As you may have heard by now, this past weekend’s WCO event in San Diego was canceled due to organizational and financial problems. I won’t bore you (or me) with stories of the finger-pointing that’s been going on between the parties involved, so I’ll just sum it up by saying this: the fight business attracts some shady characters. This is nothing new. Whether they’re willfully corrupt con artists or just hapless amateurs, I won’t speculate, but this cancellation is a sign of some larger problems.
As MMA grows in scope and exposure, certain less-than-ethical types are bound to see it as an opportunity. People calling themselves managers and promoters have been fleecing fighters since the days when Jack Dempsey was fighting miners in bars and then waking up to find his purse and his “representation” both gone. But in order to make clear that this is unacceptable, state athletic commissions have to put some teeth into their regulations and be willing to yank someone’s license when they screw up.
The fact is, you have to have the money to pay your fighters before you count the money from your ticket sales. A lot of people don’t understand that, for some reason. You can’t tell someone that you’ll pay them from the proceeds of the fight, because that implies that there will be proceeds from the fight, which isn’t guaranteed after production costs are factored in.
For example, consider the unionized guys who set up the arena for the show. We all know it won’t fly to promise those guys a check that is predicated on good attendance figures. They’re getting paid whether your show sells or not. Why shouldn’t the same go for the fighters?
As it is, the fighters on the WCO show collected 20% of their promised purses for the canceled show. One could argue that 20% isn’t bad since they didn’t have to fight, but they’d already done most of the work they were being paid for by that point. They’d already trained, cut weight, and were in place for the one part of their jobs that they enjoy: performing. Then, because the promoters couldn’t get it together, they not only didn’t get to perform, they barely got paid.
I’m not going to say that this one incident is proof that MMA fighters need a union. I will say, though, that it’s part of the reason why a union makes sense. Pretty much every other major sport has a players’ union, and while a whole heap of problems usually come with it, one of those problems is not that the talent will be used and exploited without proper compensation.
In order to make the union happen, though, some people very high up on the food chain are going to have to decide that it’s worth it to make a stand.