UFC Women’s Bantamweight Leslie Smith and “Project Spearhead”

Is the long-elusive effort to unionize MMA fighters finally in the hands of people with the determination to see it through?

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Article courtesy of Paul Hadley Miller of MMA Freaks.

In early February 2018, UFC Bantamweight Leslie Smith announced the latest effort to unionize MMA fighters, called  Project Spearhead. Led by labor attorney Lucas Middlebrook (known in MMA circles as Nick Diaz’s attorney), Project Spearhead places Smith in the position of President and spokesperson. The two collaborated in 2016 on an ill-fated attempt to unionize fighters called Professional Fighters Association, but they severed ties with that now-defunct organization after a breach of confidentiality in which a list of potential members was leaked to the media.

With the recent announcement, it seems as though Middlebrook and Smith (along with fighters Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta) have the framework in place to finally see fighter unionization through to fruition. One look at the Project Spearhead website makes it clear that Middlebrook has developed a methodical plan that has better potential for success where other efforts failed.

Why Unionize? 

The answer to this question may be academic to those who follow the MMA world closely. But to others who just tune into Fight Night or buy pay-per-views, it may not be apparent. For a stark crash-course on the main justifications for a union, look no further than the complete list of UFC Fighter Salaries for 2017.

As you can see at the link, many of the fighters who may appear in the eyes of fans to be star athletes in the premier organization of the world’s fastest-growing combat sport, are in reality people living hand-to-mouth, struggling to put food on the table, working other jobs, supported by family, or perhaps even on public assistance. To break it down into meaningful numbers:

  • In 2017 there were 538 fighters on the UFC roster.
  • Only 6 fighters earned over $1,000,000.
  • No one earned over $2,600,000 (GSP)
  • Only 3 of those 6 – Cormier, Woodley, & GSP – were champions in 2017.
  • All other UFC champions earned less than $1 million.
  • Only 182 out of 538 fighters on the UFC roster earned 6 figures in 2017.
  • That leaves 356 out of 538 fighters who earned 5 figures.
  • Of those, 219 fighters earned less than the average US household ($45k).
  • And of those, 48 fighters earned $12,500 or less.

These numbers don’t take into account negotiated percentages of pay-per-view buys, but those percentage points are reserved for fighters on the main card of a pay-per-view event. In other words, most of the fighters earning those PPV points are fighters already earning the more handsome salaries.

So the reality regarding UFC fighter pay is that only the very few at the top of the pay-scale are earning anything remotely close to a professional athlete’s salary when compared to any other high-profile sports. The large majority of fighters are not earning pay that anyone would consider commensurate with a professional athlete. And a hefty plurality of fighters are not even earning enough to sustain their families, not to mention earning enough to focus 100% on their fighting career as one would expect a professional athlete to do.

Now take into account the physical sacrifice of these athletes, the risk they take for our entertainment, and the dreadfully short window of opportunity for them to earn money as a professional fighter. Most of these fighters will never be able to offer any type of security for the future of their families based on what they are being paid by the UFC, and that’s a shame. It’s wrong.

Then consider the elimination of sponsorship revenue that was ushered in by the Reebok uniform deal, further hampering the fighters’ ability to capitalize on their career by prohibiting self-negotiated sponsorships on uniforms, and paying a small stipend for the “privilege” of wearing Reebok. Adding insult to injury, the UFC has now arbitrarily altered the Reebok deal, and fighters can only hope that the UFC doesn’t alter the deal further. Now, instead of earning a pittance for wearing the Reebok Fight Kits, fighters earn the same pittance for wearing the Reebok gear, adhering to a code of conduct, and fulfilling media obligations. This isn’t payment for sponsorship. This is coercion under threat of financial penalty.

Combined with other points of contention like health insurance and retirement benefits, this all adds up to a situation where the UFC appears to be exploiting the aspirations of most of the fighters on their roster in ways that demonstrate no respect for the great sacrifices they make, not to mention the fact that without fighters, there literally is no UFC.

The Plan 

Middlebrook has a plan to fix these inequities, and Leslie Smith is the public face of the effort. So far, she appears to be up to the task, and ready to dig in for the hard work ahead. Project Spearhead has short and long-term goals. The first goal is to establish legally whether fighters are independent contractors or employees of the UFC, since labor law applies to those two statuses differently. Employees can unionize, and gain all the legal protections and procedures that come with it. Independent contractors can only form voluntary associations in an effort to use collective pressure for bargaining power. Project Spearhead contends that the UFC pays fighters like independent contractors, but treats them like employees, and details for this assertion are listed on their website. Having this question legally settled will inform next steps in the process.

In order to accomplish this first step, they will need 30% of fighters on the UFC roster (roughly 150) to sign confidential authorization cards, which Project Spearhead will then submit to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB will examine 11 criteria to determine whether under the law, UFC fighters are employees or independent contractors. If the NLRB determines the fighters are employees, then the effort to unionize can move forward. If not, Project Spearhead will switch gears to building a voluntary fighters association – a much more difficult road, but seemingly worth the effort.

My Take

Yours Truly is generally against unionization, because unions invariably evolve into entities that exist more for their own perpetuation than for bridging divides between employees and employers. Once initial inequities are addressed and a new status-quo is established, unions ultimately benefit from creating strife among the two factions they are supposedly negotiating between. But there is a place for unions when employees are being exploited, and in this instance, I fully support the goals of Project Spearhead.

I’m all for a financially healthy and robust UFC. I want the UFC to earn profits, because a profitable UFC will continue to bring us the very best in Mixed Martial Arts. But I don’t want UFC profitability to come at the cost of fighter pay and benefits. Fighters have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to earn a living as professional athletes, and making a choice to become a fighter should not result in a life of financial hardship after that window closes. If you’re good enough to be on the UFC roster, you should be paid enough to secure a future for your family. UFC fighters should be compensated like professional athletes in every way, and it appears that Leslie Smith and Project Spearhead are on a trajectory to make it happen.

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