Exclusive contracts are commonplace in many combat sports like MMA and they’re becoming more and more common in the BJJ world as well. The practice is fairly simple, an athlete signs a contract with a promotion that guarantees them several matches at a specific price but forbids them from working with other promotions until those matches are fulfilled or a certain time elapses. It makes sense from a promoter’s point of view because not only does it allow them to secure the services of a popular competitor but it also strikes a blow to their competitors at the same time.
Pros And Cons Of Exclusive Contracts In BJJ
Exclusive contracts make sense in some sports, particularly in something like MMA where promotions put together dozens of events every year and fighters only really compete at three or four of them at most. Even with that in mind, exclusive contracts are still a point of contention for a number of competitors because they can sometimes leave fighters ‘stuck’ somewhere when they’d rather move elsewhere. Seeing as they’re often combined with other unfavorable contractual obligations, it’s not hard to see why some fighters aren’t fans of the practice.
The other side of that is the fact that it does guarantee fighters some sense of security, regardless of how they actually perform in competition. Because their pay is based on their perceived value at the point in time that they signed the contract, a loss after signing it doesn’t effect how much they get paid for their next fight. The only exceptions tend to be when fighters win or lose titles, as this changes their bargaining power and their ability to receive percentages of the PPV money that their events bring in. Although there are some benefits to both parties, exclusive contracts are so common in MMA that the negatives can often outweigh the benefits now.
MMA fighters have no choice but to sign exclusive contracts any more and all they’re really doing is negotiating between a handful of competitors. Essentially, if the UFC doesn’t want to pay someone what they believe they are worth then they only have ONE Championship or potentially PFL to go to next. If neither of those promotions are able or willing to make a better offer then the fighter is stuck taking a lower deal than they would like. Then the exclusive contract comes in to play and they’re agreeing to less than what they’d like for several fights up front. They simply don’t have the ability to sign a contract for one fight at a time, because no promotion wants to be the only one allowing it.
The Rise Of Exclusive Contracts In BJJ
Exclusive contracts never really used to exist in BJJ because the only real avenues for competition were either at major IBJJF events or at ADCC. After a little while, Metamoris led the way for professional grappling events to develop and the early success of those events helped push the BJJ world in the direction it has taken today. Proper grappling promotions have allowed competitors to make good money doing what they love, and have opened the avenue for some seriously big paydays. The difference between this and MMA is that promotions put together far fewer events every year and grapplers can compete far more often.
Instead of dozens of events for a fighter to pick three or four from, a single grappling promotion will stage around four or five events a year and top grapplers are capable of taking dozens of matches. That hasn’t stopped exclusive contracts from becoming a fixture in the BJJ world though, with both ONE Championship and Who’s Number One routinely signing grapplers to compete on their events alone. The practice is clearly spreading around the world as well, as most recently it was Polaris that announced a UK-specific exclusive deal with Ffion Davies.
What This Means For The Future
When Metamoris changed the BJJ world, professional grappling started to develop several layers of competition. This starts with smaller promotions like Finishers Sub-Only and Enigma Jiu-Jitsu where talented grapplers will often begin making a name for themselves. This level of promotion will also have elite competitors appearing in main events on occasion, a process that helps draw attention to the rest of the card. Then there’s the beginning of top events like EBI and Grapplefest before eventually reaching the highest level of competition outside of ADCC and the IBJJF, major promotions like UFC Fight Pass Invitational, Who’s Number One, and Polaris.
While elite competitors almost certainly get paid more competing for the biggest events, they also need regular matches throughout the year. Some of the best BJJ competitors in the world have signed exclusive contracts with ONE Championship and with relatively thin divisions, there hasn’t been much opportunity for them to face their peers. Mikey Musumeci famously signed an exclusive deal with ONE Championship and it meant that throughout the entire of 2023 fans only got to see him compete in a grand total of four matches, with only one of them being against a fellow active BJJ competitor.
If more top BJJ competitors sign exclusive contracts then this limits not only the number of matches that they can take each year, but also their options for opponents. Using Mikey Musumeci as an example, there’s no reason he couldn’t have competed in at least twice as many matches in 2023 and if he was a free agent then he could face the biggest names in the sport like Diogo Reis or Diego ‘Pato’ Oliveira. This isn’t an isolated case study either, Kade Ruotolo was only able to get a single match in 2023 and his brother Tye Ruotolo only competed twice outside of a 2-1 run at the IBJJF World Championship.
It’s easy for fans to have a principled stance and say that exclusive contracts are bad for the growth of BJJ really, because they have no skin in the game other than what they want to watch. It’s very clear already that there will be fewer opportunities to see the best matches possible as more competitors sign exclusive contracts, but it’s much harder to propose an alternative. The fact is that athletes sign exclusive contracts because they’re attractive propositions, and they believe that they are the best decision for their career at the time. The money available in BJJ is incredibly low and historically competitors only made money from teaching or selling instructionals, so it’s impossible to blame the current generation for seeking ways to get better pay from competition itself.
On an individual level, it makes sense for BJJ competitors to take exclusive contracts. They can finally get some financial stability in a notoriously unstable sport, and if it comes at the cost of facing the best opposition then it’s a compromise that many are willing to make. Looking into the future though, MMA shows the example that making exclusive contracts the normal practice eventually starts applying downward pressure on their pay instead. It’s a very difficult position to be in and nobody can blame any individual competitor for taking a deal that they think is best for their career, but this may very well end up hurting the growth of the sport in the long term.
For more of our opinion pieces on various topics, visit our opinion piece archives.