The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), once relegated to the margins of sports, currently stands firm at the center stage of sports entertainment with its golden goose, mixed martial arts (MMA) cage fighting. Starting in the early nineties, UFC executives took what was once an unseemly and unmarketable product, too violent and bloody to air on television, and built it into a highly profitable, global enterprise. After having transformed the reputation of MMA as “human cockfighting” to a legitimate sporting contest of athleticism and fighting skills, the UFC is now a lucrative MMA promotion with no equal in sports pay-per-view sales. It also boasts unrivaled diversity among its athletes and fan base. How did UFC executives change the image of MMA so dramatically, and succeed in revolutionizing the sport to gain worldwide popularity, while also promoting the UFC as an organization that provides opportunities for participation and increased visibility to women, ethnic and racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ athletes? In her book, Fighting Visibility, Jennifer McClearen gives readers an inside look into the UFC’s marketing strategies and business practices and how athletes’ lives and livelihoods, particularly those of its female athletes, are consequently impacted. While acknowledging the unique opportunities in the UFC for participation and representation for groups typically marginalized in mainstream sport, McClearen scrutinizes these benefits with a critical lens, uncovering questionable, and often harmful labor practices that come at the expense of the athletes who are supposedly benefiting from the UFC’s diverse, highly-profitable, global brand. Through sports management, critical sports studies, and feminist lenses, McClearen details and analyzes the business and labor practices of the UFC, exposing its exploitative structure and policies that place a disproportionate burden of health and economic risks on the athletes, showing how the UFC wields power over fighters’ contracts to maximize control and profits for itself while minimizing that of the fighters.
The success of the UFC has afforded it a global platform to showcase opportunities for fighters to pursue their dreams of becoming professional MMA fighters. Compared to other major sports organizations, the UFC is unique in the amount of light it shines on athletes of diverse backgrounds and identities, many of whom are underrepresented in mainstream sports and popular sports media. Female athletes in particular are sorely underrepresented in popular and mainstream sports; representation is even lower for female athletes that do not conform to dominant norms of (White heterosexual) essentialized femininity and standards of beauty. Herein lies the paradox underlined by the main thesis of McClearen’s book: in the same moment the UFC provides a stage to showcase female athletes, promoting their strength, fighting skills, and physical abilities in ways and numbers unparalleled in other sports, and increases diverse representation with the inclusion of multiple ethnic and gender identities, it maintains and reinforces dominant ideological values and structural barriers that limit the ability and potential of these athletes to thrive. McClearen uses empirical data, theoretical applications, and personal reflections, to dive into this paradox, revealing the ways in which the UFC uses its position of power to exploit its cadre of female fighters, strategically developing the UFC brand in tandem with the shifting cultural, political and technological landscape, that includes an inequitable labor-profit relationship between management and the athletes that fill UFC fight cards. The argument is laid out and organized in five interweaving chapters: Developing a Millennial Sports Media Brand; Affect and the Rousey Effect; Gendering the American Dream; The Labor of Visibility on Social Media; and The Fight for Labor Equity. Throughout these chapters, McClearen examines how the UFC’s “branding process works for female fighters,” reveals what remains invisible, and presents “the consequences of visibility within the specific context of the UFC.” (19)
After having transformed the reputation of MMA as “human cockfighting” to a legitimate sporting contest of athleticism and fighting skills, the UFC is now a lucrative MMA promotion with no equal in sports pay-per-view sales. It also boasts unrivaled diversity among its athletes and fan base.
The rags-to-riches success story of the UFC, from a struggling promotion to a thriving global sports empire, exemplifies the ideologies of a dominant sports culture that expects athletes to (over)conform to the sports ethic, making sacrifices and fighting through adversity to overcome any challenge or obstacle to achieve success.1 The UFC thus fuels the storylines of its athletes, personalizing the details for each athlete using an otherwise blanket narrative of literally and figuratively fighting against the odds to become a successful UFC fighter. While the “plug-and-play” strategy makes sense the way McClearen describes it, it is unclear if there is more to its implementation to make it work as smoothly as it appears. This is one of the ways in which the UFC has used millennial brand marketing to reproduce the belief that hard work and sacrifice are the key ingredients for reaping (sporting) success; indeed, that dreams and goals are realized through resilience, persistence, and grit. The sports ethic is part and parcel of neoliberal logic, pursuing the American Dream, and meritocratic tenets that together promote a particular brand of individualism that discounts and dismisses the responsibility of governing bodies and organizations from addressing structural inequalities and systemic discrimination. As a counterpoint, when one fails to overcome challenges to reach a goal, according to neoliberal logic, individual effort is lacking, and consequently rewards of advancement are neither deserved nor earned. Capitalizing on ideologies of the American Dream and neoliberal logic is not a new phenomenon in the contemporary sporting landscape, but the UFC has been particularly successful in weaving these ideologies with cultural and political logic, elevating the brand and consequently its visibility and value, through savvy marketing and branding strategies, namely millennial sports media branding that includes self-promotion through social media.
McClearen argues that the marketing and branding success of the UFC was in great part made possible by sociocultural, technological, and political conditions that provided an ideal landscape for realizing success in building the promotion. A strength of Fighting Visibility is McClearen’s assessment of these conditions, showing how the UFC aligned itself with dominant ideological messages and neoliberal logic, as well as movements of identity activism, to create a powerful sports business enterprise. UFC executives have capitalized on growing movements of social activism, developing millennial branding strategies to build the UFC brand and extend its reach to niche markets, all while minimizing risk for the corporate side of the promotion as they exploit the aspirational labor of its athletes—the labor fueled by the athlete’s desire to reach their dreams, despite the high cost and low chance of reward. (106-115) The politics of visibility is a major theme that cuts across the book’s chapters. McClearen contends that while increased visibility and representation are generally accepted as progress for minoritized groups and marginalized communities, an overemphasis on the positive light that illuminates the inclusion of these groups distracts the viewer from the cost at which the representation comes for the athletes. Fighting can be used as a metaphor for anyone’s struggles, which is marketing gold for the UFC. Placing all struggles under the same umbrella allows the UFC to employ this broad relatable narrative while erasing significant differences in the types of struggles athletes face based on their identity; though a closer examination reveals how minoritized women face particular struggles that limit their life chances in ways that those for White men, for example, do not. In this way, the UFC excuses itself from working to improve conditions that lead to meaningful change for minoritized athletes, creating models that counter systemic racism or gender inequities, for example; rather, it exploits the conditions for its own benefit by demanding additional gendered and racialized labor from the athletes who are expected to self-promote (i.e., by maintaining an active social media presence). The burden of labor and promoting representation thus remains with the athletes while the UFC continues to keep the lion’s share of the profits for itself.
… in the same moment the UFC provides a stage to showcase female athletes, promoting their strength, fighting skills, and physical abilities in ways and numbers unparalleled in other sports, and increases diverse representation with the inclusion of multiple ethnic and gender identities, it maintains and reinforces dominant ideological values and structural barriers that limit the ability and potential of these athletes to thrive.
Thus, the UFC’s marketing strategy of leveraging branded difference pulls attention from its exploitative practices that lay in the shadows; rather, thrusting the faces of diversity into the spotlight, publicly promoting and celebrating this increased visibility as progressive steps toward inclusion and representation. McClearen effectively makes the case that the UFC is not so much the progressive, social justice advocate it makes itself out to be, but rather is ambivalent in its attitudes toward inclusion and representation, caring only to the point at which it can generate a gross profit from tactfully marketing cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity and visibility. At this juncture lies a critical tension between “politicized meaning of difference concerned with equity and a popular understanding of the term that concentrates on individualized differences between people.” (15) The UFC’s ambivalence is evident when it uses branded difference to frame itself as a champion of equity: riding the wave of political activism, it constructs moving narratives of individualized difference as storylines to reach new markets, but neither acknowledges nor addresses inequity or social injustices faced by communities in those markets. McClearen thus cautions against over-celebrating the visibility of diversity in the UFC, of focusing too intently on the seemingly positive outcomes, the luminosities, without considering the exploitative conditions and economic motivations at the base of the representation.
One of the highlights of the book is the stark clarity with which McClearen presents the impact of the UFC’s practices on the lives, livelihoods, and experiences of female UFC fighters. In chapter 4, McClearen centers the voices of nine UFC fighters to analyze female fighters’ labor of visibility and the costs of self-promotion to stay visible and relevant to UFC executives. On top of the expectations and costs associated with fight preparation, training, and recovery, the UFC forces the hand of its fighters to engage in the physical, psychological, and emotional labor of brand management and content creation. Though these marketing and business strategies impact all fighters, McClearen offers compelling evidence to show how, compared to their male counterparts, women disproportionately bear a high level of burden. In addition, women of color must further perform and solely bear the cost of gendered and racialized labor; this effect is magnified even further for female athletes whose identity and physical appearance place them low on the hierarchy of visibility (on which White, heterosexual, emphasized femininity is firmly situated at the top). McClearen effectively details some of the consequences of racialized differences and the racialization of the athletic labor of femininity in the UFC. To help the reader better understand these effects, she draws from work by other scholars to bring in examples from different racialized groups. As an example of racialized labor for Asian-American fighters, she highlights the issues related to the treatment and (self-) representation of Michelle “Karate Hottie” Waterson. Throughout her career, Waterson has had to negotiate Orientalist stereotypes and portrayals of Asian and Asian-American athletes, as well as images of maternity, alongside her violent fighting reels. For Black athletes, McClearen argues, racialized labor is required in the face of constant racial stereotyping, whereby the athletes feel pressured to present themselves as nonthreatening and to prove that their success is not a result of natural athletic ability to gain acceptance from mainstream audiences, all of which requires extra (racialized) labor. (117-119) For example, though she has earned many fighting accolades in her own right, Angela Hill recognizes that as a Black woman, she will not be embraced in the same way as Ronda Rousey, or other White female fighters. While this section is rich with scholarly analyses and examples, it falls short in providing meaningful examples of racialized labor from the perspective of Latine, Chicana, and Hispanic fighters. This was a little surprising given the rising popularity of fighters from these communities among UFC fans. Nonetheless, the examples of racialized labor and visibility underscore the power of perpetuating the mirage of a post-race society, revealing that society has not moved beyond race, as the narratives of inclusion and diversity of the UFC (and other organizations that promote similar messages) might suggest. Rather, these light narratives divert attention from the continued discrimination and systemic inequalities that unequally impact women of color and other minoritized groups. As McClearen points out, since minoritized groups in the UFC, and particularly women of color, have been making the most sacrifices for inclusion on the fight cards, they in turn have the most to gain from a collective effort to address the exploitative practices of the UFC. However, the UFC maintains the precarious position of female fighters, cornering them into contracts that deem their services disposable, while the UFC itself continues to profit from the labor of the athletes, gaining evermore prominence and power.
With compelling analyses, sports management insight, and well-researched empirical evidence, McClearen describes how the UFC in effect sanctions discrimination against female UFC fighters with its policies, business practices, and marketing strategies.
The final chapter of the book charges forward with a resounding call to collective action. The living and working conditions of UFC female fighters are laid bare by McClearen through the revelatory stories of how the athletes have to self-promote and manage their social media accounts, including having to process sexually explicit and violent threats, and how the UFC does little to support athletes so that they can focus on fight preparation. Further, rather than provide UFC athletes with fair labor opportunities, living wages, and adequate health insurance, the UFC hires them as independent contractors, offering contractual agreements with severe restrictions that resemble conditions of permanent employment. The work of Leslie Smith, a former UFC fighter who has been working tirelessly to unionize UFC fighters and who has been battling her own lawsuits against the UFC, is highly significant in this regard. Not surprising, though still shocking, is the connection that McClearen points out between the unsuccessful challenge of unfair labor practices to the political affiliation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel appointee. In a case that was supposed to move forward to review claims of unfair labor practices, the review was abruptly denied by the NLRB. As it turns out, the NLRB General Counsel at the time had been appointed by then-president Donald Trump. Trump is a close business associate and ally of Dana White, one of the UFC’s foremost executives. In addition to the clear disadvantage in power to pursue claims of unfair labor practices by their employer, UFC fighters fear retaliation. The fighters have seen what happened to fighters like Leslie Smith, who despite having a successful fighting career, was refused further contracts after her efforts to unionize were discovered and thwarted. Notwithstanding the daunting employer-labor power imbalance, McClearen argues that unionization is a key step to improve current conditions.
With compelling analyses, sports management insight, and well-researched empirical evidence, McClearen describes how the UFC in effect sanctions discrimination against female UFC fighters with its policies, business practices, and marketing strategies. As she incorporates theoretical lenses from multiple disciplines, McClearen uses language that is accessible and a writing style that keeps the reader’s attention. With logical arguments supported by scholarly work and her own experiences and data collection, McClearen deftly makes the case that the fight for visibility is one with high stakes, where the costs and rewards of visibility are more than a place on the fight card. As more and more female fighters put in the required labor to be successful within the boundaries of the UFC, it is their time to fight for visibility and viability that includes equitable health insurance, work benefits and security, and a seat at the decision-making table. By the end, I was convinced by the impassioned conclusion that UFC fighters must collectively work to position themselves so that they can affect meaningful change, moving their visibility beyond an exploited product of branded difference and labor inequity toward a visibility for female athletes in the UFC worth fighting for.