UFC Fighters Test Antitrust Law to Escape ‘Perpetual’ Contracts

On March 31, 2010, middleweight Nate “Rock” Quarry appeared on the main card in UFC’s Fight Night 21, a career highlight that ended quickly, shattered the left side of his face, and sent him into retirement.

(Bloomberg Law) — On March 31, 2010, middleweight Nate “Rock” Quarry appeared on the main card in UFC’s Fight Night 21, a career highlight that ended quickly, shattered the left side of his face, and sent him into retirement.

Now 51, well past his prime mixed-martial-arts days, Quarry said he remains tethered to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in a contract that would never let him see free agency.

“I got a form letter from the UFC stating, ‘We see that you have retired. Just so you know, you still have more fights with us under contract so you cannot fight anywhere else,’” said Quarry, now a married father of three young kids who is managing rental properties in Lake Oswego, Ore.

Quarry and about 1,200 other men and women who formerly fought for UFC won class action status last month in a high-stakes antitrust suit against the Las Vegas-based combat fighting powerhouse, accusing it of confining athletes to a cycle of successive contracts and paying them far less than they would have received in a competitive market.

The case—which has been fast-tracked for trial next spring—is being closely watched in the sports world and is among a flurry in the legal pipeline on behalf of athletes, from college students to professional wrestlers, using antitrust law and the nation’s courts to fight for better pay.

“They are recognizing that their efforts are generating massive amounts of money, and they are not receiving anywhere near their share of the pie,” said Helen “Nellie” Drew, professor of practice in sports law at University at Buffalo School of Law.

Read More: UFC Class Suit Embodies Two Powerful Legal Weapons in Sports

‘Mirror of Monopoly’

UFC reaches more than 900 million households through an array of global broadcast license agreements, according to a 2022 annual report from Endeavor Group Holdings Inc., the sports organization’s owner.

UFC generated record revenue of $1.14 billion last year. Its fights are featured on pay-per-view programming distributed through cable, satellite, and digital providers, including ESPN+.

Fighters for the organization must sign exclusive deals that typically include four fights per year, said Eric Cramer, chairman of Berger Montague, a lawyer for the fighters. But the UFC withholds the last fight in a contract until the fighter signs an agreement to renew, Cramer said.

“They come up to you before the fourth fight and say, ‘Here’s a new contract. Sign it or you are going to get a terrible fight for your fourth fight,’” said Cramer.

Asked to comment for this story, UFC referred to a statement last month from William Isaacson, a UFC attorney and partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, who said the organization is confident the court will find the fighters’ claims “legally and factually meritless.”

The battle against UFC, which is headed by its showman CEO, Dana White, has similarities to other antitrust suits by athletes, but also its own legal twist.

The fighters’ key argument is that UFC is a “monopsony,” meaning a company that is the sole buyer in a market. Monopolies, by contrast, are the only seller in a market. In this case, fighters accuse UFC of abusing its monopsony power in the market of fighter services for live mixed martial arts bouts.

Monopsony cases are historically rare in the US, but the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice during the Biden administration have placed an increasing focus on such practices, said Eleanor Tyler, principal legal analyst with Bloomberg Law.

“There’s a much broader understanding that monopsony really is the mirror of monopoly and can be just as bad,” she said.

There are other combat sports promotions such as Bellator and One Championship. But the UFC is the organization promoting live elite professional MMA fights in the US and—the plaintiffs argue—controls the vast majority of fighters in nearly all weight classes. UFC also allegedly shut down or bought its rivals, including through its 2011 purchase of Strikeforce.

Isaacson, in his statement for UFC, said the organization’s “own continued growth accompanied by the growth of other established MMA promoters and the prevalence of successful new market entrants all demonstrate the existence of a healthy and competitive MMA market which benefits athletes, promoters, and fans alike.”

Endeavor announced last week that UFC and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.closed their merger to create a new company called TKO Group Holdings Inc.

‘Two Strikes Against Them’

The mixed martial arts fighters overcame a high hurdle achieving class action status, which often increases the settlement value of antitrust suits and has proven increasingly difficult for plaintiffs to surmount.

The class status covers fighters who competed in at least one live professional UFC-promoted MMA bout that took place or was broadcast in the US from Dec. 16, 2010, through June 30, 2017.

“I’m astounded it went as far as it did,” said Drew, the sports law professor. “It looks to me like UFC is on the ropes here. They have two strikes against them.”

The class action status increases the risk for UFC because it could be compelled to pay treble damages—three times what the plaintiffs prove they actually suffered—or as much as $4.8 billion, in a trial scheduled to begin next March or April.

The case, and the judge’s decision to certify the class, could spur athletes in other industries to file similar suits, said Kathleen Bradish, acting president of the American Antitrust Institute.

“It does give a little boost to any new industry that is considering an antitrust action,” she said. “You need people to come forward with the stories. That’s what makes for a good case.”

UFC petitioned to appeal the class certification to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court erroneously certified the class by embracing an “unprecedented theory” that UFC has violated antitrust law by not increasing the compensation of fighters in direct proportion to growth in revenues.

A separate but related suit that covers UFC fighters who fought since 2017 also is seeking class action status.

The UFC used a “variety of ruthless coercive techniques to prevent fighters from becoming free agents—rendering these contracts effectively perpetual,” Judge Richard Boulware of the US District Court for the District of Nevada wrote in the suit’s 80-page class certification order in August.

UFC controlled many aspects of the fighters, including the timing of their bouts, the pairing of a fighter with opponents, placement on a fight card, whether a bout would be pay per view or televised, whether a fighter could get discretionary bonuses, and the overall promotion of a fighter’s career, Boulware stated.

“It was a very one-sided opinion,” said William Lavery, partner in Clifford Chance’s global antitrust litigation practice. “On paper, the conduct they allege does seem a bit restrictive. The judge obviously thinks so.”

Pay Per Fight

Major League Baseball famously has an exemption from antitrust laws carved out by a unanimous Supreme Court in 1922, which concluded that baseball exhibitions don’t implicate the Sherman Antitrust Act, the landmark 1890 law, because they don’t involve interstate trade or commerce. Other professional sports leagues, however, are generally beholden to the nation’s antitrust laws.

In other current antitrust cases involving sports, college students sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association this year, claiming they were deprived of academic awards worth thousands of dollars.

Wrestling company MLW Media LLC accused WWE last year of engaging in anti-competitive conduct to maintain a monopoly in their sport market. And several cheer companies sued Varsity Brands in 2020 claiming an anti-competitive scheme to dominate the cheerleading market.

Read More:US Supreme Court Asked to Overturn MLB’s Antitrust Exemption (1)Varsity Brands Accused of Competitive Cheerleading Monopoly (1)WWE Antitrust Suit Continues After Judge Tosses Dismissal Motion

In the UFC case, data on fighter pay is elusive. But UFC fighters typically get less than a fifth of revenues generated from their fighting events and ticket sales, whereas other athletes such as National Basketball Association and National Football League players get about half of those revenues, Cramer said.

Fighters are independent contractors paid per bout, said John Nash, a combat sports expert who writes for a news site called Bloody Elbow. Beginner UFC fighters typically get $10,000 to show up to a fight and a bonus of $10,000 if they win, he said. They aren’t paid before a fight.

UFC also gives fighters a discretionary bonus of about $4,000 for complying with all UFC rules, like wearing the right uniform and shoes, Nash said.

Performance-of-the-night bonuses of $50,000 — given when a fighter does something exciting like the best knockout—can add to the pot as well, Nash said. The UFC typically awards four such performance bonuses for every event, either for the best knockout, submission, or to the two fighters involved in the fight of the night, Nash said.

While top fighters like Conor McGregor can make millions of dollars per fight, money for the typical fighter is eaten up quickly as they must fund their own monthly gym memberships, supplements, equipment, trainers, coaches, and sparring partners, Nash said.

Quarry, who retired with seven wins and three losses during his roughly five-year UFC career, estimates he made about $320,000 all told in the ring over that time period.

‘They Are Precariat’

Most fighting careers don’t last for more than a few years.

Judge Boulware noted in his certification opinion that the UFC’s tactics and contracts were particularly effective due to the short tenure of an average MMA fighter’s career, between 31 and 41 months.

“They are precariat and they have no health care and they have no pensions and no union,” Nash said.

Quarry said he initially found inspiration in UFC after being raised in a strict household of Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Salem, Ore., where he wasn’t allowed to play sports or make friends outside of the religion. He started training at age 24 after watching UFC fights on TV. He quit his job as a journeyman sign hanger six years later to become a full-time professional fighter.

“This was my opportunity to show everybody, ‘No, I do matter, I am good at some things,’” Quarry said.

Quarry, who is 6 feet tall and fought at about 185 pounds, initially competed in small shows not affiliated with the UFC.

Before a bout in Richmond, Va., he was told his father had died, and Quarry recalls taking it out on his opponent, snapping his rival’s arm in the first round. As Quarry ran around the ring screaming, a man approached—the matchmaker for UFC.

Last Fight

Quarry said his first UFC contract was for three years. The first year of the contract paid $5,000 to show up, $5,000 to win. Quarry won his first three fights by knockout, and was paid a total of $30,000. He was paid $10,000 for the fourth fight, a title shot that he lost.

Injuries from his 2010 technical knockout by Jorge Rivera early in the second round required Quarry to undergo facial reconstruction, including 13 screws and titanium mesh to stitch his face back together. UFC paid for the facial surgery, Quarry said, but he noted that injuries sustained during training aren’t covered, including staph infections that left him hospitalized for days.

Quarry was getting older and his opponents were getting younger. And training to return to the ring would have left less time for his first child.

“It became a choice: Am I going to continue to pursue this dream for my own ego or am I going to move on to something else and keep custody of my daughter and make sure that she has the best future she can have?” Quarry said. He didn’t fight competitively again and officially retired at age 40.

His oldest daughter is now 23, the family’s first college graduate. Quarry and his wife have a 3 ½-year-old son, a 1 ½-year-old daughter, and a six-month-old baby girl. “It’s bananas in the house all the time,” Quarry said.

Quarry said he and other fighters brought the suit in part for themselves, but also for those who follow them.

“We want an actual ending to this contract,” Quarry said. “Our goal is to not only get compensation for the damages but to also change the sport.”

The case is Cung Le v. Zuffa LLC, 9th Cir., No. 23-80074, 8/23/23.

To contact the reporter on this story: Katie Arcieri in Washington at karcieri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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