Since the UFC was sold in 2016 for a staggering $4 billion, a lot has been said about how much fighters are paid in the organization. After every UFC event when payouts are revealed, it seems like everyone’s eyes dart to the bottom of the card for the few fighters on the prelims who are still making $10-$12,000 show money. Arm-chair pundits ponder how a professional athlete can possibly be paid this low, and calls are made for fighters to form a union and collectivize efforts for higher pay. So, how do UFC fighters’ pay compare with the pay of athletes from other professional sports leagues? The numbers might surprise you!
Comparing pay in the UFC, NFL and NBA
For comparison, we looked at the NFL and NBA, which by average annual revenue, rank #1 and #3 in the world respectively. First, we looked at the total share of annual revenue each of these leagues paid to its players. Then, we compared the total number of athletes in each league (how many times the revenue was divided) to the number of performance minutes the athlete could expect to be played over a season. Performance minutes, for this article, are defined as the number of game-time minutes, or minutes performed ‘on-the-clock,’ and in competition, by a player or athlete of a particular sport, and the amount of time the player is in uniform and on the sideline with the potential to enter play. Please note, that when looking at NFL and NBA performance minutes, the number shown is the maximum number of minutes, not actual minutes played. The following is what we found:
Per the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, players receive roughly 48% of annual league revenue, and that will continue until the 2021 season. There are 16 games in an NFL season (not counting the pre or post season) each consisting of four 15-minute quarters, or 60 minutes per game. Thus, there is a maximum of 960 performance minutes (16×60) that an NFL athlete can be asked to play in any given regular season.
The average annual NFL players’ salary is $2.7 million. So, if we divide the average annual salary by performance minutes per season ($2.7 million/960 minutes), the average NFL player makes $2,812.50 per performance minute.
The NFL consists of 32 teams, each with a roster of 53 players, equaling 1,696 (32×53) players in total. Even though the NFL shares roughly 48% of its annual revenue with players, when divided among the total number of players in the league (48/1,696), we find that each NFL player receives an average share of .028% of revenue.
Per the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, players receive roughly 50% of annual league revenue. There are 82 games in an NBA season (not counting the pre or post season) each consisting of four 12-minute quarters, or 48 minutes per game. Thus, there is a maximum of 3,936 performance minutes (48×82) that an NBA athlete can be asked to play in any given regular season.
The average annual NBA players’ salary is $6.3 million. So, if we divide the average annual salary by performance minutes per season ($6.3 million/3,936 minutes), the average NBA player makes $1,600 per performance minute.
Despite constant calls for UFC fighters to collectivize, they are currently not part of a union, thus there are no collective bargaining agreements. Per a report on BJPenn.com, the UFC paid fighters roughly 16% of total revenue in 2019. Although the total number of fighters on the UFC roster changes often, Dana White has said that the number tends to hover around 500. This thread from 2018 counted the number at 585, and that is the number we will use for this analysis.
Even though the UFC has been constantly criticized for sharing only 16% of revenue with its fighters, when we divide that percent by the total number of fighters on the UFC roster (16/585) we see that the average UFC fighter receives .027% of total revenue – only 1/1000th of a percent lower than what the average NFL player receives from total NFL annual revenue.
Pay per performance minute is even more startling.
UFC 250 payouts have been released, with Amanda Nunes sitting at the top with a payday of $500,000. Her fight with Felicia Spencer went the distance, and after 25 minutes in The Octagon, Nunes walked away with a staggering $20,000 ($500,000/25) per performance minute.
Lower paid fighters that didn’t make it the distance did even better. Sean O’Malley was paid $80,000 for a 2 minute knockout of Eddie Wineland, earning a whopping $40,000 per performance minute.
Aljamain Sterling was paid $152,000 for a 90 second submission win over Cory Sandhagen, earning Sterling over $100,000 per performance minute.
Low man on the totem pole, Charles Byrd had a payout of merely $12,000. However, when calculating pay per performance minute, Byrd, who was dropped 1:10 in the second-round, for 6 minutes and 10 seconds of total time ($12,000/6), was paid roughly $2,000 per performance minute (20% higher than what the average NBA player receives per performance minute.)
UFC 250 had a total of 12 bouts equaling roughly 111 total performance minutes. Total fighter payouts for the event equaled $2,293,000. Thus, the average fighter on the UFC 250 card earned $20,658 ($2,293,000/111) per performance minute (more than 7x what the average NFL player earns per performance minute, and 12.5x more than what the average NBA player earns per performance minute.
Obviously, fighters train year-round and the amount of work that you see in The Octagon is merely a fraction of the total amount of work and preparation required to step into the cage. However, the same can be said of NFL and NBA athletes who also train year-round and whose sports have “off-seasons” where they are effectively unable to collect additional income based of of their main occupation for 6 months out of the year. Furthermore, revenues are made almost entirely through each sport’s athletes’ performance minutes (ie: Conor McGregor isn’t really making the UFC much money except for when he’s inside The Octagon).
Yes, the UFC could do more to guarantee fighters’ income when they are injured and unable to fight. Yes, the UFC should do more to protect and care for fighters when they are no longer able to perform (demonstrated by former UFC Heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia’s need to set up a GoFundMe to pay for surgery to repair an injury he sustained while fighting in the UFC.)
And yes, UFC fighters do have the right to establish a union and collectivize their labor should they agree to do so. However, as illustrated by the data and numbers above, UFC payouts are nowhere near as diminutive as arm-chair pundits continually claim them to be.
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