Only Conor MGregor could top himself after topping himself topping himself.
Barely an hour removed from removing Eddie Alvarez’s wits, belt, and pride, McGregor made his boldest statement yet. As he is wont to do, it wasn’t with his fists – it was with his mouth.
“If you want me to be truly on board, then I need to be all-in on this proper, as an owner, and have an equity stake in the company. That’s what I’m looking for.”
That’s right. McGregor started his latest round of negotiations with the kind of demand only he could think up. Now, McGregor also said he ‘deserves’ it, but let’s be honest, nobody deserves a thing. Nothing is promised. It’s what you can get. If he can get it, he deserves it.
So the question is: can he get it?
From a theoretical standpoint, he may be the only person to bring that demand to reality. Skepticism should be employed in heavy doses when it comes to ‘what McGregor says he’ll do’. This is, after all, the man who claimed he could go off and to start his own promotion. This is the man who claimed a fight with Floyd Mayweather was going to happen. He’s also made claims we can’t substantiate about his purses, gate numbers, and the like. The public tends to believe him because, well, why not? Half of everything he says, he does. So manifest destiny and all that.
However, we can substantiate certain things he boasts about. According to sales documents from the WME-IMG buyout, McGregor has headlined four of the five largest pay-per-views in the UFC’s history, which accounted for over a third of the revenue the UFC makes. The residual value – of merchandise, new viewers to television, sponsorship attached to his events, etc. – was probably significant as a result. McGregor was the per-eminent figure in the most profitable year in the company’s history. He may as well have been the driving force that sealed the sale of the UFC, if you believe in the law of compounding returns.
So if McGregor has ‘deserved’ something, it’s the way he talks about business. And if there is one thing we’ve learned about how McGregor talks business, it’s the other side of the coin from how he talks about a fight. The coin of expectation. McGregor said it wasn’t hard to train for Alvarez because he was a short, stocky, orthodox wrestler and those are easy to find (oh yea, and a dozen other things that made you consider whether Alvarez had more in common with paper bag than an MMA fighter). McGregor was negotiating his position, showing us the ceiling (or in this case, the floor), then telling us with his performance ‘Watch how I can toy with this guy.’ We expect him to toy with someone, he does, and he comes across as the greatest. When he asks for ownership, he’s setting an expectation to his employers. This is how high the ceiling is. He may never get what he wants. But he’ll certainly get far more than he would have had ownership not been his goal.
It would be myopic to think he doesn’t have some merit. Consider for a moment his position. After all, in the sports sphere the athletes enjoy only the frivolous of loyalties from their employers and their fans. McGregor won’t pay his bills because he’ll never have to buy a drink in Dublin or Boston or Las Vegas. McGregor wants to be set for life. As in, never having to lift a finger until he’s too old to even capably lift a finger. That doesn’t come working hard to make millions of dollars. It comes from making millions of dollars work for him.
McGregor knows this. The game is brutal. It moves on from you always – it’s just easier to stay with it when you’re a winner. He also knows he won’t win forever. Ownership is the only way to embed you into the game. It’s called ownership for a reason.
McGregor’s boasts about being his own promoter may have sounded silly (and they are, to a degree. Unless I missed something, he was a plumber before his time in MMA – not an MBA in Economics), there is no doubt he could draw outside of the UFC or any promotion. McGregor against a tomato can can (no pun) sell. People paid to see a tomato can named Kimbo Slice nearly accidentally exhaust to death another tomato can named Dada 5000 in Bellator. Mathematically, though, McGregor would go broke paying for an event like that. The question the UFC has to be asking themselves is, do we want the money that would come from that? Or do we want to watch him recoup the cost of an event without our name on it? No one gets paid in either one of those equations.
Would WME-IMG make such a move? We can certainly speculate but unfortunately, that’s about as far as it will go. We don’t know what the folks at WME-IMG want or are planning. We also don’t know if they expect they can build another McGregor of their own.
Some will tell you they need to make a return on their investment right away (there has been some speculation they took out a loan to cover part of the price tag). But you don’t pay $4.2 billion and stress about how to make it back right away. WME-IMG certainly must expect to recoup that money within the near future, but the reasoning that they need McGregor’s big-drawing abilities to pay off their debts is a pretty convenient narrative for McGregor. One has to look at the way they built the very card McGregor headlined to realize that if the UFC needs to cash-in, they have plenty of fighters and fights they can put together to create the buzz (and please don’t argue that his absence hurt UFC 200. His absence only meant it was substantially less entertaining - not substantially less profitable). If WME-IMG thinks they can ignore what McGregor can make them, what motive would they have to let him in the door?
On the flip side, what motive don’t they have to let McGregor in? Ownership of a company are all about making dollars. Rarely in sports have they ever not been. Jim Balsillie of RIM failed in his effort to buy his way into the NHL, but that’s the rare case of a league turning away big money.
Uniquely, McGregor’s newfound pursuit to be an owner of the promotion he is employed by puts in serious jeopardy the notion of a fighters’ union. Consider: if Lebron James told Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, that he would sign his next contract with the Cavs in return for a minority stake in the team, Gilbert have to seriously consider that. Even if it could happen, James’ standing as the President of the union all but guarantees it wouldn’t happen. James would have to resign that position because (for the uninitiated out there) he would essentially be partaking in a serious conflict of interest.
McGregor doesn’t have that obstacle. He is, after all, an independent contractor. If anything, an ownership stake would only motivate McGregor to promote more heavily. He’d have business partners to satisfy (in itself, a unique dichotomy – what if McGregor starts to lose? Business partners don’t like losing). It would also make him reviled among his fellow fighters unless he convincily used his platform to lobby on their behalf (doubtful).
McGregor then could be considered like any potentially celebrity investor. Like Tom Brady and Conan O’Brien (and Charlize Theron, LL Cool J, Mark Wahlberg, Serena Williams…), McGregor could simply pony up to own a stake in the company. Except, whereby WME-IMG surrounded themselves with more celebrity backers than Hillary Clinton, in this case, Conor is Bill (steady, readers, steady). If McGregor can pay for that same stake with one big mega-fight, why should the opportunity not be extended to him?
McGregor’s career has been defined by firsts, in and out of the cage. Hell, he seems to be first in things we never thought mattered. He was the first to beat Jose Aldo in the UFC and the first to knock him out. He became the first UFC fighter to host his very own press conference. If rumors are true, he landed on Mars yesterday with the help of Elon Musk.
McGregor is in a unique position to be first. Never before has the sport sphere existed in a start-up world where companies everywhere are going Palo Alto, offering up shares as incentives to employees. Never before have athletes been wealthy enough, high profile enough, and connected enough to leverage themselves into properties. Never before has a barely 15-year old sports brand garnered a billion-dollar value. Never before has MMA had a star like McGregor.
When McGregor says, “I’m the one that’s banking this.” We can do little else but nod. Yes, you are, Mr. McGregor. Yes, you are.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.