After nearly five years in the making, the UFC antitrust lawsuit is beginning to heat up in a big way.
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This week lawyers from the UFC, Bellator, Top Rank Boxing, and the plaintiffs have all descended upon Las Vegas for a set of evidentiary hearings that could end up being critical in the on-going civil case brought against the UFC by a group of former fighters that include Jon Fitch, Cung Le, and Nate Quarry.
The suit alleges that the Zuffa-led MMA promotion participated in unlawful tactics that created a monopolized market, including exclusive, long-term fighter contracts, and the acquisition of any competing promotions. The primary purpose of this week’s hearings is to determine whether or not the case meets the legal requirement to be class certified, with the presiding judge hopefully making a decision by the end of the week.
If you don’t fully understand what that all means, don’t worry—you’re not alone. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legal proceedings and their wording, hence the term “legalese” used by lawyers and laymen alike. Rather than continuing on in legal terms and statutes that get much more complicated as we go along, we’re going to attempt to break down everything that is going on this week in the simplest terms possible, so that almost anyone could understand it.
With that being said we’ll focus on where the case is currently in the legal process, important information we’ve learned so far, and what this might mean for later in the week and beyond.
Where The Case Stands Currently
As noted earlier, this case started all the way back in December 2014, and most likely still has a long way to go. In the years since the start of the legal proceedings up until now, there have been a few notable things that have taken place: The UFC has tried unsuccessfully to have the case thrown out, the court has denied Bellator’s request to keep fighter contract and other relevant financial information sealed from the public, and the fighters suing the UFC have pushed for the court to grant them class certification. Class certification basically means that the fighters can sue the UFC all as one group rather than having to sue the company individually, and usually results in a higher amount of damages being sought (a.k.a money the fighters want from the UFC).
Class certification is, in fact, what this week is all about. If the judge rules against class certification, the lawsuit effectively dies and the UFC wins. If he decides that such a certification is warranted, however, it would mean that the lawsuit continues through the court system and would be a big step in getting the plaintiffs what they ultimately want—backpay, more money in the future and shorter contracts.
To help the judge decide whether or not a class certification is warranted, the UFC and the plaintiffs have each brought their own expert witness to argue their side of the case. On the side of the UFC is expert labor economist Dr. Robert H. Topel, and according to calculations based on wage levels (the amount of money an athlete receives) going up, the UFC owes the fighters nothing. Arguing for the plaintiffs is Dr. Hal J. Singer who, based on a bunch of different math, states that based on wage share (the amount fighters receive as a percentage of total revenue) the fighters are owed somewhere between $811.2 million and $1.6 billion (follow Paul Gift’s work this week to learn more about the math).
As you can see there is quite a discrepancy between the two experts, and at the end of the week, the judge will have to make some important decisions on how things should move along.
What We’ve Learned From The Hearings So Far
Since the hearings started this past Monday, we’ve already learned quite a bit more about the inner workings of the UFC and their competitors than we knew before the week started. Financial information revealed in court proceedings showed that UFC fighters’ wage share of revenue has hovered around 18-19% of total revenue since 2011, while Bellator’s wage share through 2017 was 44.7% and Strikeforce’s wage share sat at 63% before becoming defunct. Documents also show that between December 16, 2010, and June 30, 2017, Zuffa fighters were paid a total of $626 million.
For reference, as a Twitter user pointed out, Floyd Mayweather made $638 million from his boxing matches during the same period.
There have also been a couple of key decisions made about the hearings. A motion to dismiss the case by the UFC was expectedly denied, but the court also ruled that the plaintiff’s expert report authored by Dr. Singer should be unredacted and made public. Up until now, that report has been available but with a heavy amount of black ink splashed across its pages, hiding UFC financial information and internal practices that the promotion did not want to be made public. After Monday’s ruling, fans and media will have full access to the same information the judge has when it comes to Dr. Singer’s findings.
Lastly we learned that Zuffa sent some not-so-friendly emails when dealing with fighters and their management, but the judge has made it clear that he wants to stick to the fancy math that most of us can’t understand and that the emails won’t be relevant to his decision on if the plaintiffs should be class certified or not.
What We Can Expect Going Forward
For the last few days of the hearings, we can expect arguments by both Zuffa and the plaintiffs on why the other side’s expert is wrong, as well as more discussion of fancy math. Given that Dr. Singer’s report will be fully unredacted, we can also expect to learn more financial information about the UFC, Bellator and Top Rank boxing, though chances are some of the more detailed information will not be released because it won’t be pertinent to the legal proceedings. Lastly, at the end of the week, there is a good chance we will have a decision from the judge on whether or not the plaintiffs will end up being granted class certification, which ultimately will decide whether or not the lawsuit keeps going.
While there is no indication yet as to who the judge will rule in favor for, there certainly have been some hiccups along the way for the UFC’s attorneys. According to writer and economics professor Paul Gift, as of day two, the hearings things seem to be leaning slightly in the direction of the fighters to get class certified.
Either way, this case will have major ramifications for the relationship between fighters and the UFC going forward, and should the plaintiffs win, that could mean big problems for the UFC’s possible plans down the line.
Patrick is a consultant turned journalist who loves the fight game and everything to do with it. Focusing on the politics, business, and general state of MMA are his mainstays, though he'll dabble in analysis and best bets when he can. He also enjoys football, basketball, baseball, and great jokes in general so feel free to reach out and berate him on social media whenever you disagree with him.