As mixed martial arts takes its place in the pantheon of ultra-lucrative mainstream sports and as the inevitable and necessary arguments over fighter pay and workers’ rights come with it, there appear to be three solid camps forming on the talent end of those arguments over how best for fighters to secure a bigger slice of what’s quickly becoming an enormous pie. The first camp—the traditionalist camp, and the one with the support of management—would keep things as they are, with fighters acting like the independent contractors they are, earning the right to higher pay through winning fights in the cage and grabbing attention out of it: every man for himself, a true meritocracy, capitalism at its purest. The second camp, which is rising quickly if not quickly enough, would have fighters forming a union and using their collective influence to bargain for things like higher pay, better health benefits, and a pension. This is the road every major American team sport has gone down, the road where the rising tide lifts all boats, not just those with title belts or outsized personalities. And considering the increasing corporatization and mainstreaming of the UFC and the sudden support for a union from name fighters like Donald Cerrone, this second camp seems poised to become a real movement, even if it’s later rather than sooner.
The third camp is Conor McGregor.
McGregor, who demolished Eddie Alvarez this weekend to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold belts in two different weight classes simultaneously, is a movement unto himself, a man beyond camps and historical precedents: a one-man bargaining force who at the moment is stronger on his own than any collective could be in negotiating with the new owners of the UFC. Whether this kind of influence and power will be good for McGregor’s fellow fighters in the long run is impossible to say at the moment, but it’s no doubt good for him.
Throughout the week leading up to Saturday night’s big event at Madison Square Garden, McGregor made repeated mentions of a document that was released at the end of October by the new owners of the UFC, WME-IMG, who bought the promotion for $4 billion back in July. In the document, designed to entice potential investors, the owners detail the UFC’s current financial state and its continuing upward trajectory. According to them, 2015 was the most successful year the promotion has had to date financially, bringing in $609 million, nearly $100 million more than it made in its second-best year, 2013. Thirty-nine percent of that revenue came from pay-per-view sales, with McGregor accounting for just over two million PPV buys in just two events during the year. Which means, assuming the UFC 205 pay-per-view-numbers come in as high as everyone expects them to, McGregor will have headlined four of the five most-successful PPV events in the history of the UFC, making him the single biggest driver of the company’s single biggest revenue stream.
So you’ll forgive McGregor for shrugging off his $3 million purse from the New York event and even his as-yet-undisclosed share of the event’s PPV revenue (his cut was reportedly $15 million for his August rematch with Nate Diaz) and for thinking much, much bigger. With UFC 205 set to break the promotion’s gate record and pay-per-view record, its biggest star (who, he just announced, has a baby on the way and therefore a new mouth to feed) now wants a chunk of the company he’s made into the monster it is. Like Conan O’Brien and Mark Wahlberg and Serena Williams and LL Cool J and Charlize Theron and all the other celebrity investors WME-IMG recruited back in September, McGregor wants to be a stakeholder
“They’ve got to come talk to me now because no one’s came and talked to me since the sale has happened as a businessman,” McGregor said at the post-fight press conference on Saturday night. “Who owns the company now? People have shares in the company. Celebrities. Conan O’Brien owns the UFC now. Where’s my share? Where’s my equity? If I’m the one that’s bringing this, they’ve got to come talk to me now. I’ve got both belts, a chunk of money, a little family on the way. If you want me to stick around, if you want me to keep doing this, let’s talk. But I want the ownership now. I want the equal share. I want what I deserve, what I’ve earned.”
McGregor then returned to the subject of the WME-IMG investor document, calling it, “the gospel” and “proof of what I bring.”
“You want me to be around, stick around and service that debt and continue to push the company, bring me on board for real,” he said. “Not just as this. I need to be set for life for this. If you want me to be truly in on this then I need to be all in on this, proper. As owner. Or have an equity stake in the company. That’s what I’m looking for.”
In Conor McGregor’s long and outlandish history of statements and actions, a desire to have an equity stake in the company he fights for might be the most outlandish of all. Athletes have become co-owners of teams but only after their playing days were done (Nolan Ryan and Michael Jordan come quickly to mind) or in a sport they don’t play (like LeBron James with Liverpool Football Club), but to be an equity owner in a promotion you work for would be unprecedented. One can only marvel at the implications and at the possible conflicts of interest: in terms of determining McGregor’s purse and pay-per-view share, in terms of deciding who he’ll fight and where, in terms of sparing the wrath of the company against those who might beat him. And if a fighters union does finally get formed and McGregor joins it, where would his loyalties lie during contract negotiations: with management or with labor? Knowing what we know about him, can you picture Conor McGregor doing anything that would take money out of his pockets? But something would have to give.
Then again, what better way for McGregor to contribute to the budding labor movement in MMA than to leverage his enormous influence to change UFC negotiating policies? Not to lead the union himself but to become the first fighter ever to force his desires onto an equal plane as the promotion’s, opening up possibilities for the union once it does finally get to the table? McGregor, who has made a habit out of insulting his fellow fighters on the UFC roster, may just turn out to be the source of those fighters’ financial salvation. Or he could just prove to be MMA’s most self-consumed star, indifferent to the needs of the less successful around him. Or he may have figured out a way to be one by first being the other.
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