The Unintended Consequences of the UFC-Reebok Deal

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Brad Barket/Getty Images

Brad Barket/Getty Images

The UFC announced its uniform deal with Reebok on Tuesday, finally putting the worst-kept secret in MMA to rest. Come July, UFC fighters will no longer be able to wear non-Reebok sponsor apparel in the cage, on the way to the cage, during fight week events, or during any UFC-produced content. The deal runs for six years, and, if Gareth Davies is to be believed, worth $70 million – the “vast majority” of which is going to the fighters, according to Lorenzo Fertitta.

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You can find all sorts of hot takes about whether this deal hurts or helps the fighters, betters the sport, lines the UFC’s coffers at the expense of its talent, etc. These takes boil down to speculation and conjecture without further details on terms.

However, Tuesday’s announcement came with some consequences that the UFC may or may not have expected.

1) UFC 181 Overshadowed

The UFC scheduled its “The Time Is Now” press conference on Nov. 17 with the intentions of unveiling its 2015 schedule and a big announcement (i.e., the Reebok deal). After the schedule was announced, the first question to Dana White was about the big announcement. The deal wasn’t done for whatever reason, and White was forced to show some ass in front of a large contingent of media at the Smith Center in Las Vegas and a bunch of goobers who tuned in to watch online.

The Reebok deal wound up being announced two weeks later, right smack dab in the middle of their usual pay-per-view event media push. Where there should be wall-to-wall coverage about UFC 181 – its two title fights and strong undercard arguably make it the best PPV value since UFC 175 – the MMA media landscape is instead littered with news and analysis and interviews regarding the uniforms.

Perhaps the UFC is banking on a “come for the Reebok, stay for the fights” promotional approach.

2) Official UFC Rankings Back in Spotlight

The UFC instituted official media rankings back in February to the same amount of fanfare you’d expect for an unwashed hairy man farting on a block of aged Swiss cheese. Most ethical journalists cited a conflict of interest and washed their hands of the proceedings, and the UFC accepted ballots from such credible outlets as “MMA Cafe,” “MMA Crossfire,” and a variety of regional sports talk radio stations.

Not surprisingly, the rankings stank something fierce, and everyone had a good time taking a potshot or fifteen. That became old hat quickly, and the rankings lingered in the background like a fart from a hairy man with the cheese and all that.

That is until Tuesday, because the UFC plans on paying out Reebok money based on ranking (and championship status). What was once a ballot that had some trivial-to-minor effect on a fighter’s career now has a serious financial one, and the rankings have become such a diarrhea bucket that Dana White had to tell people that he wanted a “smaller” rankings panel with “very credible and ethical” media people. Unfortunately for White, the kind of people he’s looking for have already declined, and adding an extra layer of ethical conundrum to the proceedings isn’t enticing anyone into second thoughts.

The UFC will likely wind up going one of two routes: 1) overhaul the system entirely, perhaps by generating the rankings in-house or 2) do nothing and hope no one cares to notice.

3) There’s Talk About Collective Bargaining and Labor Rights

The UFC claims they called 50 fighters leading up to the deal. That’s less than 10 percent of the UFC’s roster. Chris Weidman didn’t find out until Tuesday morning. These things are problems.

Revenue splits are collectively bargained by unions in the four major sports leagues in the United States, and payouts to members agreed upon by the members. Neither of these things took place in the UFC-Reebok deal. This is because fighters are independent contractors who cannot form a union.

That fact is unlikely to change, barring someone (more likely, someones) taking some sort of action on behalf of the fighters. But that hasn’t stopped media and fans from asking questions about how the UFC is in a position to not only impose a uniform (which can be used to determine contractor/employee status), but negotiate financials terms for its fighters to wear said uniforms. The UFC has also said nothing about how money will be divided in the event additional corporate sponsors are placed on shorts. Should that money go to the UFC, they will have essentially turned fighters into walking canvases.

We won’t know the net effect of the Reebok deal for some time now. In the short term, however, the UFC let more than one cat out of the bag, and it’s not going to be easy to get them back in.

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