It was a transformative moment in the history of MMA last week, when five powerful and popular UFC fighters, Georges St-Pierre, Tim Kennedy, T.J. Dillashaw, Cain Velasquez and Donald Cerrone, united to announce the formation of a new association: the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. Their plan: to fight for fair pay, legal protections, pensions, healthcare and all of the luxuries that most professional athletes already enjoy. But, following a drawn out, two-hour long conference call led by former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, fighters and fans were left with several unanswered questions, the major one being: Is the MMAAA an association or a union?
The MMAAA calls itself an association but Rebney littered the press call with union-esque insinuations and terms like “collective bargaining agreement.” Many wondered how the group would effectuate its goals without the legal teeth that a certified union provides and powerful alliances like the NBA, MLB and NFL. Social media comments from prominent journalists and fans reflected the confusion.
In an exclusive one-on-one call with Bloody Elbow, Rebney, a lawyer, who successfully built rival UFC promotion Bellator from the ground up, before vacating his CEO post, cleared up the MMAAA’s long-term plans.
“We are coming out as an association….if we wanna speed this up, if we wanna fix this in the next 24 months…we wanna drive this to a position where it’s worked out…that’s what we have to do.”
But in an unprecedented twist, he revealed that down the road there will be no choice except for the MMAAA to unionize, due to legal demands he anticipates from the UFC.
“We will have to become a union,” Rebney said, referencing how he believes things will play out.
Rebney says that if the MMAAA successfully organizes a mass of fighters and gets the UFC to the bargaining table, that the conglomerate will not agree to fighter demands without a guarantee that it will be protected from future claims.
That guarantee will come in the form of an antitrust exemption, which is only available to organizations that bargain with unions.
The antitrust exemption is a legal protection that promises that the UFC can never be sued for being a monopoly, which is a lawsuit it’s currently facing. The current lawsuit is asking for damages as well as injunctive relief that could lead to a court ordered restructuring.
“We recognize that if the UFC is going to resolve their differences, resolve these problems… that they are never going to do so without securing for themselves an antitrust exemption,” he said. “Once they’ve agreed to our demands and we’ve reached an agreement, they are gonna want that and they would deserve it at that point. At that point we would become a union.”
Rebney says the MMAAA could turn into the best of both worlds for fighters struggling to decide whether to align themselves with competing organizations, the MMAFA and the PFA.
The PFA offers a path to unionization only for UFC fighters, whereas the MMAFA is trying to band fighters together across all promotions. The MMAFA is spearheading a legislative push for federal regulation of the sport and an antitrust lawsuit to open up a free market, where promotions can bid on top fighters in a structure similar to boxing.
The PFA, led by baseball agent Jeff Borris, is pushing fighters to sign authorization cards, get certified as a union and engage in collective bargaining to secure pensions, healthcare and other stipulations that would provide legal protections for fighters in the UFC only.
Rebney’s strategy is unique. He refuses to embark on a quest to unionize right now, citing that it will delay meaningful progress for fighters for years. He says the process can be bogged down by legal challenges from the UFC, including over whether the fighters are independent contractors or employees, a fight that could go all the way to federal court.
Rebney would like to get the UFC to the table, come to an agreement, and then if it requests antitrust protection, his unified group would unionize. He says the MMAAA provides an expedited group for fighters to join now, to fight for a common purpose, without having to first sign a union authorization card and get drawn into confusing legal battles.
Associations are not legally allowed to strike or lawsuits could result. As for how Rebney plans to bring the UFC to the table, he says the MMAAA, controlled by its fighter board, will come out swinging. One plan is to target the UFC’s lucrative television contacts with an aggressive, well-orchestrated media campaign. The UFC’s deal with Fox expires next year and it will be looking to either renew or form new partnerships.
“The WME-IMG conglomerate has an enormous debt instrument that they have to pay off in a very short period of time,” Rebney said. “In order to effectuate that payoff, they have to increase the current three drivers in their business that account for 76% of their revenues and those three drivers are: domestic TV, International TV and Pay-Per-View. The decision-makers who will ultimately decide if they’re able to increase those three revenue streams are television executives. When television executives are buying live sports programming, what are the things they want to be absolutely sure that they protect against? A labor issue. So if you have three quarters or one hundred percent of the athletes in a given organization or league outspoken against the league, based on the grievances they have that are all substantiated, you have a labor problem.”
Rebney and the MMAAA plan to flood the media with stories of fighter hardships and give fighters an outlet to air their grievances without fear of UFC retribution. He says the relentless campaign will pick up steam, once the five well-known fighters of the MMAAA show their willingness to speak.
“WME-IMG’s ability to effectuate three or four-fold increases in television licensing agreements both here domestically and internationally will be very substantially hindered by a situation where you have GSP, Cain Velasquez, T. J. Dillashaw and Tim Kennedy and hundreds of other fighters voicing their substantial displeasure with how they are being treated,” Rebney said.
Rebney, who says he negotiated long-term television licensing deals for Bellator with ESPN, NBC, Fox, MTV and Spike, says he has a keen understanding of what works, how it works and what the buyers of that kind of content are “frightened of.” He has sold content to 125 different countries around the world.
“If you’re NBC or you’re ESPN or you’re Fox and you’re being asked to pay what’s currently $140 million dollar deal per year and increase it to a $350 million dollar deal and there is a consistent flow of media talking to the biggest, most prominent most prevalent superstars…and it’s a very ugly fight, it’s just gonna progressively get uglier and uglier that’s a major hindrance to the ability that WME-IMG’s gonna have to be able to effectuate the level of increase that they are gonna need,” Rebney said. “I know full well that if I’m going to a buyer and saying ‘please pay me a premium for this content’ and simultaneously that buyer is going online and seeing the biggest stars in my organization say ‘I’m extremely unhappy, I have no protection, I have no safety net, I have no pension, I’m not being paid fairly,’ over and over again. That will serve as a huge detriment, huge detriment to my ability as a seller to be able to effectuate top dollar.”
The publicity campaign is just one prong of the MMAAA strategy, according to Rebney. He plans to facilitate the widespread distribution of the messaging to various media outlets, but for now, has no plans to reach out directly to his contacts in the television industry.
“I’m just gonna disseminate the message and we are gonna talk to people, and fighters are gonna talk to people and we are gonna introduce the media and fans to a lot of fighters, both current and prior UFC fighters and introduce them to the problems they are facing and to the issues that they have and that’s just one facet of it,” he said. “The lack of fairness here is shocking, the lack of protection here is in a word: disgusting.”
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