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The Realities of Bellator Fighting Championship

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The risks involved with being a Mixed Martial Artist (MMA) go far beyond the combat aspect of the sport. Fighters have to deal with sponsors, contracts, building a brand, social media, fans and much much more. It seems every day you hear stories of how the sport is growing at an incredible pace, and sprinkled in are stories of athletes being broke. Bellator Fighting Championship® is the self proclaimed second largest promotion in the sport. In 2013 they make the move to Spike TV® from MTV2® and will add to its tournament format a reality show much like "The Ultimate Fighter" by its competitor Zuffa.

Full disclosure; I have been banned by Bellator so my view may be tainted a bit, yet the words below are extracted from Bellator's own contract.  Read on to hear more about that.

I met Bellator Fighting Championship President, Bjorn Rebney as he was starting Bellator. He was courting many MMA managers and agents. He explained to me how Bellator was going to be different, how it would be about the athletes. At the time I represented several athletes from The Lab MMA, including Benson Henderson and Santino Defranco.  Those fighters asked me to speak with a potential Bellator signee and teammate, Victor (Vic) Meza.

Vic was being recruited by Bellator for Season I. In the middle of the negotiation Vic asked that we review his contract. I read it through and reported back the issues I saw (most are listed below). My biggest concern was was ancillary rights section. In return for a payment of $2,000 the contract granted Bellator essentially unlimited and perpetual rights over Vic’s likeness. I informed Vic that it would be impossible for us to represent him and do what we do if he signed the Tournament contract. Even if Vic agreed to the terms and won the Tournament, he had to ask himself " how much is my name and likeness really worth now and in the future?especially if I win the Tournament." Vic agreed with my review and said he was going to speak with Bellator.

A few days later Vic called me back and informed me that he spoke to Bellator and he was told the terms were “non-negotiable”. He was also told that the terms hinged upon him signing with Bellator’s Matchmaker and MMA Agent Matt Stansell, or no deal would be granted. To be clear: Vic was being told that his agent must also be an employee of the promotion. It’s hard to see how Vic’s new agent could possibly negotiate freely in his best interest when his employer is sitting across the table from him.

I told Vic that I had been speaking with Bjorn and I would reach out as this contradicts his “Fighters first” mantra that he was selling to me. Bjorn would not return my text or message other than to say the contract terms stand. He would not acknowledge the Matt Stansell stipulation (in writing). Subsequent to the activities I made a post on MMA.tv asking if anyone else had the same issues. I have been banned by Bellator ever since then.

The bottom line is, as a manager, I work for my clients. It is our job to help the client understand the risk and rewards associated with contracts that are presented to them. For Vic the risk was agreeing to allow a promoter to own his name and likeness for the rest of his life with the guarantee of earning $2000.00. Yes the upside is a potential $100,000.00 reward, but even at that price is that worth selling your name and likeness forever? Is the price of an Athlete, signing for the second largest MMA promotion in the world, only really worth $2000.00?

Fighters and their agents or managers need to be careful dealing with Bellator-like contracts. They need to asses the value that they put on their ability to earn a living in sports or entertainment. The issues that were sticking points for us are below. The items A through I are pretty standard language in agreements of this type. Essentially saying they are paying to put on the event and we own anything that comes with the event, forever. That is not the issue. A Zuffa example of this is the Topps cards. The images used in the cards are from Zuffa events and Topps pays Zuffa for use of those images.

The major issue is item J, where they are granted the right to file a Patent and or Trademark on the Athletes name, likeness, nickname etc. So it is likely that “King Mo” could be owned by Bellator not Mo Lawal.

GRANT OF ANCILLARY RIGHTS

Subject to the terms and conditions set forth below, FIGHTERS herby grant to PROMOTER the exclusive unrestricted worldwide rights to the following ancillary rights (“Ancillary Rights”)

J)      The right to register as a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) FIGHTER's name, stage name, Identity, or any other feature of FIGHTER which may be trademarked, for the purposes of (1) promoting sporting events and athletic competitions; (2) broadcasting sports and entertainment programs by means of television, radio, cable television, satellite, and other wire and wireless forms of transmission; (3) producing and distributing sports and entertainment programs by means of television, cable television, satellite, via a global information network (<-- our guess is Internet), pay-per-view exhibition, closed circuit exhibition, and do the live formats; and production of electronic reproductions featuring sports and entertainment programs; (5) exploitation of all other rights granted to PROMOTER herein.

Essentially this clause gives Bellator ownership of the "FIGHTERS" they sign name, likeness identity and any other feature of the athlete.  As I expressed to Bellator officials they want this clause to survive along with the "right to match" clause post termination or expiration.

B) The expiration the the Term shall not affect or terminate the grant of Ancillary Rights or any of the general or specific provisions of this Agreement which shall survive such expiration or termination.

They make the desire to own these rights post termination beyond clear.  See below.

C) PROMOTER shall not be deemed in default of this Agreement to the extent that performance of its obligations are delayed or prevented by reason of any act of God, fire, natural disaster, war, riot, strike, or labor difficulties, terrorism, power failure or other acts constituting force majeure or any governmental or Commission enactment, determination or action, regulation or order.

D) The termination of this Agreement or the expiration of the Term shall not serve to affect or terminate the Ancillary Rights granted under this Agreement, as they shall survive any such termination, expiration or acceleration and this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect with respect thereto.

*The above information is pulled from the lawsuit filed by Bellator against Jonathan Brookins after he signed with The UFC. It is also the same or is very similar to the contract I agreed for Victor Meza.

A lot has been written about Bellator's "matching rights", but the patent and trademark rights survive long after the matching rights.  The reality of the matching right is that it is a good thing for the athletes.  If nothing else it allows the athlete to find a better deal.  My concern is what happens when I find the better deal and Bellator owns the right to register a Patent and Trademark on my client.  By not matching and retaining this right, they are reserving the right to own my clients name and likeness in the future.  Look no further than Apple Vs. Samsung  lawsuits or the musician Prince, who changed his name to Symbol to get out of a Warner Brothers contract.

Comments

  • kris
    751 days ago - Reply

    bellator slowly turning in to a bunch of scum bags.

  • Miguel Antonio Barragan
    750 days ago - Reply

    Wasn’t Jon Fitch fired then re-hired by the UFC w/in a 24hr period over this exact same thing¿ For the UFC video game if I’m not mistaken. He obviously signed it, however I don’t know how much he was paid for his likeliness. I honestly thought this was commom amongst bigger MMA promotions.

    • admin
      750 days ago - Reply

      Miguel,

      No we are talking about two different things. Fitch/AKA was about video game exclusivity. Zuffa offered the athletes an opportunity to “partner” with them on merchandise. They wanted to exclude payment on the video game and have an exclusive on the video game category.

      As an example Zuffa could sell Bic on a BJ Penn lighter. BJ penn can sell himself to Zippo and earn a small % from the UFC and not have to share any of the Zippo money with the UFC. Essentially this merchandise agreement allowed the athletes to participate in a revenue stream they had already signed away in the “Promotional Agreement”. Bellator and Zuffa (rightfully so) own the footage of the athlete they capture. They have unlimited rights that never expire. So Zuffa could sell Shane Carwin Bic lighters and not pay Shane, just like Bellator has the right to sell or use their footage for profit. Zuffa shares this revenue and Bellator currently does not. I am not saying this is good for the athlete I am saying it is what it is. See Round5 for an example. A few years ago they were working with the athletes and their teams, now 100% of what they make is done through Zuffa and the athletes have less control and earning power.

      Do you remember the time when the pop superstar Prince decided he wanted to become known as Symbol? It is because he signed away the rights to the brand Prince when he signed his record deal. He did not own the name and if he wanted to make music he would have to re-invent himself. The record labels argument (not mine) is they invested upfront money to build and promote the name “Prince” and should retain some ownership rights. In the case of combat sports I have never seen these terms. Essentially a Bellator athlete wanted to become world champion surfer, Bellator would own the rights tot he athletes name, likeness, nicknaem etc.

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