Who Wins UFC Fight Night Bonuses?
A hot topic in the news lately has been UFC Fight Night Bonuses. This includes the end of event bonuses awarded to the Fight of the Night (FOTN), Knockout of the Night (KOTN), and Submission of the Night (SOTN). Officially Dana White says those bonuses are here to stay, which is great news for perpetually exciting fighters like Joe Lauzon. Bonuses incentivize performance, spread the wealth, and give guys who give their all for the fans an official metric for justifying their place on the Zuffa roster.
I’ve already covered the timeline of awarded bonuses, so the natural next question concerns who actually receives them. Now that the standardized Fight Night bonus is fixed at $50,000 regardless of what channel a UFC event is broadcast on, let’s examine a different layer of detail.
What I’ve graphed here is the percentage likelihood of a fighter winning a Fight Night Bonus based solely on card placement. The card placement number goes in reverse order of appearance, so main events (on the left side of the graph) are “1,” co-main events are “2,” all the way down to the Facebook-aired preliminary fights (on the right side of the graph) in the 11, 12 or 13 spots. Some of these results may not be surprising, but the reasons for them may not be as clear.
Indeed, it pays to fight last. It turns out that the fighters competing in the highest profile spots on the fight card are also the most likely to win Fight Night Bonuses. Is that fair? That (presumably) the highest paid fighters also get more than their share of bonus money? If you’re fighting in a Main Event you have more than a one in three chance of winning a bonus of some kind, with most of those bonuses not requiring a finish, or even a win. Whereas towards the bottom of the preliminary card fighters average only a one in ten chance of taking home a bonus, and more likely require a win inside the distance to do so. Is that how a true meritocracy should play out?
Not so fast. As has been speculated before, the bump of bonuses on the main card may be a reflection of the higher skill level of the fighters who compete there. Basically, knocking a guy out who is highly ranked is inherently more impressive than finishing an undercard newcomer or fading veteran. Bonuses, therefore, reflect the level of difficulty that increases as the event approaches its conclusion and reward that same difficulty in performing at a high level against better competition. When the rich get richer, it may just be because they’re that much better.
This may be the driving factor. Certainly a Fight of the Night bonus requires not one, but both fighters to be in great shape and able to fight through a skillful back and forth war. In theory, main events feature the most talented fighters of any given card, and correspondingly result in a whopping 36% of those fighters taking home some form of Fight Night bonus on top of other compensation. A fighter in any given spot on the main card will average a 14.7% FOTN bonus rate, while being on the prelim card results in a measly 3.2% FOTN average. That’s a huge drop, and a far larger drop than Knockout and Submission averages across the card.
But the main card bump in finishing bonuses may also be reflecting other factors. First, larger fighters are more likely to command main card presence. This may be due to their higher finish rates, or just the general fan’s appetite for bigger, better, faster. Bigger fighters sell tickets and generally deliver for the fans by scoring more knockouts. This may be an additional factor in the KOTN average being 6.4% for main card fighters, but only 2.4% for fighters on the prelims.
The same trends of weight class and card placement may also work in reverse for submissions, which are the most stable bonus type across the board. Main card fighters take home 4.6% of these bonuses per spot, while prelim fighters average 3.5%. Not a huge drop. Overall, submissions are more rare than (T)KO’s so sometimes the selection of a SOTN winner is easier. And perhaps the idea of a skillful submission is also better able to stand alone in our minds, regardless of card placement, allowing undercard fighters a fairer shot at the bonus.
But look more closely at the #5 and #6 spots on the card. Despite nearly identical rates for finish bonuses, rates for the more subjective Fight of the Night bonuses drop from over 13% on the bottom of the main card to just 6% at the top of the preliminaries. Is there really that much of a difference in quality and skill of fighters between those two positions on the card? Probably not. So what is causing such a noticeable chasm between the main and preliminary cards? Isn’t there some incentive for the final fight of the UFC preliminary card to be stacked with exciting fighters to boost pay-per-view purchase rates? According to the data, these guys aren’t anywhere close to as exciting as the lead off fighters for the main card. So what’s driving this sudden spike in bonus-worthy performances? Watch out folks: science!
At the end of the night, what stands out in our minds? Was it a devastating 10-second KO on the Facebook prelims, or was it as highly ranked fighter getting unexpectedly TKO’d by a new contender? Our tendency to remember more recent events is most commonly described as the “Availability Heuristic.” Basically, what comes to mind when we try to recall things is the information and memories that are most readily available. And that means most fresh in our minds. More specifically sometimes it’s called “Recency Bias,” and that bias is a powerful underlying cognitive and psychological influence on the end of night decision to award bonuses.
This bias is why entertainment programs always try to “end with a bang,” or in the UFC’s case, the main event. It’s why cruise ships save their best dinner for last, and why Disney World has fireworks every single night. When searching for superlative memories (the best or worst of an event) it’s always easier to remember the things that are most fresh in our minds. And in the case of MMA fights, that means the last few fights of the night. Dana White often doesn’t even make it to cage side until the main card anyway, which further damns high performing undercard fighters to a night with no bonus. We’d like to think that everyone has a fair shot at Fight Night bonuses. But that’s unrealistic, if only because the people who decide who wins them are human after all. Being later on the card, therefore, boosts your chances of being remembered beyond otherwise objective comparisons of performance.
So now that we know that Fight Night Bonuses are here to stay, we have to ask ourselves whether or not they are serving the proper purpose, or simply falling prey to more fundamental trends. Are they truly rewarding the most exemplary performances of each event? Or are they simply padding the wallets of the highest earning fighters in the UFC? Would fans and fighters alike prefer to see the $200,000 in bonus money per event be allocated to the dozen or so fighters on the bottom of the card? An even salary allocation would give an additional $14,286 to each undercard fighter for the typical 12-fight card. In many cases, that would more than double the base pay that these fighters receive to show and significantly elevate the total earnings they live off in their first few years competing in the UFC. What do you think? Would that be enough to have a material change on the overall UFC system, perhaps by enabling more fighters to focus on training full-time? An eight and eight fighter competing twice a year with an expected win rate of ~50% is only making $24,000 in purse money. Adding the bonus money to increase just the base pay of these fighters would lead to an annual salary of $52,572 assuming the same two appearances with one win. Even higher if the bonus money was only allocated to the fighters at the bottom of the salary list. That could be enough of a bump to improve training investments, coaching, and the all important removal of day-job distractions. Perhaps the idea of getting rid of bonuses is not so crazy after all.
The issue of money is always touchy, and Zuffa justifiably doesn’t like talking about it. For a fledgling sport to innovate, pioneer, and build a mainstream franchise with true staying power requires a huge investment. When the sport has gone global and become a large, mature and sustainable business, we may then have the luxury of examining fighter pay parity. But until then the allocation of bonuses remains a small way to reward exciting fighters for giving their all in the cage, and creating the marketing fodder for future highlight and promotional reels. So the question of whether bonuses are “fairly” distributed based purely on performance is a legitimate and worthy exercise. If we’re going to say that bonuses are a meritocracy, we should expect that to hold true under inspection. While fighters themselves might like the “idea” of bonuses, they’re also working off an incorrect assumption that they all have an equal shot at winning them.
The next question might be if this system of reward is the right one. The concept of compensation and motivation is complex enough that entire classes are taught at business schools on the subject, and some professional consultants makes their living advising businesses just on this one aspect of strategy. For UFC bonuses various ideas have been suggested, like getting rid of bonuses to increase base pay, or the more marketable idea of a fan-based vote for awards. Unfortunately the first attempts at a fan-vote approach backfired when Georges St-Pierre took home a huge $100k Fight of the Night bonus on a home town card with a less than notable performance at UFC 124. If fans, like fighters themselves, want to support ensuring that UFC fighters with low pay get taken care of then they certainly blew their best chance. But hey, perhaps MMA fans are more educated now?
As with any managerial decision it’s always good to run the numbers first while exploring options. Let the matter of Who Wins Fight Night Bonuses now be settled: it pays to fight last, and for good reasons.