(Click on the chart for the full-size version. For previous Databombs, click here.)
In March I made the trip to Montreal for UFC 156 and was puzzled by a financial observation. If the $50,000 Fight Night bonuses for that card sounded small for a pay-per-view event, well, that’s because they were. At least they were “low” when put into historical context, and they’ve been that way ever since.
But let’s start with the big picture with our first DataBomb to have dollars as a unit of measure. The chart above displays the official Fight Night Bonus amount published for Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night, and Submission of the Night for numbered UFC events since UFC 61 in 2006 through UFC 162 earlier this month. Like Chael Sonnen closing a Skype interview: Kaaaaa…boom.
The Rise of the UFC in the Mid-2000’s
Let’s put this in context. The end of 2006 was a great time for the UFC. In addition to seasons three and four of the smash hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter, the promotion closed out the year with a defining moment in UFC 66. Headlined by future hall of fame superstars Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, the event drew more than one million pay-per-view purchases, a first for the still maturing organization.
It may then come as a surprise that Liddell and Ortiz each only received a $30,000 bonus for their Fight of the Night performance. But not really, because we should all know that there’s a lag between success and financial reward. These same fight night bonus amounts would double by UFC 81 just over a year later when they hit $60,000 for the first time. For part-time fighters on the undercard only making “three and three” back then (i.e., $3,000 to fight and another $3,000 for a win), a windfall $60,000 bonus was potentially life-changing. And bonuses weren’t done growing yet.
The biggest ever bonus winners came at UFC 129, with bonuses appropriately set at $129,000 each. With an estimated 55,000 attendees, the event was the largest UFC show in history and was held at the Toronto Rogers Centre, a stadium venue normally reserved for Major League Baseball Games. The event also had two title belts on the line, with Georges St-Pierre defeating Jake Shields and Jose Aldo outlasting Mark Hominick.
Two other events topped the six-figure bonus mark, each one a special occasion for Zuffa. The first time UFC fighters saw bonuses of $100,000 was the summer of 2009 at the blockbuster UFC 100 event. Again, two belts were on the line for the historic (but not exactly 100th) UFC event, with GSP defending against Thiago Alves, and Brock Lesnar unifying the heavyweight belt via TKO of Frank Mir. Amazingly, future champion Jon Jones also competed on the card, but was buried on the prelims in what was at the time only his third UFC appearance.
Most recently, Zuffa awarded $100,000 bonuses at UFC 134 in the highly publicized return to Brazil. The card was stacked with high profile fighters, capped with an Anderson Silva striking clinic against Yushin Okami, and signified a new Zuffa commitment to the booming Brazil market.
UFC 156: Flat Is the New Up
Since 2011, Fight Night Bonuses have been consistently above $60,000, and more typically in the $65,000 to $75,000 range. But the trend since the beginning of 2012 has been downward. Why the kitty failed to gain ground in recent years is the mystery that has yet to be resolved, but may be tied to the maturation of the core US market. It was at UFC 156 in Montreal that the official news came: all UFC event bonuses would be $50,000 going forward. This “normalization” meant that there was no longer any downside for bonus seekers competing on lower profile (i.e., TUF Finale, UFC on FUEL) fight cards. But it also meant that the occasional $75,000 or even $100,000 windfalls that changed the lives of some exciting fighters were gone. Many in the US have already dealt with the realities of stagnant growth: Flat is the new up.
The notable exception is what we may call “the Caraway Effect.” The only blip in bonus amounts since the new policy took effect was at UFC 159, when (allegedly) Bryan Caraway convinced Dana White to boost bonuses to $65,000 to match the last time Caraway fought at UFC 149. That comment was based on the fact that Caraway won the Fight of the Night bonus at UFC 149. In a strange twist, Caraway went on to receive the Submission of the Night bonus at UFC 159 thanks to a positive drug test by Pat Healy. Coincidence? Or genius?
Mandatory disclaimer: This is publically reported information and doesn’t capture everything. Zuffa can, and often does, compensate fighters above their listed salaries and Fight Night Bonuses via what is referred to as “locker room bonuses.” We should keep in mind that Zuffa essentially pays most of its fighters more than they’ve agreed to pay them contractually, whether it’s public or not. This is unusual and generous by the standards of most occupations, despite the low average pay compared to mainstream American sports. Such is the nature of a sport struggling for wider audiences.
The data presented here represents concrete payouts, and in aggregate also reflects the trends of the organization’s growth. Zuffa has a business to run, and the bottom line is a critical driver for their ability to continue to grow the sport. For the fighters’ sakes, we hope that base salaries are increasing to mitigate the risk associated with competing professionally in the UFC, and to properly share the financial success of the business with those who risk the most to ensure it. In the next DataBomb we’ll look to see who actually wins these fight night bonuses.