“Champs“, a documentary focusing on Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins, is set for a 2015 theatrical release. The movie examines the underbelly of the business of combat sports and at the 1:33 mark of the recently released trailer one fighter is quoted saying “Why is it every sport has some type of Union and boxing don’t?”
The answer? Professional boxing and many other combat sports have a low barrier of entry. I don’t say this to in anyway take away from the accomplishments of the sport’s elite athletes or even the moderately successful. I’m talking about the ground floor. Think of an 0-0 boxer or combat athlete taking their first professional fight. Many people can enter this world if they choose to do so. The pay is low. The contracts are one sided in favour of the promoter or manager. They are usually long term and often exclusive in case the prospect athlete turns in to something of a draw.
What if the fighter does not sign the lopsided deal? They get passed over for the next person in line. There is always another person in line willing to take the bad deal. This is the market. This is the price fighters pay for a low barrier of entry. This keeps the status quo in place.
If a jurisdiction seeks to impose improved conditions for fighters with legislative change the promoters can simply look elsewhere. When promoters have 50 states plus other jurisdictions to choose from they can shop where the market is most favorable to them. California flirted with contract reform in combat sports only to have the proposed laws die on the vine, likely when lawmakers realized that they would lose high profile events to neighboring Nevada and other States.
In 2013 Connecticut became the 49th State to legalize MMA but when doing so implemented strict liability requirements making promoters on the hook for “any health care costs incurred by such competitor for the diagnosis, care and treatment of any injury, illness, disease or condition“. This was basically a non-starter for any promoters looking to do business in the State and business went elsewhere. Lawmakers have heard the message and are now proposing to water down the requirement and instead replace it with an insurance requirement. This, at the same time that a Mark Coleman, a pioneer and legend of the Mixed Martial Arts world is reduced to asking for help online to pay for health care expenses related to the hips he wore out from a lifetime in combative sports.
So long as combat sports have a low barrier to entry, legislators refuse to collaborate on across the board contractual reforms and fighters refuse to work together and form an association to impose minimum contractual protections for themselves stories such as these will remain the status quo. That is why every sport has some type of union but combat sports do not.