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Can UFC Fighters Have Sponsors

UFC fighters have sponsorship when competing.

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Over the past decade, so much has happened in regard to the evolution of fighter sponsorships in the UFC. The days of Tapout and Venum shorts are long gone. But can fighters now have their own sponsors?

Back in May 2015, the UFC sealed a massive $70 million deal with Reebok to sponsor its fighters. This deal has continued right through to today and ended in March 2021. So fighters are contracted to wear only Reebok apparel when undergoing any UFC-related duties.

Shop Best Selling Fighter Apparel and MerchandiseCan UFC Fighters Have Sponsors

And it’s a deal that left an exceptionally bad taste in the mouth of many, who saw huge drops in their sponsorship income. The obvious long-term winner in the deal is the UFC itself.

While at the time the former CEO of Zuffa Lorenzo Fertitta did admit that the majority of the money would end up in the hands of the fighters themselves. The massive Reebok deal also opened up a whole new market for promotion. Allowing the UFC to utilise the vast reach of Reebok to get their apparel into local sporting goods stores.

On top of that, the deal was a way to take some of the power from the fighters’ managers in the sport. Who were sometimes all too often keen to throw a spanner in the works in terms of what their fighter would and would not sign up for in terms of their contractual obligations.

Criteria Of The Reebok Sponsorship Deal

Below is the Sponsorship deal now in place for active UFC fighters. A far cry from the kind of packages athletes were getting before its introduction.

  1. Fighters with between one and five UFC, WEC or Zuffa-era Strikeforce fights to receive $2,500 per fight
  2. Fighters with six to 10 will receive $5,000
  3. Fighters with 11 to 15 will receive $10,000
  4. Fighters with 16 to 20 will receive $15,000
  5. Fighters with 21 or more will receive $20,000
  6. Title challengers will receive $30,000
  7. Champions will receive $40,000 per fight.

So the Reebok deal was seen by many as a way for the UFC to take some of that power back. And at the very least minimise the influence that managers had over contract negotiations.

And What About The Fighters Themselves

Well, it’s not a simple case of a rising tide raising all boats. As in this particular case, it appeared for many to be a tide on its way out. Some newcomers to the sport earn some additional income when they would not have been wearing sponsored apparel before the new deal.

Now at the very least, they could hope to bag an additional $2,500 on top of their fight earnings, so not necessarily a bad deal for all those involved.

For some mid-tier to main-card fighters, the news was not so good. Many coming out on social media, airing their complete disgust at the drop in earnings they would not be experiencing.

Not shy in voicing their concerns, fighters such as Aljamain Sterling made it quite clear that this new deal would quite literally be taking money out of his pocket.

UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling celebrates his win inside the UFC octagon.
Aljamain Sterling celebrates his UFC win.

Along with top featherweight prospect Myles Jury who took the matter a step further. By taking his spanking new Reebok gear and videoing himself summarily dumping it all in the garbage disposal.

And while the UFC was celebrating this new windfall, very much selling it as a win-win for its roster. It was obvious that these fighters along with many others were not in the least bit happy.

Including some other big names like former top 10 heavyweight Brendan Schaub. Who stated that he would be losing up to 90% of his sponsorship money, going from six down to five figures.

And the effect of the drop could be felt across the board for all those mid-tier to upper-echelon fighters. who with this blanket sponsorship were now on the same money as a fighter with half their notoriety and fanbase.

Fighters who have been in the public eye for many years, sometimes outside the UFC. But who has still built a solid fanbase and lucrative sponsorship deals? Only to see it all taken away with the stroke of a pen.

How About The Existing Sponsors

MMA has always had a mish-mash of brands with which it has been associated. Fans of the sport will be familiar with names such as Tapout, Venum, Bad Boy and others.

Many, like the fighters that adorned them have come and gone. Forever consigned to the dustbin of MMA history. While others have forged ahead and built their name solely within the sport.

What happened to many of those brands is that they have simply dropped out of the picture. And while we still do see some fighters wearing their gear during their own time. You will not see any of it on any UFC-related multimedia content or on the fighters before during or after their fights.

So there can be little doubting the impact has been huge for apparel companies. And while many have managed to trudge forward, some by diversifying into other areas such as professional wrestling, skateboarding and more.

Some brands had very much been built entirely within the sphere of the mixed martial arts world. Take for instance Torque which is owned by UFC fighter Urijah Faber.

Torque built its marketing strictly with UFC fighters and as a result, took a massive hit. Sponsoring some of the top-level fighters in the sport, Torque had managed to achieve a symbiotic relationship with the UFC.

Some Torque sponsors apparel for UFC athletes including T-shirts on deeply discounted sales.
Torque discounted apparel sale in 2020.

But when the pen was put to paper to sign off on the new Reebok deal, that all went away in a heartbeat. And to make matters even worse, Faber would now be forced to wear the apparel of a company that was putting his brand out of business.

Not at all good news for one of the most recognised apparel brands. which had now previously been promoted in close quarters with the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world.

What About The Other MMA Promotions

With such a huge gulf between the UFC and all other MMA promotions. It would make sense that fighters in the UFC would receive much higher payouts from sponsors for donning their brand, and rightly so.

But with the advent of this Reebok deal, all of that changed. Where some big-name fighters were once making six-figure deals. Many were now looking squarely down the barrel of a five-figure payout.

And losing tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars is not a good look for anyone. And so where once the UFC led the field by a garden mile in terms of earnings. Much of that was now out the window, putting the lesser-known promotions such as Bellator and KSW now in a much strong position.

The idea was that their fighters were free to wear any sponsorship they wished. In effect, crushing one of the very reasons so many were eager to join the ranks of the biggest MMA promotion on the planet in the first place.

And with that several UFC fighters were keen to see out the remainder of their contracts, so that they could test free agency. With many making the move to Bellator and One championship.

Where they were free to wear what they want, as well as being somewhat of a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Offering them a potentially easier path to a world title, be it not one with the UFC.

Brock Lesnar enters the octagon before a fight in the UFC.
Brock Lesnar inside the UFC octagon.

And does the draw of making $2,500 or $5,000 sound appealing to those big-name fighters with a handful of fights? Would former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar decide to throw his hat back in the ring for 5K, or decide to take himself elsewhere and test the waters?

In what may have seemed like a shrewd business move by those at the top of the UFC. It may very well have been a watershed moment that we will look back on in years to come. When the world’s largest MMA promotion quite literally shot itself in the foot.

UFC Champions Lose Big

And what about the reigning and new champions in the sport? Newly crowned champions can expect to make $40,000 per fight, but if they lose they then drop down to $2,500 per fight.

So a massive drop in earnings for athletes who had already experienced massive losses when their sponsorship deals went up in smoke. Former UFC champions and seasoned veterans making just a sliver of what they had become accustomed to, it’s not a good look.

Have the UFC learned any lessons from the past few years and will their rumoured new deal offer up something which will keep its fighters happy?

Well, you would hope so. But knowing how they have operated since the early 2000s. I wouldn’t hold out much hope that any lessons have been learned. And it very well may have been the spark which lit the slow-burning fuse.

Some Good News About Fighter Sponsorships

As reported by ESPN, the current deal with Reebok ended in March 2021. However, fighters will continue to wear the Reebok logo right through till the end of the year. Wherein soon after a new sponsorship deal with combat sports brand Venum is due to be signed.

And while it will be a shorter and less lucrative contract than that of Reebok. From what we are hearing fighters will see an across-the-board raise in their earnings. But that’s quite an open statement, as to how much they will actually get. Will determine whether or not fighters are indeed happy with the new arrangement.

But it does also once again shut the window on fighters being able to wear their own sponsors while doing any UFC-related work. So while they may see an increase, will it be enough to keep some of those big names on board? Or will we once again see an exodus to other promotions in search of greener pastures?

“The fighters get paid. The fighters get paid for whatever sponsor we have, they get a piece of that. And they can have whatever sponsors they want outside the cage.”

Dana White on the Dan Le Batard Show

As the Reebok deal has now been in place for almost six years. It’s true that it has not all been bad news for partnerships. As both have now spoken positively about what they have learned and about moving on to the next stage of their respective journeys.

But while multibillion-dollar companies wax lyrical about the successes of their partnership. It’s the fighters themselves who are the ones on the ground dealing with the reality of the deal. And going by what many have said, to this day, the bitter taste still lingers on.

In Conclusion

Look there can be little doubt that the UFC is the place to be if fighters wish to test themselves against the very best in the world. As well as truly building their name as a global superstar, if they ever reach those highest highs.

But for the fighters, the vice-like grip the UFC has over its “independent contractors” is well known throughout the MMA world. Whether it be their likeness for action figures and apparel. Or the inability for them to pick another sponsor of their choice. Who offers them the very best deal available for climbing inside a cage to fight another human being.

The UFC has taken away almost any ability for fighters to control their own career within the confines of the sport. And while some are now making up for the lost time by building their brand outside the UFC. It has to be said that their employer has not made life easy for these guys and girls.

Now with the new potential sponsor on the horizon and the murmurs coming from UFC HQ. It looks like there won’t be any change in terms of how the sponsorship side of things is handled.

Meaning basically that fighters will once again have to put up with whatever they are given. Finding their own ways outside of their contract to try and build something of their own, without the mite of the UFC marketing machine behind them.

As almost all want to fight in the UFC, it’s a tough situation for any professional MMA fighter to be in. Get the contract, but potentially lose a packet in revenue. Get notoriety, but lose control over your likeness, what is it to be?

I just hope that in the longer term, fighters get what they are worth. When we see the UFC sell for billions of dollars, while some of its fighters struggle to make ends meet. Sometime, somewhere, something has to give.