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Promotions and the Use of Exclusive Fighter Agreements in MMA

Promotions use exclusive fighter agreements to carefully and comprehensively describe the rights and responsibilities of fighters under contract with the organization. Generally, these exclusive agreements address key business conditions a promotion wishes to clearly define in the event the conditions are not met. Promotions are big businesses and the sophistication of their business agreements reflect this reality. MMA business is no longer based on a handshake. In fact, in many instances, the exclusive fighter agreement is just one of several a promotion will use. Bout agreements and standard fighter contracts governed by state athletic commissions and/or other governing bodies are also used to strictly define the roles of the parties, the term of the business agreement, the scope of the deal (which can be very broad) and the consequences for breach. Following are just some of the key provisions one could expect to find in an exclusive fighter agreement:

Promotion’s Business Purpose: Exclusive Fighter Agreements usually contain a provision defining the promotion’s business purpose. A fight promotion’s stated business objectives are usually very broad. A well-drafted agreement will provide that the promotion is in business to (1) produce and promote MMA events; (2) to reap the benefits of the live and recorded broadcast of such events through all forms of media; and (3) to monetize the manufacture and distribution of products relating to the produced and promoted events.

Exclusivity: Of course, one of the main purposes of exclusive fighter agreements is to bind a fighter to an exclusive relationship with the organization for a specified time period. This exclusive relationship may also include reference to a minimum number of fights during the contract term. This exclusivity is typically world-wide. However, the agreements provide a number of termination provisions allowing the promotion to terminate the exclusive relationship under certain circumstances. Such circumstances could include losses, medical suspensions, and/or failed drug tests. There may also be provisions allowing the contract to be extended, if, for example, a fighter earns a title or wins a belt with the promotion during the initial contract term. In exchange for agreeing to fight exclusively for one fight promotion, fighters are typically compensated through appearance and rights fees associated with the fighter’s participation in fights during the term of the agreement. Such fees are exclusive of fighter prize money which is negotiated and set forth in a separate, signed agreement between the parties.

Fighter Expenses: When a fighter signs an exclusive agreement with a promotion, he or she can typically be assured that the promotion will cover certain fight-related expenses. Travel, hotel accommodations and per diem meal allowances may be provided for the fighter and one or more of the fighter’s cornermen.

Medical Requirements: In order to be allowed to fight at a particular event, promotions require written medical releases by licensed physicians who have examined the fighter indicating the fighter is cleared to fight. There may also be a provision requiring the fighter to be physically and medically fit and drug free.

Insurance. As required by law in certain jurisdictions, promotions will insure signed fighters as participants in a particular bout for appropriate health and accidental death insurance, subject to the availability of insurance. This insurance coverage is generally narrow and promotions typically take care to expressly explain that fighters are personally responsible for their own medical expenses during the term of the agreement. Commonly, provided insurance is strictly limited to coverage of the fighter during the actual event.

Doping and Illegal Substances: These agreements may contain provisions requiring the fighter to be tested for doping, including but not limited to steroids, human growth drugs or any form of prohibited performance enhancing substances or illegal substances. These anti-doping provisions typically track state athletic commission rules and/or other governing body rules and regulations. Penalties for positive drug tests may include financial penalties, disqualifications and/or title/belt forfeiture.

Medical Testing: In addition to drug testing, fighters may be required to submit other medical test results. These tests will typically include HIV tests, Hepatitis B and C tests, neurological tests (if required), CT scan and MRI tests (if required) and any other tests required by the State Athletic Commission and/or state governing bodies.

Grant of Rights and Licenses: Perhaps most importantly, exclusive fighter agreements may require the fighter to grant the promotion a perpetual right to utilize the fighter’s persona for use in connection with the event. The “fighter’s persona” may be broadly defined in the agreement as the fighter’s names (legal, formal, informal) the fighter’s likeness, autograph signature, and voice. Some agreements will carve out the fighter’s right to apply for and maintain a trademark for his name and/or nickname for merchandise and/or related services.

The contract provisions discussed above are a composite of provisions either personally reviewed by the author or described to the author by others with personal knowledge of exclusive fighter agreements that have been used in MMA by a number of promotions.

  • Astrid says:

    Interesting info. I just have a few questions:
    1) Is there anything fighters should watch out for?
    2) Do they need to consult with a lawyer before signing an agreement to make sure they are not being taken advantage of?
    3) Also, is the fighter license purchased by the fighter himself or the promoter from the respective athletic commission?

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  • Filler says:

    Great article. Now, are there any cases dealing with the enforceability? Statutes?

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  • Stan says:

    I remember reading a great article around the time UFC and AKA had their showdown over perpetual licensing for video games that touched on some of this regarding whether the Muhammad Ali Act should be extended to cover MMA fighters.

    Right now it seems like at the highest levels, fighters are beholden to a company and are usually taken care of by that company. At lower levels, fighters are brought in on the day of their fights and the 3-4 hours of the show is the extent of their relation with the company. It seems difficult to find a middle ground which would cover the bum making $100 bucks in a regional show in Wisconsin and the superstar making half a million just for showing up.

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  • mu_shin says:

    Legal agreements can make or break a career, and it is beholden on the fighter to engage and consult with trusted legal counsel to discern the advantages and/or pitfalls of signing their life away.

    The music business is rife with stories about rising superstars who grabbed at the possibility of success and signed management contracts that came back to haunt them. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, and John Fogerty are just the ones that immediately come mind, all of whom spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to extricate themselves from ill-advised badly flawed contracts that they signed before educating themselves in the legal business apects of their chosen profession.

    I would think any talented athlete with serious prospects in MMA would owe it to themselves to retain trusted counsel and navigate the legal maze from a position of educated strength.

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