I was first connected with Lucas Middlebrook about three years ago when buzz around a possible pro wrestling union was a hot talking point. Middlebrook has a background in working with combat sports athletes, as he was the labor lawyer who worked with former UFC fighter Leslie Smith in her attempt to unionize the UFC fighters. Unfortunately, under Donald Trump’s administration, the National Labor Relations Board was less receptive to unionization efforts, and her attempt ultimately fell flat in 2020. As questions brewed about why WWE performers were not in SAG/AFTRA, Middlebrook was someone I was pointed to who had friends in the pro wrestling community and could have answers.
At the time of my introduction to Middlebrook, Zelina Vega had just been released from WWE partly due to her unwillingness to shut down her Twitch stream, which she noted was making her a significant amount of money. An agreement between WWE and Twitch had not yet been reached, and as a contracted WWE talent, the company felt they should be getting a piece of what she was making.
Tensions rose as talents wanted to ensure they could partake in outside financial endeavors, with Vega and SAG/AFTRA hinting she was open to kickstarting the process of bringing pro wrestlers into the acting union fold. However, before things could progress to unionization, Vega was re-hired, and a deal between WWE and Twitch was reached where the talent gets a lion’s share of the revenue from their streams.
Recently, a judge ruled that an antitrust class action lawsuit against UFC on behalf of fighters, who were under contract between 2010 and 2017, can move forward. In essence, the suit alleges that the UFC used monopolistic tactics and other “improper strategies” to lock fighters into long-term contracts that did not see them making meaningful money or the ability to make meaningful money elsewhere. If successful, it will force the UFC to make changes to the way it does business. At the moment, about 1,200 fighters qualify to be included in the suit, and UFC could be on the hook for somewhere between $800 million and $1.6 billion in damages if they lose.
With UFC’s parent company, Endeavor, on the verge of closing its transaction with WWE and merging it with UFC to create TKO Group Holdings, I asked Middlebrook if he would reconnect with me to talk about the antitrust class action lawsuit against UFC and the possible ramifications it could have for WWE. Having observed the business end of both WWE, UFC, and Endeavor up close for years, I wanted to know how he expects to see WWE talent treated under Ari Emanuel and Endeavor’s leadership.
“I hate to be too harsh, but I think the best way to describe it is, they’re line items,” he said. “They’re line items on a budget sheet, on a balance sheet, as opposed to, you know, labor that drives the revenue. They’re a cost just like a performance cost, or setting, you know, a venue cost, or whatever it may be, they’re a cost. Even the judge in the class action in the UFC referenced the fact that there was a goal to keep those costs under 20% of the total revenue.
“So you’re simply treated as a line item, as opposed to potentially being able to recognize your true worth in terms of the value that you bring in the context of your labor to the entity. And so, unfortunately, if there is that type of, you know, merge, or whatever you want to call it, or purchase, or combination of the groups, I wouldn’t expect improvement in the context of the entertainers’ plight going forward.
“I mean, we’ve seen it with the UFC; it doesn’t improve in terms of fighter treatment, fighter compensation. It has remained this way for many years, and that’s, of course, why Leslie Smith was pushing so hard for unionization because she saw this class action, and early on in her career, she was involved in that as well, but she always looked a little further because she wanted, in addition to potential damages and injunctive relief, she wanted the full CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement).
“She wanted health insurance, she wanted retirement benefits, right? She wanted the ability to collectively bargain for all of that. And so, you know, going forward, I wouldn’t expect much better from individuals that have been running the UFC for these years.”
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