Opinion: There’s No Excuse For BJJ Athletes Not Getting Paid

I feel like this is one of two pretty huge elephants in the room of competitive BJJ right now, athletes running the risk of not getting paid. The second being the general usage of steroids from the lowest levels, all the way to the best grapplers on the planet. The main difference between the two is that this one is genuinely out of the athlete’s hands. An athlete’s job on a superfight-style fight night event is to compete and do their best to win, secondary to that is then putting on a performance and looking for a finish. Beyond that and potentially having a responsibility to sell a few tickets, no competitor has an effect on whether a promotion succeeds in paying it’s bills or not.

The Problem

The sport has a pretty long history with promotions collapsing and leaving athletes without any form of payment. It’s been prevalent throughout the early days of MMA promotion as well, but fortunately there are now large and consistent promotions at many levels all across the world. With BJJ, there are very, very few promotions that actually put on events at a consistent pace that are well-received and (at least appear to) make a profit. It may just be that the cases of this happening are just being reported more often now, but there seems to be a marked increase in BJJ athletes not getting paid after the work is done.

Back in 2017, Metamoris crumbled under the weight of financial issues and was the subject of many complaints from competitors who had not received payment. The promotion was backed by Ralek Gracie and had put out a total of 8 events across the span of 5 years. They had managed to book legends of the sport like Xande Ribeiro, Andre Galvo and Roger Gracie alongside people who were, at the time, only just becoming stars like Mackenzie Dern and Garry Tonon. It seemed as though the promotion was doing well until news broke of the athletes going unpaid and then before you knew it, the whole thing was gone.

The same thing happened on a much shorter timescale very recently when Substars put on a huge event featuring some big names like Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu and Gordon Ryan. Shortly afterward, athletes who competed at the event went on record to state that they had not been paid and had been offer 10% of what their original purse was. Within a matter of a day or two, the promotion had announced that it was shutting down. At least there’s some small positive from this one, as another promoter has stepped in to try and generate some cash for the athletes hurt by this incident.

It’s even happening on a smaller level as a British BJJ promotion, Victory Grappling, ended up coming under fire for delaying athletes being paid for months. This shows just how much of a problem this is and especially seeing as it’s not all doom and gloom, there are some fantastic examples of consistently successful BJJ promotions.

The Good Examples

There are plenty of good American Promoters out there with a proven track record of putting on good shows without athletes going unpaid (publicly). At the time of writing, Fight 2 Win have put on 137 main numbered events along with several others and have had some of the best grapplers on the planet competing under their banner. They ran the first numbered event in 2015 but put on countless tournaments prior to that which has undoubtedly been invaluable experience. Their biggest strength and a huge factor in how they’re able to put on so many events is good matchmaking and organisation of the card. Fight 2 Win tends to have no more than three big-name matches among a card of around 10 black belt fights. Then they’ll have dozens of colored belt matches on the undercard, sometimes with their own titles on the line as well.

The US is also home to some newer promotions that seem to be doing just fine in Kasai Grappling and Third Coast Grappling. Kasai Grappling has run 9 events since December 2017 and Third Coast Grappling has already managed three successful events since starting in 2019 with the fourth only being damaged as a result of Coronavirus fears. The reason behind these early successes seem somewhat obvious too: Kasai makes athletes compete in a Round-Robin tournament first to qualify for the knockout stages which leads to them getting more matches out of the same athletes and they run a few lower-profile events between bigger ones. Third Coast Grappling likes to innovate, coming up with hybrid rulesets for big mixed-sport matches or pushing the envelope with Kid’s tournaments and overseas co-promotional efforts.

The UK might be a lot smaller than America but it’s still possible to run a successful promotion there as well. Polaris has run 12 events so far and is about to go big for their 13th, Putting on a huge Absolute Tournament for the event and even putting some title defenses on the undercard. The Polaris business model seems to be to go big, or go home. The promotion has stacked cards with full of fights that other promotions might have as headliners on their own. They’ve also got a streaming deal with UFC FightPass which they take full advantage of by featuring main events with UFC veterans like Uriah Faber and Luke Rockhold.

Then over in Asia you have Kazushi Sakuraba’s baby, Quintet Pro Grappling which has put on 4 numbered events and 4 fight night events in a little under 2 years. They’ve also got a streaming deal with UFC FightPass which they made the most of in their most recent event, Quintet Ultra, which featured four teams of MMA fighters representing The UFC, WEC, Strikeforce and Pride. That’s exactly what makes Quintet so special too, it’s a team-based event that puts a unique spin on a sport that is normally one-on-one. That need to drive to improve the sport’s visibility is what led to Sakuraba debuting Ironman matches at Quintet Fight Night 4, in an effort to create something amazing again.

The Solution

All of the above examples of fantastic promotions come across as though they recognize the same thing and deal with it in different ways. BJJ is simply not naturally a spectator sport, it’s a niche interest in the first place and an even smaller subset of those interested are interested enough to actually book tickets to go see an event. You either have to find a way to get asses in seats and make sure that the event is a sold-out hit, or you’ve got to accept the possibility of empty seats and plan accordingly. This is the only way that a BJJ event can make enough money to cover the costs involved, first and foremost getting the athletes paid.

Whether it’s through unique concepts and interesting matches that will help drive a larger number of spectators to your event, or through stacking the event with local talent that won’t require anywhere near as much payment and will help fill the venue out, there’s plenty of ways to ensure that a promoter gets the a profitable response relative to the size of the investment. As a promoter, anyone should also understand the risks involved and the nature of failure, along with plans on how to compensate athletes in that eventuality.