandising agreements themselves, but they have everything to do with the UFC threatening fighters into signing away their rights by making the case that the fighters are not going to be able to make much money for very long in other MMA companies.
Fitch said in an interview with USA Today, "That was one of the direct threats from Dana himself. He was saying, 'Where are these guys going to go? They have to sign.' ... He was telling us, 'Okay, you're going to get cut. Have fun fighting for Affliction. Where are you guys going to go? You have nowhere to go.' That was in the threat that he used against us. They know that they have more power now. They know that there's no one who really can hold a candle to them."
White certainly can't be making the point that the UFC itself is in any kind of financial trouble. They have $300 million in annual revenue according to S&P. They just had a PPV event with a gross of $54 million if the UFC’s own estimates are accurate (so Zuffa’s share would be roughly $27 million). They have a TV deal that pays them over $33 million per year, and that’s without factoring in the extra fees for numbered UFC events that take place in the U.K. They pay their athletes, as a whole, a lower percentage of gross revenue than the athletes in any other major sport.
As Fitch said to Yahoo Sports, "The first thing they brought to us was for us to sign all of our rights away for everything forever. It was for very small compensation, and there was no compensation for family members if we were to die... We could die and they could make memorial figurines and stuff and make thousands, millions of dollars, and our families wouldn’t see a penny of it. The way they bring the contracts and stuff to us, I don’t know, it’s just not how business is done."
Fitch acknowledged in the interview that he and other fighters were willing to sign away their likenesses for longer than the terms of their UFC contracts, even for up to ten years, but the UFC wanted lifetime rights or nothing. Fitch said, "We tried to negotiate five- or ten-year deals with them, but it wasn’t good enough. It was all or nothing. He wanted our lifetime... I’m more than willing to work with them, but I don’t see why we have to give up our whole lives for this. Why not a time limit? If we did a ten-year deal with them, is that that unreasonable?"
As Fitch told MMAWeekly, "It's not like I've been bad mouthing them or doing anything negative toward the UFC at all. All I've done is go out there and fight my ass off. I'm at a loss. I don't even know what to think right now. I'm still kind of in shock."
Fitch added, "Within two phone calls, it got to, 'Sign this or you guys are out [of the UFC].' ... "They brought this contract to us and basically kicked in our front door, came in guns blazing, and said, 'Sign this contract or you're dead.'"
Fitch elaborated on that point in an interview with USA Today: "They come in and they threaten you and try to bully you. It's really disrespectful. I can't even believe they'd treat someone like this in daily life, let alone business... When's it going to stop? ... What's the next thing they're going to force us into signing?"
It appears as though part of the UFC's motivation for releasing Fitch is to strike fear into other fighters by showing them that anyone, even the #2-ranked welterweight in the world, can be released if they don't sign the merchandising agreement.
As Sam Caplan wrote on Five Ounces of Pain, "With Fitch, the UFC can make a major statement and strike the fear of God into everyone... Sources have stated that UFC officials chose to make an example of Fitch to send a message to other agents and managers. The feeling was that Fitch was expendable and his status as an elite fighter would be an effective way to help try and convince other fighters to fall in line."
Fitch agrees with that sentiment, as he told USA Today, "I think that's one of the things they're trying to do is to publicly break us, or get rid of us, kind of make an example for all of the rest of the fighters."
Indeed, Fitch's release was not the first shot on Wednesday in the UFC's game of fear, intimidation, and making examples out of people in order to get what they want. The first thing they did was release Fitch's teammate, Christian Wellisch. Regarding Wellisch, Fitch told Sherdog, "They cut him from the organization first, I think as kind of a scare for me and [Josh] Koscheck and Cain [Velasquez]."
It's crystal clear in USA Today's interview with Dana White that what the UFC is trying to do is separate the fighters from their managers, whose job is to look out for the best interests of the fighter (as opposed to just signing whatever the UFC orders the fighters to sign).
White cites Mike Swick as an example of a model employee, a “partner” as he words it, who called White personally and said to forget about his management because he’s with the UFC.
White says in the same interview that if Fitch would just call him and do the same thing (ie, separate himself from his management and agree to sign what the UFC wants him to sign), that White would do that in two seconds.
The message to fighters is clear: If you want to keep fighting in the UFC, but your manager or lawyer advises you against signing the merchandising agreement, you can just ditch your manager, contact me directly, and sign whatever I tell you to sign.
In the USA Today interview, White also puts unnamed “other MMA camps” on notice that he’ll cut off all relations with them just like he did with Fitch's camp if they don’t do what he wants.
The Yahoo Sports article also quotes Fitch as saying that he has been a loyal UFC employee and “I’d only like a little bit of respect for the blood I shed for this company.” The next line of the article is, "White said he has sacrificed more than anyone to build the UFC into the powerhouse it has become and that he’s tired of athletes who don’t want to 'get with the program.'"
Really? Dana White has had to work a side-job as a bouncer just to make ends meet, as Fitch did as recently as last year even though he signed with the UFC in 2005? Dana White has looked like this after UFC events, as Fitch did after the St. Pierre fight? Dana White has had ten-week-long training camps away from his family to build the UFC, as many UFC fighters have? Dana White has physically gotten beaten up and had broken bones and concussions to build the UFC, as many UFC fighters have? Dana White has had to train months for a fight that only paid him $3,000, as many UFC fighters have?
White continued to dig the hole deeper for himself in an interview on the Carmichael Dave Radio Show. According to Five Ounces of Pain, White "became so angry that the amount of expletives he used exceeded the station’s delay, prompting Carmichael to place the UFC president on hold."
White also said on the Carmichael Dave show, "It’s like all the media wants to jump up and go ‘Oh, the UFC! The UFC!' Shut up! Shut up. Every one of you, shut your mouth. Mind your business."
He is apparently unaware that covering the sport is the media’s business, not just putting out slightly re-worded press releases.
When Carmichael started to read a quote from a Jon Fitch interview, White interrupted and said, “Do you know how much Jon Fitch made for the Georges St. Pierre fight? Where the hell else could Jon Fitch go right now and make the money he made? He made $169,000 for that night for that fight. Where’s he going to make that kind of money in one night?”
Putting aside the fact that Fitch could very well make more money than that in one night at least in the short-term in another MMA company, this is an attitude that the UFC has consistently shown. They paid a fighter a significant amount of money to main-event a pay-per-view event that generated tens of millions of dollars in gross revenue for Zuffa and millions of dollars in net profit for Zuffa, therefore the fighter owes them some debt of gratitude.
The UFC also makes it a point to always say that they hate talking about money... until the second there’s a contract dispute of some kind, in which case they will voluntarily get very specific, right down to the dollar amount.
It is counter-productive for the UFC to take such a hard stance and to publicly make such fools of themselves while discussing the subject. Zach Arnold of FightOpinion.com put it very well:
"This situation will ensure negative media attention and probably take away a fair amount of good-will that was earned in the major sports media over the weekend with Brock Lesnar’s title win. No other ‘major sport’ has issues like this, but then again most other ‘major sports’ have players associations/unions... I find it rich that Dana White is now playing: the victim card, the economy-sucks card (a few days after a $4.8 million USD gate in Las Vegas and claims of 1.2 million PPV buys), the you-with-me-or-against-me card, and now the we-want-all-your-likenesses-for-life-you-independent-contractor card." (Full article link here)
In conclusion, if there was ever any doubt that fighters need a union, this kind of bullying and threatening behavior by the UFC's management reinforces the need for a union. Through their own hubris, the UFC has actually made the case for a fighters' union in a stronger way than anyone ever has in the past.
Long after this particular situation passes, the UFC is going to continue with this kind of despotic behavior for as long as they can get away with it. Until there is a union, the fighters have no leverage with which to challenge the UFC's behavior.