Fighters can lose and still win in class-action lawsuit against the UFC

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I was riding the train at 3 p.m. Central Time on Monday. That coincided with Monday’s press conference announcing a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC brought forth by current UFC fighter Cung Le and ex-UFC fighters Nate Quarry and Jon Fitch. That meant I spent my ride on a never-ending scroll through Twitter for updates.

Those updates were interspersed with all kinds of insta-takes about the lawsuit, the lawsuit’s merits, the fighters involved, Rob Maysey’s tears, and so on. The UFC would burn if the plaintiffs won! The plaintiffs didn’t have a case! The plaintiffs had a great case! These guys are just washed up ex- (or soon to be ex-) UFC fighters making a money grab! Dana White is bald! GSP is a sandwich!

More sober takes have emerged in the presser’s wake. Todd Martin, an attorney and contributor to both the LA Times and Sherdog, doesn’t see a strong case. Paul Gift, an economist with experience as an expert witness in antitrust cases, lays out his understanding of the case (in two parts here and here) and suggests (in my opinion) an uphill battle for Cung and co. MMA Fighting’s Luke Thomas, in Tuesday’s Live Chat, describes the plaintiffs reaching and winning a jury trial, and I’m paraphrasing here, as “hitting five consecutive grand slams.”

But Thomas also suggests that the plaintiffs might be trying to slap a single rather than hit a grand slam (or five). In that regard, it’s important to shift your parameters of what winning and losing looks like here.

From my perspective (that of a reasonably intelligent person without any education or training in the law), the only way the fighters – and I’m speaking of the fighters as a whole; not just the three listed plaintiffs – lose is if the case is dismissed outright in the pretrial stage. I’m not sure that gives the UFC confidence to press its boot to the fighters’ necks even further, but it affirms that their dealings up to this point – in combination with the FTC closing its own antitrust investigation without incident – have been in accordance with the law.

Past that, however, and it’s a win for the fighters, however marginal the end result. Getting past an early dismissal at least sends the message that the fighters have a case to make. But the biggest victory outside a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs – and again for the fighters as a collective group and not just the plaintiffs – might just involve getting the UFC to open its books.

Up to this point, the UFC has avoided any detailed look inside its finances. We’ve seen overall revenue numbers from places like Forbes and every so often news pops up about the company’s credit rating. We know pay-per-view makes up (a declining) bulk of their business, with TV deals both domestic and abroad providing a more stable stream from the variance of monthly PPVs. We know the base pay and performance bonuses they pay to fighters in places like Nevada and California, but what that money (plus things like PPV and now-infamous “locker room” bonuses) represents as a percentage of total revenues has been a mystery.

The UFC has long claimed that they don’t release full salary info to protect the fighters. Make that info public, Dana White says, and fighters have to deal with family and friends latching on like barnacles. Never mind that fighting at the top level in the UFC, let alone as a champion, is enough of a signal to these sorts of hangers-on. It’s a tactic oft-used by the UFC: act in a way beneficial to the company, then find a way to make it appear as a positive for the fighters. (We’ve seen this recently with the company’s handling of the Reebok uniform deal. After depleting the sponsorship market with a tax, the UFC was able to step in with Reebok in hand and proclaim the benefits of this guaranteed money.)

Of course, the UFC keeps salary info private to suppress wages. It’s more difficult to negotiate your fair worth when you don’t have benchmarks with which to compare yourself. You saw this in practice two years ago when Ben Henderson signed a new lucrative eight-fight deal when details of the UFC’s offer to Eddie Alvarez emerged during the matching fiasco with Bellator. Fighters becoming privy to the UFC’s accounting would give them a better hand at the negotiating table.

The UFC desperately wants to avoid that scenario, which is why they’ll fight hard to get the case thrown out as quickly as possible. But if they can’t? That’s a win for the fighters.

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