I once joked that an MMA fighter/promoter contract takes about one page to draft. The remaining pages are designed to screw over the fighter. There is some truth to this. When giving advice to fighters about signing promoter contracts it usually is along the lines of ‘tear it up and start from the beginning‘.
Outside of professional boxers in the US who enjoy the protections of the Ali Act very few North American professional fighters enjoy strong legislative protection when it comes to their contracts with promoters. The protections vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but generally these laws are sparse and leave much to be negotiated between fighters and promoters. Promotions have taken the upper hand in this landscape.
The most basic provisions are easy to understand. You will fight and when you do the promoter will pay you an agreed amount. The promoter will be able to monetize the fight and its footage and enjoy any profits they generate from that. That is the foundation of most deals. But what are all the other terms? Pages and pages of legalese. What kinds of pitfalls should you look out for?
If you are like most fighters you are hoping to enjoy some success and climb the ladder to bigger promotions. You will want the flexibility to be able to make the move when opportunity comes knocking.
While UFC contracts have been subject to much scrutiny both from the media and from the ongoing anti-trust lawsuit many second and even third tier MMA promoters structure their contracts following the UFC model. Its one thing for the big show to insist on heavy handed terms, its quite another for a local small time promoter to try and do the same. Be weary before signing.
Contracts are written by promoters and designed to protect their interests. This comes at the expense of fighters interests. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page of these contracts give promoters rights at your expense. You should understand these terms and make an informed decision to either agree to them or to insist that they be changed before signing.
What to look out for? Here are some common terms and things to consider. This is far from a comprehensive list but a decent starting point –
TERM OF CONTRACT
This is one of the biggest issues I see regional fighters grapple with when they wish to move on from a promoter they are unhappy with. When does the contract end? Many contracts are for a fixed amount of fights or for a fixed period of time. From there its over right? Usually not. The end date is quite flexible and can be extended for a wide variety of reasons. Contracts often extend their term if you can’t fight due to injury or illness. Extensions if you turn down a fight. Freezing while you ‘retire’. Even after they end many ask for exclusive negotiating periods. And after these expire many insist on matching rights where your promoter can simply match the terms of the new promoter you wish to move on to.
Is any of this in your interest? Probably not. Consider if its in your interest to have a firm end date by which you are fully released from your contractual obligations with no strings attached.
Many regional MMA promotions copy the UFC ‘champions clause’ contract extension. That is that if your contract comes to an end but you are a promotional champion at the time you are subject to contract extension. This is the exact time when you are most likely going to have new opportunities coming your way. Consider whether such a restrictive term has any value to you.
CHOICE OF VENUE AND OPPONENT
Do you have a say in who and when you will fight or does the promoter enjoy this right exclusively? Do you have a say in what weight class you will compete? If you say no to a proposed bout what consequences flow from that?
What does the promoter have to do to actually promote you or the bouts you are in? Do they have any obligations whatsoever? If so what are the details? Do you have any obligation to participate in their promotion other than showing up for weigh ins and the fight? If so what are these obligations? Are you paid for this extra work?
Does the promoter have to offer you each fight within a specified time frame? Are there any consequences to them if they don’t? You should consider a clause giving you the option of being released from your contract if a fight is not offered and delivered within a set time frame. Consider damages as an alternative. There is no value being tied to an exclusive contract where the promoter is not obliged to fulfill their end of the bargain in a sensible time frame.
Does the contract prevent you from fighting for other organizations? If so for how long? In what sports? MMA or others? Removing or limiting such restrictions is generally in a fighters interest.
TERMINATION BY PROMOTER
Can the promoter end the contract if you lose? Can they end the contract for other reasons? Generally speaking the fewer the better. If the contract is exclusive but the promoter can end it on their whim that benefits them and restricts you. Consider reducing all the circumstances where a promoter can end their obligations to you.
COMPENSATION AND INCIDENTALS
How much are you being paid? Does this include travel and lodging allowances when you travel to fight? Does this extend to your seconds and others you need to travel with you? Does it include the cost of obtaining your licensing? If not who is responsible for this. Do the math. Determine just how much it is going to cost you to take your first ‘pro’ fight.
CODE OF CONDUCT
Is there a code of conduct you have to comply with? What are the consequences if you don’t? Is this code applied fairly or is it a tool for the promoter to hold over your head? Do they have to comply with a similar code? If not why not? Are there any consequences to them if they breach the code of conduct such that you don’t want to be affiliated with them anymore? What due process rights and remedies do you enjoy if you are alleged to have breached the code?
Does the contract prevent you from criticizing the promoter? Do you have to keep silent about perceived grievances. I’m not talking about clear defamation which the law already has a remedy for but restrictions over and above this. Does this restriction go both ways preventing the promoter from disparaging you? If not why not?
If you are injured at a fight or preparing for a fight is there insurance to cover you for your medical costs and recovery? If so for what amount. What exclusions are there on the coverage? Fighting is a dangerous business, does the promoter take any risk or is this all on you?
WAIVER OF RIGHT TO SUE
Are you waiving your right to sue the promoter if you get injured or for any other reason? If so what circumstances are you waiving your right to sue? The fewer of your rights you give up the better.
REMEDIES IF PROMOTER BREACHES CONTRACT
Are you limiting the circumstances of when you can sue the promoter for breach of contract? Are you limiting the remedies you can seek against the promoter when they breach the contract?
If the promoter is sued by others because of any alleged wrongdoing on your part are you agreeing to indemnify them for their costs from such a lawsuit? Are they extending the same courtesy to you in reverse circumstances? Probably not.
MANDATORY ARBITRATION and JURISDICTION
If you have a dispute with your promoter can you sue them or are you forced into costly arbitration? In what jurisdiction? Can you afford the arbitration costs if a problem arises or are the up front costs so prohibitive that you will be priced out of ever fighting a promoter who short changes you? What choice of law is agreed to govern the contract? Is there a reason why that choice of law is agreed to? Are you agreeing to pay their legal costs if you are on the losing end of a lawsuit? Are they agreeing to do the same for you?
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
Are you allowed to use the name of the promotion you are fighting for when promoting your own career advancement? Or can the promotion sue you for misuse of their intellectual property rights? Is there a limited licence for how you can use the name of the promotion when marketing yourself? Are these terms reasonable? If you become the champion is the belt yours or do you have to return it to the promotion on their request? Can you refer to yourself as the promotional champion if you earn this title? What kind of intellectual property rights are you giving the promoter? What if a bout of yours leads to a viral moment that becomes significantly monetized? Can you enjoy any of that profit? Do you have any limited rights to use the footage of you in your own bouts to advance your own career interests? Can you use the footage for your own career highlight reel? If so to what extent? For how long and in what circumstances can they use the bout footage? Are you entitled to any payment for this? Ever?
Can the promoter assign their contract with you to another promotion without your permission? Will you have any say in this process? Will you receive any compensation should this occur? Will you have the right to terminate your contract if this occurs and you don’t like the new entity taking over the contract?
Are you agreeing to keep the terms of your contract secret? If a dispute arises and you tell the truth does this open you to a lawsuit for breach of contract? If so what remedies are you giving the promoter?
IN CAGE SPONSORSHIP
Are you allowed your own sponsors in cage? On your fight banner? On your clothing? If you are limited are you being paid anything for giving up these rights? If so what are the details of this pay?
Some local MMA promotions have drug testing clauses in their contracts but have no actual drug testing program. Probably just copy and pasted from a UFC precedent when first drafting theirs. If there is no actual program why agree to it? Does the Promotion enjoy the right to drug test you or is this left to regulators? If the former what are the details of this? What is prohibited? When is it prohibited? What are the consequences of failing a drug test? What due process rights and remedies do you have to challenge an adverse finding?
These are just a few observations off the top of my head. MMA promoter/fighter contracts are complex business agreements. Usually drafted by lawyers and refined many times over the years to better and better protect promoter interests. Fighters should be wary before signing and know what you are getting into. If terms don’t make sense make sure you obtain legal advice before signing. It is far easier not to sign a bad contract then to try to get out of one after the fact.
Big fat disclaimer – This is not legal advice. Just the ramblings from a lawyer about some issues I’ve encountered over the years reviewing combat sports contracts. If you need legal advice you need to retain a lawyer, not read some stuff on the internet. That said, hope this is of some value for educational purposes.