Contributor: Connor Dillon
When Hollywood and it’s film industry began to rise in the 1910s and 20s, they were breaking into a new media. Before that time, there existed only stage shows, where actors had to travel the country or the world in order to perform and make money based on each performance. Once film technology began widespread use, studios were formed, but they had to find a location that could constantly be filmed at year round, so they chose Southern California. Since they had a location, funds, and lots of money, they now needed to arm themselves with stars, or names to sell their films. However, the Vaudeville stars of the day refused to sell their performance on one film without being compensated for every showing of the film, because the previous system depended on each performance. These drove prices up for contracts to big stars, and companies were looking at bringing their profits up. So they didn’t hire them.
Instead the “Big Five”, as they were called, consisting of Fox Film Corporation, Loew’s Incorporated, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Production, and Warner Bros., founded a system that lasted the entirety of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and ended with a Supreme Court antitrust lawsuit. It was called the “Studio System”. Each of the Big Five has every kind of company you would need to create a motion picture, and within them were “acting schools”, for the lack of a better term. Each studio would contract actors to go through their schools and perform in whatever film they (the Big Five) wanted them to. They had no creative choices, a lack of vertical mobility in their contracts, and were given things by the Studios to use rather than own.
Several factors contributed to the breakup of this virtual economic slavery system. Several actors began to refuse to do films they didn’t want to do, losing items given to them by the Studios, and slowly but surely banding together to form a union. Managers and agents, who had once made a killing on the Vaudeville circuit by getting contracts per performance, banded together to make more money. In the Studio system they could only manage or help get a contract for each actor every three to five years, limiting the amount of income they received greatly, so they had ample reason to support any measure against the Studio System. And the United States government finally decided to get off it’s haunches and step up to stop this monopoly and forced the Hollywood Studio system to die away.
So what does this have to do with modern-day mixed martial artists?
Just like how Hollywood and the motion picture industry had several large companies they held most of the power and money (which really is synonymous), the current MMA field is very similar. If you look at the field of promotions in January 2011, you see the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC) as the number one promotion, Strikeforce as a somewhat distant second, and Bellator as a very obvious third, with various other organizations for regional competition. Two months later, Strikeforce was purchased by Zuffa, LLC, the owners of the UFC, essentially taking them out of the running as a competing company. Advance the time to present-day, UFC is still number one, Bellator is now the obvious, though very distant number two, and for my money I’d bet ONE FC as the third place holder, and again many regional organizations.
The current system for fighters to make the most money is to get some regional wins, gain Joe Silva’s eye, and then get invited to the UFC, where promises of greater sponsorship opportunities and PPV percentages await. The issue is, how many fighters actually get a cut of the PPV? I’m thinking the champions of each division and maybe a couple of the higher ranked challengers from each division. So we’re looking at maybe twenty to thirty total, out of an organization of several hundred. On top of this, sponsorship deals in the UFC are greatly limited according to a list that the organization has never made public. If it conflicts with a “UFC brand name”, then it won’t be allowed. If the sponsor can’t pay the fine, it won’t get in. What I’m saying is that by creating such a strict system that truly limits it’s employees (the fighters) vertical economic mobility, the UFC has created a monopoly of top talent and wealth.
With the example set by the original Hollywood Studio system that operated for nearly half a century, and was declared illegal, there are several ways that the mixed martial artists of today can increase their income and actually allow the sport’s fighters to grow. It all comes down to two things in my mind:
- The fighters have to band together and form a Fighter’s Union. There would be dues, an executive board, and greater access to lawyers and financial aid for training and other expenses. Also could allow for greater access to sponsors. Essentially, the Screen Actors Guild for fighters.
- The Managers and Agents will need to set this in motion. I think the only people who could get into the ears of stars of the current MMA era are their managers. Do they get paid a percentage from each fight? What about from the exclusive agreement signings that fighter agree to before fighting for the best organization? Most managers and agents probably aren’t getting a lot from fighters unless they’re major stars in the UFC, and those numbers are very few. If a Fighter’s Union was created, it would allow managers greater leverage with the Big Three (UFC, Bellator, ONE FC).
Of course the biggest issue is the UFC’s declaration that their fighters are “independent contractors”, and there are other organizations to fight in, therefore they are not a monopoly. But with both the UFC and Bellator having heavily restrictive contracts on appearances outside their brands, they strike me as very similar to the previous largest talent monopoly, the Big Five and Hollywood’s Golden Age. For Mixed Martial Arts to expand, the sport and it’s promotions must also treat all the athletes better, not just the huge money making ones. Once this happens, I believe we will see a very competitive sports world, similar to the current Star-system in Hollywood, where individual talent, charisma, and work matters more than the place you work.
-Connor can be reached @connorhavok.