All major sports organisations form exclusive agreements with big-name apparel makers to outfit their athletes. These partnerships are part of the sponsorship playbook. Exclusive outfitting is one of the major assets that a sports body can offer up to generate millions, if not billions, in revenue each year.
And so it is too, with the UFC, which formed an exclusive outfitter agreement with Reebok in 2014. On the surface it seems pretty straightforward. First, you put your brand on the clothes you make for our fighters. Next, you get the international airtime when our fighters hit the cage. You build your global brand identity. You sell more product. Simple, right?
Not for Reebok and the UFC, because the terms of their deal changed the way fighters are governed and compensated in a major way. It divided the fighter stable and left many of them feeling bitterly disappointed. The controversy continues to rage on today, because those changes persisted when Venum became the official UFC outfitter in April 2021. This is the history behind the deals and the controversy.
The UFC Reebok deal
There was plenty of fanfare when the two parties announced the six-year agreement in December 2014. Former UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta described it as “the biggest non-broadcast partnership” the UFC had ever signed.
Fertitta said the UFC would distribute “the vast majority” of the revenue from the deal to the fighters. The leage required fighters to comply with an Outfitting Policy, which included apparel requirements and a code of conduct. In return, the UFC paid fighters fees based on tenure. It ostensibly meant guaranteed income for the fighters. In addition, they were allowed to generate royalty income from fighter-specific product created through the program.
Here’s the rub though. The Reebok deal marked the end of fighters having their own sponsor logos in the cage or at any UFC event. They were allowed to wear sponsored apparel outside of UFC events, however that value is considerably diminished away from the live broadcast and pay-per-view events.
Fighters claimed that the new scheme would fail to compensate them for the loss in sponsorship dollars. Consequently, athletes including Ryan Bader and Brendan Schaub claimed to have lost thousands of dollars a fight. Clearly, the controversy cast a nasty pall on what was supposedly an attempt to provide a more equitable distribution to fighters. It certainly left some pushing for higher pay tiers with the UFC’s next outfitting partner – Venum.
The UFC Venum deal
The two partners struck the new agreement in July 2020 as the Reebok era came to an end. It was a reunion of sorts – Venum had previously sponsored more than 200 fighters between 2009 and 2015. Athletes debuted UFC Venum gear inside the Octagon in April 2021. The new arrangement carried over the UFC’s outfitting policy and its tiered compensation system with across-the-board fee increases for all fighters.
However, the policy still prevents fighters from wearing their own sponsors’ logos or clothes during fight week and in competition. Therefore, it’s UFC Venum gear or nothing. The MMA community offered mixed early reviews, with some pointing out that inflation blunted any benefit from the pay increments.
The UFC will be boosting the pay scale by about $1 million annually, UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein told ESPN. The organisation encourages corporate sponsors to form direct deals with fighters, who are “free to enter into any sponsorship for non-fight-week related stuff,” he said.
Clearly, sponsorship is a likely bone of contention going forward, considering the amount of bitterness over the same issue during the Reebok era. The MMA world will be watching closely.