Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has seen an explosive rise in its popularity in recent times. Since the last decade, MMA’s popularity has come up to match that of other sports like boxing and wrestling. The pay-per-view model of content consumption has helped with revenue in this field. Some may ask, “How much money do MMA fighters make?”
The answers to the amount earned by professional fighters depend on a lot of factors like
- Status: Amateur vs. professional fighter status
- Records: Fighting records and ranking for the martial artist
- Following: The number of followers or fans garnered by the fighter
- Marketing: Marketing and promotions done by the fighter, and many more factors
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighters made an average of $138,000 in the year 2018, which is a 4.5% increase over the 2017 average of about $132,000.
Those hefty earnings?
These six-figure income-levels appear appealing. The fighter made $11,500 per month on average, which is decent pay. What needs to be kept in mind is that these average numbers rise high because of the top-shelf players. Everyone is aware of Connor McGregor when martial arts are being discussed.
McGregor is not only an excellent fighter who rose the ranks but is also a pro in how he markets himself. The standing a fighter builds depends not only on the fighting ring but also on the promotions, advertisements, and endorsements you have.
Now, $11,500 per month might seem mouth-watering to some, but given that the United States has a median income of $52,000 per annum, the figure appears less glittering for a professional sports player.
Factors affecting MMA fighters’ income
You have already read about some of the crucial factors responsible for the amount of money a UFC fighter makes. Let us analyze these factors in detail.
- Status: While an amateur may have a lot of innate skill at fighting and may spend many hours a day practicing, the fact remains that fighters who are considered “amateur” would hardly make money.
Status is essential in the professional fighting industry. People do love an amateur land a punch or grapple a competitor who has more fighting experience, but the amateur may not make many pennies and just go home with bruises and hurt legs.
Rising from amateur to professional in the rankings definitely boosts the money a fighter takes home. If that rise is coupled with efforts to market oneself, the fighter becomes richer. He’s no longer just fighting; he’s selling his skills as entertainment for people, and his fan-following is a cash-cow for promotion of body-building product sellers, energy drink manufacturers, etc.
- Records: The earnings of a martial artist are usually in direct proportion to his records and ranking. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the best and the most significant promotion company for Mixed Martial Arts. If a fighter rises up the ranks and makes his way into the rankings of the UFC, the earnings are expected to skyrocket.
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Following and Marketing
By now, you must understand that money is not just about physical strength, punches, grapples, and practice. Cash comes with name, fame, associations, endorsements, following – which together can be termed as marketing.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship
The UFC is a 27-year old American company that is the most prominent promoter for martial arts. On the UFC’s roster are the best and top-level fighters in the business. Martial artists and fighters promoted by the UFC have a grand advantage over those who are not backed by promoters. Even if a sponsor supports a player, there is a difference between the UFC and any other sponsor.
The rise of earnings: The UFC is primarily responsible for bringing martial arts and professional fighting into the mainstream. In the early 2000s, the pay-per-view rate for these sports skyrocketed.
For example, UFC 60, in 2006, Hughes vs. Gracie (Gracie’s first fight in over a decade), had a pay-per-view count over 600,000 while the UFC 61, had the coaches of “The Ultimate Fighter 3” come up the ring for a rematch. The UFC 61 had 775,000 buys.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship hit a landmark buy of a million buys for UFC 66. The UFC had its 245th event as of the writing of this article. Consider the mass audience the UFC commands by now – a lot of channels, and advertisers would be interested in being associated with the UFC. Association with such reputed sponsors is a symbiotic relationship. Advertisement rates shoot up, and the channels get popularity, following, and money.
Such is the popularity of the UFC that ESPN signed up a $1.5 billion contract with the MMA promoter and would be required to pay this amount over five years. That brings UFC a revenue of $300 million per year, on average just from ESPN. The sports channel, in return, got over 500,000 new subscribers.
If a fighter is on the UFC’s roster, it is not a big challenge for a fighter to make upwards of $200,000 per annum. That said, the $200,000 that a top MMA fighter makes skews the average earnings and pulls it higher. What an individual needs to realize is that it may not be as attractive as it appears to be, especially when you earn at the cost of getting punched in the face.
With the ever-increasing popularity of the UFC, especially with the ESPN deal, the number of subscribers and fans is expected to increase. It is only natural that the earnings of those backed by the UFC will follow.
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How do MMA fighters make money?
There are guidelines for the UFC that govern how much money a fighter takes home. The UFC fighters’ income depends on their bouts (appearance).
Let’s take this with an example:
The UFC Promotions Guidelines for the Reebok deal provide that the number of bouts for a martial artist is counted. This includes the WEC fights from the Zuffera era (i.e., January 2007 onwards), and Strikeforce fights from the Zuffera era (April 2011 onwards).
Bonus and fines
Players are eligible for attractive bonus amounts, but losing also incurs a penalty on the player that gets deducted from the base salary of the player. There are special events that have performance bonuses as high as $100,000 for the participants apart from the winning reward.
All bonus is not documented. There are bonus amounts frequently paid behind closed doors depending on the player’s importance. In this case, it becomes difficult to estimate the earnings of the MMA fighter.
Royalty based payments
Royalties account for a big chunk of the earnings for a fighter. For the Reebok campaign, the MMA fighters receive 20-30 percent of the revenue share for all sold merchandise bearing their likeness or hallmarks.
Let us analyze how marketing and associations help boost income in a big way.
- Royalty payments are paid in perpetuity, i.e., there is no expiry period
- Assume there was a sale of a mere $100,000 in a year for hallmark merchandise – the fighter earns anywhere between $20,000 to $30,000.
- The brand endorsement is a cycle. Once a fighter enters the media, the popularity is enough for other brands to offer bigger deals as part of the endorsement for their brands.
Pay per view media purchased
This is one area where the MMA fighter can extract a lot of moolah. That’s where marketing comes into the picture. Higher the number of pay-per-view media purchased by fans, the revenue of the channel increases. This popularity often translates to more top bonuses earned by the athlete behind closed doors.
Another big opportunity comes from the player’s image as in influencer. People look up to the individual for fitness, fighting, power, and so on. That’s when product companies like fitness equipment manufacturers, energy drink producers, cloth brand, and others may rope in the fighter to serve as a brand ambassador. If an individual can reach this position, some proper planning can help the individual earn a lot of money and have substantial savings.
The short lifecycle of Mixed Martial Arts fighter’s profession
Considering the lifecycle of the fighter makes it more evident how marketing and endorsements play a more prominent role than we have thought till now.
- The fighter can participate only for a few years while he is eligible from an age and health standpoint
- Changes in laws are potential hurdles for a smooth continuous career. There is a high degree of uncertainty due to regulatory changes from the government or the governance board of associations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship
- There is a possibility of injury that may temporarily, or permanently render the fighter unable to participate or continue his profession
- There is no retirement benefit offered, unlike conventional employments. Mixed Martial Arts professionals have to plan for an alternate career because this is a short-lived profession and can not help the professional save enough to support the rest of his life.
The need for building endorsements, fan-base, and rising the ladder is essential in this profession is MMA fighters want to earn well and continue to earn even when they’ve ended their active fighting career. The continuous royalty-based payments offer the financial security that the fighter needs. Similarly, any other associations that a fighter forms during the peak of his career would help him in the future.
MMA players have a lot of expenditure to maintain themselves fit for the professional. Unlike other forms of employment, fighting requires
- Regular training
- Continuous supply of supplements to boost health and strength
- Travel for playing as an amateur or semi-pro
- Insurance against the occupational hazard
- Better medical care
All these are money guzzlers. If the punches to the face aren’t enough, the money a fighter would earn would be subject to the hefty state and central taxes. The abovementioned points increase the fighter’s expenditure significantly.
The occupational hazard part may often render the MMA professional unfit for matches. There is a recovery time involved where the individual cannot fight matches. This downtime implies zero income unless there some other sources.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) professionals make money primarily through fighting matches, winning matches, getting endorsements from top associations like UFC, getting brand endorsements, and other forms of marketing.
The average earnings for the top-notch and good players exceed six-figures. The average amateur may not be making money at all. A grand average may stand at $35,000 to $40,000, which is lesser than the average American household income.
Expenditure for training, equipment, supplement, coaching, practice, travel, and miscellaneous eat up a significant fraction of the earnings of professional fighters. This is notwithstanding tax consideration. If an MMA fighter falls in the tax bracket, he would need to pay his share of tax for getting punched in the face. While it may not be pleasant, that’s the choice they make!
Income from sources other than everyday fighting and competing helps a fighter build recurring revenue and have better financial security. That said, MMA practitioners are fighters already. With some exposure and guidance, a healthy income is not a hard task to achieve.