Bellator held a major show in Los Angeles back in January and some eyebrows were raised when the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) released the sheet of fight purses.
On it, 16 fighters made $2,000 or less in show money. The ones who won did double their pay with win bonuses. But regardless, the figures seemed low for the second-biggest MMA promotion in the U.S., which happens to be owned by media giant Viacom. The minimum fight purse in the UFC is $10,000 to show with a $10,000 win bonus attached to it.
There is a reason for the relatively low salaries on the Bellator card and frankly this structure is nothing new for Scott Coker-promoted cards going back to his days running Strikeforce. Fighter pay has gotten more attention lately and Bellator came under fire last month when an athlete took to Twitter and claimed he was only getting paid $250 to fight for the company.
The vast majority of Bellator’s preliminary cards feature local fighters, most of whom are not signed to multi-fight Bellator contracts. Bellator works with promoters in the local markets in which it visits and those promoters will provide fighters to fill out Bellator’s non-televised undercard. Only some of those fights make the bellator.com online stream and some of them go on after the aired main event as “postlims.”
“We work with local promoters in local markets, whether it’s Jesse Finney (of Shamrock FC) in the St. Louis area,” Coker told MMA Fighting. “We work with a local promoter in LA that helps us out. All these guys have their own businesses that they’re running. They have fighters under contract and fighters that they’re trying to build for their leagues.”
For Bellator, the function of these fighters and fights is twofold. The local fighters help bring in their friends, family, coaches and training partners to fill the arena and help the gate. And it’s an easy way for Bellator execs to scout up-and-coming talent. Coker paints it as almost like a development league adjacent to the TV product.
“Really what we’re looking for is the next fighter that we would like to bring over,” Coker said. “So we basically provide them the platform and the opportunity to get seen. … If we like somebody, then we’ll sign them. But they’re not a signed Bellator fighter to a Bellator contract. It’s just a one-off promotional contract to fight one fight.”
Bellator “discovering” new talent on its own prelims is fairly frequent. Tywan Claxton, Jordan Howard, Michael Kimbel and Joaquin Buckley, all intriguing prospects, were all once local athletes on the Bellator undercard that ended up getting signed to legitimate deals.
“We saw what we liked and we signed them to basically a television contract,” Coker said. “They get to fight on TV. And when you’re signed for a main card or TV, they go from what they were making in the local market to the 10 and 10 ($10,000 to show and another $10,000 to win) contract that we started out with and then we go up from there.”
In Coker’s eyes, the format helps those local fighters as well. They’re getting paid more money than they would if they were fighting for their local promotion, he said, and they have the opportunity to be seen firsthand by Bellator brass.
“It’s almost like a tryout, is the way I look at it,” Coker said. “Let’s see what these kids have and the ones we like, we’ll offer contracts. I think that’s the difference.”
The fighters who are popular in their area can also broker a deal with Bellator to get paid a portion of the money they make selling their own tickets. Bellator sets them up with a promotional code that their friends, family and fans can use when purchasing and the fighter will get a percentage of that revenue.
“If they want to make extra money, then we’ll do that,” Coker said. “But not every fighter does that. … For the people that want to do it, some of them have a very big ticket base and they want to do it. They want to go out there and make extra money. We provide that opportunity for them.”
Last month, fighter Marcus Sims posted on Twitter that Bellator offered him a contract with a $250 purse and a $250 win bonus. The fight would have been on a small, un-televised card at a motocross event in Atlanta as part of a partnership with Monster Energy. Coker intimated that the entire situation was a mistake that has since been corrected.
“For me, it was definitely something that created some awareness internally and I think we made some massive changes and we feel great about the direction it’s heading,” Coker said.
Bellator is constantly fighting an uphill battle, with the UFC still owning a massive market share of MMA. The last thing the promotion needs is a mess-up leading to a contract with a $250 purse being published on Twitter. If the gap in salaries between the UFC and Bellator is as vast as it might appear, it’ll be hard to consider Bellator as an entity gaining ground.
One could also make the argument that if a fighter is competing under the Bellator brand — whether on the main card or the prelims — they should be paid as such. On the other hand, its hard to judge the UFC, which is still very much a pay-per-view-driven business, to Bellator, which airs primarily on cable, in the same light.
Coker said Bellator compensates its athletes more than 50 percent of revenue, a practice he said he started when Strikeforce was owned by the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. A split of revenue like that is mandated under the NHL’s collective-bargaining agreement with the players union. MMA does not have a union, but that is the structure the owners wanted, Coker said. And that’s how it has continued with Bellator.
“We pay a healthy amount and we help keep the industry healthy, along with the UFC and ONE FC or all these other promotions together combined,” Coker said. “We keep the industry going and we do our part.”
On that Bellator 192 card in Los Angeles, four fighters made a guaranteed six figures: Chael Sonnen, Quinton Jackson, Rory MacDonald and Douglas Lima. The reality, Coker said, is the bigger-name talent is going to get paid more.
“I think that’s across all the different leagues out there,” he said. “Certain athletes get paid a lot more money than other athletes. The fighter has to earn their way up to be able to make that money.”
For Bellator, that starting point could be making $2,000 on the unaired prelims of its cards and then grow to be something more.
“If somebody doesn’t understand our business, I get it,” Coker said. “But for the people we deal with, the local promoters, the local managers, the local fighters — they understand it. Like, look if you get the call, then you’re gonna jump from what you’re making to the normal contract for Bellator fighters. It’s just a business model I’ve been doing for 30 years.”