The conversation surrounding equal pay in sports has been part of the news cycle for some time—and for good reason. When we watch the WNBA, LPGA, or women’s soccer, we often wonder if the salaries and payouts for women from those sports are comparable to those of men. The short answer is no, but the increasingly problematic answer is that female athletes are being paid more for their social media activity than their talent on the court or field. One of the more blatant occurrences of devaluing the worth of female athletes has taken place in the octagon.
“Paige Van Zant was paid more for her posts on Instagram than she did for competing in the UFC,” says Alex Windsor, CEO of Gamble USA, an online gambling website that keeps tabs on the best sportsbooks and betting apps, including those in the UFC. “When you can make more money doing that than when you’re bloodied and bruised from a fight, something’s wrong.”
In a study from 2015, women were getting paid less than half the amount men were per fight in the UFC. The departure of Ronda Rousey also didn’t help, as she was the primary draw to the women’s side of mixed martial arts. Regardless, the UFC continued to dominate sports headlines and the online gambling sphere, but at what cost?
An analysis of the UFC 241 event painted a staggering picture of the realities of equal pay in mixed martial arts. From that event, the highest-paid male fighter received $700,000 while his female counterpart received only $30,000.
“In 2020, it was good to see someone like Amanda Nunes make $350,000 per fight, but there is still a lot of work to be done in this arena,” Windsor said. “Guys like Connor McGregor are making nearly a million dollars — or close to that — per fight. The UFC needs to do better to match that payout for their female fighters.”
One long-held rebuttal to the issue of unequal pay in sports is the supposed fact that men’s sports draw larger crowds, are more fun to watch, or even that men’s sports are more physically demanding than those of their female counterparts. One example that’s routinely brought up is the NBA vs. WNBA, which might have one of the largest pay discrepancies in all of sports. The problem with this reasoning is that female fighters have main-evented UFC pay-per-view events.
Paige VanZant has made it clear to the UFC and the public that, while she is appreciative of the opportunity she’d had with the company, she knows her worth and it isn’t what she was getting paid. Before her fight against Amanda Ribas for UFC 251, VanZant said that she could have made the same amount of money she made in the UFC by just having a regular job.
“I can make way more money than that just by promoting brands on Instagram, and that should say something,” VanZant said, as reported by Talk Sport in 2020. “Why would I step away from all the amazing success that I have? I made more money on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ than I have in my entire UFC career combined—every fight, every win, every bonus.”
This begs the question: why should female fighters risk their long-term health when they are not valued for the work and commitment they put into their craft? Especially when combat sports has seen some of the most talented women take center stage in the last 5 to 10 years, including Cris Cyborg, Amanda Nunes, Holly Holm, and Ronda Rousey. This trend also translated over to the world of professional wrestling. Women’s wrestling matches used to last 3 minutes without room for a commercial break. Today, they’re main-eventing events like Wrestlemania and have some of the most talented performers on their roster.
“The UFC events that have had female fighters in the main-event, the betting activity for those fights were no different than those of men’s fights,” Windsor said. “Popularity has never been an issue for female mixed martial arts. Just look at the success of Ronda Rousey, which she has also been able to find with the WWE.”
Since her comments in 2020, VanZant has left the UFC and has found a home in the professional wrestling promotion AEW, as well as Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship as a boxer.