February 13, 2016

Free Flow: How MMA Free Agency Benefits Both Fighters and Fans

By Raphael Garcia

Free agency periods are exciting times in professional sports. Think back to the response from fans when major names like LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez, and Peyton Manning announced they were headed to new teams and new possibilities. The sport of mixed martial arts is finally starting to move in the same direction, as its athletes are finally in a position to take advantage of the kind of free agency their major sports counterparts have enjoyed for years. Fans and fighters alike should be excited with what the future holds.

News broke early last week that former UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson signed a deal with Bellator MMA. As he put it while speaking with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, this is a “unique” deal that will benefit him in ways that other fighters have yet to experience. This is perhaps the biggest benefit of free agency -- valuable fighters getting deals that represent their respective best interests.

The UFC is known for flexing its muscle and creating deals that look out for its brand and not that of the fighter. From a business standpoint, this is the right move for the UFC. However, fighters were in a position in which they were routinely “strong-armed” into deals and situations that did not truly benefit them. The UFC-Reebok deal and its growing controversy is an example of such. Fighters didn’t negotiate any aspect of that deal and now they are suffering the repercussions. Thus, Bellator’s entry into the free agency market has the potential to have real impact.

Competition helps sports grow. Competition between the UFC and Bellator MMA is essential for MMA’s continued development. Just as professional sports teams continue to look for the best players to add to their rosters, these promotions use the same approach with every new signing. Henderson is the first salvo in the coming free agency battle. Alistair Overeem, Sarah Kaufman, Matt Mitrione, and Aljamain Sterling are the biggest names remaining that immediately add value to any roster in MMA.

Fans should be especially excited for the coming changes. Often times, fans complain about the treatment of athletes within the UFC, but do not have the opportunity to “do” anything about it. If Bellator continues to sign bigger names, watching the other promotion helps to take some of the leverage away from the UFC with regard to fighter negotiations. This won’t bring about immediate change, but it would lead to a slow transition that will have implications for the future of MMA business.

Free agency is bound to be one of the major stories of 2016. As more and more fighters opt for finishing out their contracts to see what options present themselves, they and their fans stand to benefit. As long as organizations like Bellator MMA stand tall and create valuable packages for these athletes, true sports free agency will be a beneficial addition to the MMA landscape.

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