The top story of the Jan 23 Wrestling Observer Newsletter takes an in-depth look at special investigations undergone by ESPN and other news outlets about reported salaries vs. actual income for UFC fighters.
As part of the story, the Observer includes some fascinating notes comparing both salaries and the way UFC and WWE performers earn their money:
Report on average salaries of WWE, UFC, and major sports:
As far as average salary, a terribly misleading stat because the top end players skew it badly, and the median salary (where half make more and half make less would be better) and the NBA averages $5.15 million per player, Major League Baseball around $3.5 million, the NHL $2.4 million and NFL around $1.9 million. The WWE would be between $500,000 and $550,000. UFC is absolutely impossible to ascertain. But if they really paid 50%, it would be in the range of $650,000. At 30%, it would be in the range of $390,000 and at 15% it would be in the range of $195,000. My experience is that UFC fighters making $390,000 per year are usually really big names, but the average and the median number (a better figure but one that is virtually impossible to ascertain for UFC fighters and pro wrestlers) are very different.
Fertitta claimed in the interview that the company since it became profitable has created 39 millionaires, but exactly what that means wasn’t explained. If it means the company has paid more than $1 million to 39 different fighters in total over the last six or seven years, that isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds. If they know their fighters finances well enough to know that 39 fighters are worth more than $1 million today, that’s very different and it was never explained. It’s nowhere close to that figure of any of the major sports, but it shouldn’t be, because total UFC revenue still pales in comparison with a major sport.
Comparison of UFC and WWE rosters, differing salary sources and WWE roster / developmental salary estimates:
If the bulk of fighter pay was guaranteed, the company would be hurt badly by the kind of revenue drops that took place in 2011, but instead from all appearances, while they did take a hit, you don’t see any noticeable sign of major cost cutting, diminishing the trappings of the product, or even slowing down international expansion. Still, even with a comparison to a lower percentage paid out by WWE, the WWE wrestlers get big video game checks which make a huge difference in annual income to the “have-not” level performers, something UFC fighters don’t get (according to one agent who represents a number of big time fighters, if you are in the advertising for the video game you make money for that, but if you are not, you don’t). And that is something exactly the same. But Zuffa also has probably 300 fighters under contract and generates less income (although not a whole lot less) than WWE during a year. At press time, WWE had roughly 74 performers on the main roster and 44 in developmental, so even paying a significantly lower percentage of total revenue to talent, because they only have 74 main roster performers, the majority of them make very healthy incomes. Developmental contracts are usually $24,000 to $50,000 per year, with the majority at the lower level.
Earnings for top draws vs. career longevity in UFC and WWE:
A legitimate major UFC drawing card like Georges St. Pierre or Brock Lesnar earns significantly more than John Cena because of their pay-per-view bonuses, and in the case of St. Pierre, getting a higher percentage of endorsements, if they aren’t injured. But when you have a guy who has done a high-risk style for 23 years, like Rey Mysterio, and has bad knees and is in his late 30s, and missed much of the year with knee surgeries and other injuries, and this happens frequently, he still makes a great income between his downside guarantee, his merchandise sales and video game revenue. Then again, a St. Pierre or a Lesnar only has to fight once a year to make a significantly better income, but if they don’t fight, their money goes down astronomically. But their longevity at the top is more fleeting and can’t be protected. Lesnar after two losses would have likely earned significantly less money, while Cena’s income may vary greatly based on a number of factors, but he is protected from losing matches and no longer being able to headline in a way that will diminish his value while he’s still a viable draw.
Guaranteed money in WWE/UFC vs. major sports and WWE downside guarantees:
But both companies are different from major sports franchises in that the big money is not guaranteed, but dependent upon what you draw, whether it be in PPV sales, ticket sales or merchandise. While Cena is likely an exception, at least as of a year or so ago, a top tier WWE wrestler would not get paid more than $1 million downside, but there are a number of headliners earning more than $1.5 million to $2 million per year.