Sports Betting, UFC Wages, Summer League + Ben Fowlkes | Crooked Media
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August 17, 2021
Sports Betting, UFC Wages, Summer League + Ben Fowlkes

In This Episode

This week on Takeline, Jason and Renee discuss how the embrace of betting by pro leagues will affect the sports industry. Later in the show, Renee talks about her experience at Summer League. Plus, Ben Fowlkes of The Athletic joins to talk about Cheyanne Buys viral press conference and the controversy around how the UFC pays its fighters.

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Renee Montgomery: We could all assume that everyone will do the morally correct thing to do. You know, we could always assume that. But we also know that if in MLB they will bang on some trash cans to try to get the slightest advantage, you mean to tell me that when it comes to betting and all this money that’s going to be flying around, this is a billion, a multibillion dollar business—I just think there’s a lot of conflicts of interest here. That’s all I’ve got to say. There’s a lot going on.


Jason Concepcion: People are going to push it because that’s the nature of competition.


Renee Montgomery: How far will they take it?


Jason Concepcion: That’s the nature of it. You want to see how far you can push it to win whatever you’re trying to win. And that’s the danger of this.


Jason Concepcion: Just last week, as reported by Bill King of the Sports Business Journal, the NFL has decided to allow six Sportsbook commercials per game, per game, on their game broadcasts. Also, some breaking news came out today, Jay Z and Philadelphia Seventy Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin are part of a group applying for an online sports betting license in New York and a plan to form a Fanatic’s Sportsbook. We know the sentiment on betting has drastically changed over the last few years, and leagues are always looking for new revenue streams. From a sports perspective, though, as betting becomes more widespread, what effect does this have, just on the players, on the coaches, on anybody? Because this is, we were talking about this in the pre-pro, it was not that long ago—I want to say, like 8, 10 years ago—where you didn’t talk about it, like in professional sports circles, it was taboo to talk about gambling in any kind of way. And now it’s just here. It’s here. It’s in your face. It is part of, it is part of the economic model. It’s here.


Renee Montgomery: Well, Jason, how much will it change it? See this is the thing, it’s kind of like name, image and likeness is here now for athletes, right, in college. But we know that athletes was making money before name, image and likeness. Some of them have gotten caught. It’s been publicized. So we know that things were happening before people allowed it to be legal, let’s say. So sports betting, you’re right, for me as a player, even when I hear sports betting, like I cringe a little in a sense of like it’s almost so taboo that I don’t, I don’t want no parts of it. I don’t want no problems. Because that as an athlete, you think like, oh, no, I don’t hear nothing about no betting. I don’t want no trouble because you don’t want to be the reason your team or anything, it’s almost like a a taboo, like you said, non-starter. But now that sports is so easily reachable and it’s right here in your lap, we already knew that there were things happening in sports involving betting, you know, and we can always assume—I don’t, it’s almost like the tennis with the coaches. It’s like you’re not supposed to coach from the sidelines, but we knew everybody was doing a little bit of coaching from the sidelines. So you allow it. I’m not saying that players would be ones that are going to be tipping games. I don’t think it’s going to get to that because any player playing, there’s this certain level of competitiveness that I just don’t see that affecting the integrity of the game. Now, having said that, having said all that, I do think that it’s going to get very interesting when somebody’s homey that lives with them is like, yo, what happened in shoot around today?


Jason Concepcion: Right. So and so injured? Are they going to play> like that kind of thing.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah. And they start to take those little nuggets and they start to make some bets and then they start to make bigger bets. And then maybe somebody reaches out to that friend and says, hey, I know you’re connected to X, Y, Z. What do you know about this team? And then that friend that you think you’re just talking to casually on the couch, like, oh, man, yeah, you know, so-and-so is not going to play because he hurt his ankle. So, I mean, nobody really knows that, but he’s not playing and so we’re probably going lose tonight. You could just say that to your friend casually that said that to a sports betting person and then your friend could be the connection to the bettor that is constantly giving them leads. Only reason I say that is because sports betting and integrity, it’s like there’s levels to it.


Jason Concepcion: The friction is built into it. Like, it is, this is a you know, this is an activity that is in some way predicated on a better knowledge of the sport, the information they have about the sport, their understanding of which players are good and which players play well on the road, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And with it being so accessible, I mean, you laid out, you laid out a situation that I don’t have any information, but I’m 100% sure that is happening on some level somewhere.


Renee Montgomery: Oh, yeah.


Jason Concepcion: Come on. We’re like either somebody you know, you’re friends with a player or you’re friends with an assistant coach who says something, oh, so-and-so may not play, you know, they tweaked their hamstring in practice today, and maybe the lines haven’t, you know, the betting lines haven’t reflected that reality yet. The news hasn’t got out. And what would you do? I know what I would do, I would go immediately to—


Renee Montgomery: OK!


Jason Concepcion: Right? That’s what you would do. And so what does the NFL, what does MLB, what does the NBA, what does the W, how do they—the thing that I keep thinking about is how do they make sure that this activity doesn’t rise to a level where it actually does—


Renee Montgomery: Affect the game.


Jason Concepcion: Affect the honesty, the on the level-ness of the actual competition, and I don’t know that I trust the individual leagues to do that, like I think you need I think you need some sort of third-party investigator that looks at betting lines, that looks at patterns in the way bets are placed, the way the lines move and keeps an eye on that, because I think the incentive for the actual leagues to be transparent about the stuff they find is just kind of not there. That’s everything to, like, this is a nice revenue stream, OK?


Renee Montgomery: A nice revenue stream! What!?


Jason Concepcion: It’s a nice, it’s a nice, nice revenue stream. But the authenticity of the competition is like the entire product, right? So if you have something from your nice revenue stream that threatens the entirety of your product, listen, you’re not going to want to tell people about it, you’re just not going want to tell people about it.


Renee Montgomery: I’m going to tell you right now, Jason, you said a nice revenue stream. This is a billion dollar business.


Jason Concepcion: It’s a real nice revenue stream.


Renee Montgomery: This is a billion dollar business! So that’s why, you know, some people thought that sports betting would have never made it to this legal, transparent level. But anything that makes a lot of money, they’re going to figure out a way to do it. Like, and sports betting, there was so much money being had that the leagues weren’t getting that just so to your point, the leagues weren’t getting in on any of this money when it first started happening, so now all the sports leagues are like, we want a part of the action too, in a sense of, yeah, now they can sell 18 spots across a full Sunday of games. You know, that’s roughly 30 or 40, like for every 30 or 40 minutes, they can sell a spot. Now you start to see the revenue coming in. And to that point, Jason, you’re not going to stop your own pockets, like you’re starting to see.


Jason Concepcion: No, no, no, no, no. No one’s going to do that.


Renee Montgomery: No one. No one’s going to do that. So then you start to get to what you’re talking about. Well, then who is actually going to police the sports betting? Right now it’s kind of like no one. And if you look at the NFL, the New York Giants, as far as Sportsbook deals, they have DraftKings. The Jets have BetMGM, the Eagles have DraftKings and Fox—like you go down the line, there’s teams connected and it’s the same in the NBA. The Pacers have PointsBet and DraftKings. WBA just did a deal with PointsBet for the whole league. So you can just see it trending a certain way. Now, how far are we going to take it is the question, because no, I don’t think that players are going to be missing shots on purpose. No one’s doing that. But it could get interesting if a player knows that a line is ten points and they just casually not hit that eleventh point. That’s interesting. Do I think that’s going to happen? No, I think that’s an extreme. But I do think the more and more money that starts to be on the line, that’s when you start to see more and more activities. I’ll just say that. And it could get tricky.


Renee Montgomery: Yes. And listen, this is a great, this is a great in terms of the economics for the sport’s leagues, this is a great, this is a great business. This is essentially free money. Like you’re taking a skim, you’re taking a percentage of like bets that are placed and it’s legitimately free money that you don’t have to do much with. Like you’re allowing these, you’re allowing access to these platforms. That’s really it. Like this exists. It’s been happening. It’s an activity that people want to take part in, gambling’s not going to go away. It’s been illegal in parts of the country for a long time, it has not stopped anybody from doing it. People aren’t going to stop doing it. But, man, it is still, it is still jarring when I think about like Pete Rose banned from baseball and Tim Donaghy and the speed with which he was ejected from professional basketball and then nothing. So nobody else has been betting this whole time? There’s been noth—you know what I mean? Like it, it just feels like, OK, somebody else needs to look at this in a way that ensures that everything is on the up and up. Because, listen, I don’t think that players would necessarily out and out fix games, but they’re not going to put the W, like at risk. That said, if I got, if the game is locked up in the fourth quarter, feel like everything’s in hand, you can tell the other team is not, is not trying to close the gap anymore, and the difference between making the spread or not making the spread is like missing a free throw, and a player knows about it? I mean, you know what I mean, like, that’s, and I don’t know how you—


Renee Montgomery: Yeah, to your point, Jason, like, for instance, what if I’m your homie, right? And I’m like, right. Jason, good luck tonight, but make sure y’all win by 10. That’s all I’m saying. I ain’t saying nothing else. I’m just saying Jason—


Jason Concepcion: They say that on the air!


Renee Montgomery: Make sure you—yeah.


Jason Concepcion: Announcers, you know, Al Michaels says it every time there’s a [unclear], you know?


Renee Montgomery: So I’m just saying, like, what if, like what if I heard you? What if you’re like heard you, Renee, and you don’t, and then y’all just, you just casually won by ten. And what if you were up by nine, Jason? And it’s like three, two and you shoot that just to see if you could get up by ten just so you could, like, told you I’d get over by—! Like those little things to where you’re not even realizing it, but it’s like you could have accidentally hit the spread because I told you. Yeah, make sure you win by ten your girl. Like Jason, make sure y’all get ten! And then you shoot that last shot to make it eleven. It’s like, oh well that’s interesting. And what if your friend just every game was like I bet you will win by fifteen next game. I bet you won’t Jason. And then it just starts to be a thing where it’s like, oh man, we could beat them by fifteen. And it’s, there’s so many levels to where I can see, because money, when money is involved, we’ve seen the best of things turn into the worst of things when money is involved.


Jason Concepcion: Oh yeah, for sure.


Renee Montgomery: And I’m not saying that sports is going to be one of those things that goes sour, but I’m saying the more money that gets applied and the more pressure that gets applied, there needs to be some type of system, some policing, because this could get wild in a hurry.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, it’s, and it’s where, it’s where the line is drawn too, because, like, the thing we just described, nobody’s, you can’t go after that. And it’s pointless to be like, you know, because a friend had some information. Where is, when it grows more than that, where exactly do you say, OK, no, no more farther than this, you cannot do more than this.


Renee Montgomery: Like, what if that friend joins a group chat that is a group chat full of betters let say.


Jason Concepcion: And it’s just them talking about that? Now, OK, now there’s an issue. And that’s the thing these leagues are going to have to deal with. I mean, it’s—I forget who said this, but there is there’s a quote from like French literature, it’s like behind every fortune, a crime.


Renee Montgomery: Yes!


Jason Concepcion: I think that, you know, it’s like, there is almost no way to make a significant amount of money without pushing the envelope a few times, like basically that’s what innovation is, right, is like, hey, nobody has really made the rules for this part of it yet, right? Like, nobody’s really figured out if this is legit or not legit. So let’s just go here. And if we make some money here, it will become legitimate, even though we’re not sure that it is. And that’s a lot of what is going on here in this extremely new fusion of legalized sports gambling and actual leagues. It’s crazy. I mean, that’s the thing with big agencies today. There are a lot of conflicts of interest because agencies, like corporations, are now representing like people from both sides of it. You know, like this is a thing that happened in TV recently where agencies are representing writers who are pitching shows, but then they are also representing the producers in the studios, so they’re representing both sides of the of the of the debate, of the negotiation. And so there was a lot of confusion about which side is taking priority, which side’s interests are being advanced. And I think that’s, part of this is like trying to untangle that on that. Like if you just cut down to the basic idea of, if people are making money off athletes vis a vis gambling, it’d be great if the athletes also made some of that money. I agree with that. But yes, the conflict of interest on top of that and figuring out exactly where that line is, is really confusing and it’s being laid out right now. Like, I’m not sure even if they come, whatever framework gets hammered out in the next year, two years, five years, it may not be the thing that goes on that is the framework 10 years after that. Like a lot, this is just all so new.


Renee Montgomery: You know, it’s interesting, too, because when you talk about a Jay Z, the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers owner, Michael Rubin, it’s so crazy because you talked about that, that conflict of interest. It’s where do you draw the line? Look, I’ve been a part of negotiations where, yes, the person negotiating for me was also negotiating for the company that we’re trying to do business with. And I’m like, I had to ask here, when you say we, are you talking about us, are you talking [unclear]. So I see that there’s going to be a lot of that going on. Look we could all assume that everyone will do the morally correct thing to do. You know, we could always assume that. But we also know that if in MLB they will bang on some trash cans to try to get the slightest advantage, or if people in sports, we know that people will take illegal substances, risk getting caught, to try to get that little advantage. You mean to tell me that when it comes to betting and all this money that’s going to be flying around, this is a billion, a multibillion dollar business, I just think there’s a lot of conflicts of interest here. That’s all I’ve got to say. There’s a lot going on.


Jason Concepcion: I was watching the Great British Bake Off last night and it was the finals. And there was, there’s a, there’s a contestant who is very good, but every time they’re like and that is time. No more doing stuff to your cake. He is always like putting a little more powdered sugar on it, like putting another berry on the thing, finishing the glaze like 10, 20, 30 seconds after the thing. And he does it every time. And that’s kind of like what we’re talking about is like unless somebody steps in and says, stop that, don’t do that, people are going to push it because that’s the nature of competition.


Renee Montgomery: How far will they take it?


Jason Concepcion: That’s the nature of it. You want to see how far you can push it to win whatever you’re trying to win. And that’s the danger of this.


[ad break]


Jason Concepcion: MMA news, fighter Cheyanne Buys recently defeated Gloria de Paula with a brutal head kick at UFC Vegas 33. I was just telling Renee, I never want to get kicked in the head for no amount of money. After the match, she was given a $50,000 performance of the night bonus, rules of which were recently changed by the UFC. Here’s what she said after being asked about what that money means to her and her personal life:


[clip of Cheyanne Buys] I am negative in my account right now, so it’s going to make a big difference. And my whole paycheck actually is I have to pay back $15,000 for a loan I got from a few people. So, you know, I made 10 and ten from my win and my win in show so that $20,000 was just gone. So and I was OK with it. I was OK if I won and that check was gone because I made, I made the move out here and I knew that this fight was just going to be for the move, but it was the best decision me and my husband made for our careers. And just to get that bonus, I’ve been so broke my whole life because of this sport, but it’s so worth it to me.


Jason Concepcion: Now, there’s a lot of discussion around this particular story, specifically on how the UFC compensates its fighters. To dive into this, we’re joined by a senior writer covering combat sports for The Athletic and the co-host of the Co Main Event podcast, Ben Fowlkes. Ben, welcome.


Ben Fowlkes: Thanks for having me.


Renee Montgomery: So, Ben, I’m curious because we’ve seen a lot of blow-up stories that get glorified. Like you look at a Conor McGregor. He talked about how he struggled for so long before that big fight. And we’ve heard that same story, rinse and repeat, over and over. Is this sport fueled by the idea of basically you train, you grind it out, you leverage your future to pretty much make it big? Is that kind of the storyline of this sport?


Ben Fowlkes: More or less. It’s not the kind of sport where, like, if you’re in the NFL and you’re the 20th best tight end in the league, you’re a millionaire and you’re a sports star. Pro-fighting doesn’t work that way. If you’re the 20th best welterweight in the world, you might have a day job. That’s just the way the pay structure is set up. It’s very much, I’ve heard it described sort of like a tournament theory model where to the absolute best, the people who are going to go on and be the champions and the big draws, there’s a lot of money, but it doesn’t mean that there is, you know, just a little bit stepped down from a lot of money for everybody else. The difference between the top and the people slugging it out in the mid-tier is vast when it comes to pay.


Jason Concepcion: Dana White is kind of famous for knowing everything about the fighters that take part in his fights, the performance of the night bonus and other bonuses like it, the way they are decided is pretty opaque. How much of those kind of bonuses and awards are just strategic moves by Dana because he wants to center a fighter and has particular plans for them? And how much of it is like, how is that exactly decided?


Ben Fowlkes: Yeah, it is pretty opaque. With the exception of that if you miss weigh, you can’t get one. So that takes some people off the list right away. You know, I’ve seen breakdowns and analyzes, a guy named Reed Kuhn who was an economist, did a look at how likely you are to win a performance of the night bonus based on your position on the card. Because that $50,000 bonus means a whole lot to people on the prelims, people like Cheyanne Buys, who was sort promoted into the main event for this event, that where she won a bonus based on other fights falling out. She was lower down on the card and she got bumped up when other fights got canceled. And if you’re on the prelims, you’ve either got to do something really spectacular or you’ve got to hope that nobody else does something all that spectacular, in order for you to get that bonus. And that $50 grand makes a big difference to those people, especially if you’re fighting for 10 and 10 or 20 and 20, you know, 50 grand is going to be the biggest paycheck you get all year. And yet the bonuses typically go to the people near the top of the card, main event fighters, people in the co-main event, you know, those last few fights, they disproportionately get the performance of the night bonuses in actuality. And, you know, sometimes it can be sort of an easy call. You see one great fight and not a whole lot of other great fights on the card—those people are usually going to get fight of the night. And it’s and it’s kind of a given. And then the other times, you know, there’ll be people who have great knockouts, great finishes, great submissions, and they don’t get a bonus just because somebody else gets it instead, maybe a bigger name, maybe a slightly more memorable finish. And that’s just kind of how it goes. And I mean, they have changed that in the years because it used to be there was one for fight of the night, there was one for submission of the night, and there was one for knockout of the night. And you might have the only submission on the card and then it’s kind of guaranteed yours, or you might have the only knockout and then it’s yours. Now that they changed it to performance of the night. I think so that they don’t seem to be incentivizing knockouts so much because that could be a potential liability somebody a brain damage lawsuit against you in the future, now, it’s a little bit harder to tell exactly how it’s going to go.


Renee Montgomery: So it’s interesting because they changed it to kind of for media purposes, you would think so that is received better, performance of the night instead of knockout of the night. And we saw a lot of those outlets use the sound of Cheyanne’s interview as almost this heartfelt sentiment about overcoming financial obstacles. But you have a more comprehensive view of this. So can you just talk a little bit about Cheyanne’s bonus in the context of what the UFC makes?


Ben Fowlkes: Right. Well, we tend to do that a lot in the M&A media where somebody talks about, hey, I was living on ramen and I got this bonus and it changed my life. And we go, what a feel good story. And it’s kind of like, you know, when kids are having a bake sale to get their mom cancer treatment and you go, OK, it’s a feel good story in a way, but also because of a reality that is sort of horrifying. And I’ve heard it from a bunch of fighters over the years, that $50,000 figure has not changed much in years and years, by the way, that has not really been adjusted for inflation. Every once in a while to bump it up for a big event, maybe 75 but, I you know, I was sitting there ten years ago, I remember people telling me about I was living on rice and ketchup and I got the $50,000 and it was a big deal for me. But also it’s like when you look at the UFC now, the UFC made over $800 million in revenue last year, is probably going to break a billion here in the next couple of years. And they’re in this sort of spot where they’re trying to tell us somebody like Cheyanne Buys, hey, if you’re complaining about what she’s paid, look, she’s only two flights into a UFC career. She’s six and two is a pro. It makes sense that people on their way up, it’s a hard scrabble existence and they’re still trying to prove themselves. But yet when you’re selling the fight to us, the fans and the consumer, she’s in the co-main event on ESPN. Like a big, big platform. The UFC is making a ton of money for each event that it puts on as part of its ESPN deal. And so you’re telling us on one hand, you know, she’s not worth more of your money yet, but she is worth our attention. And so it creates kind of like a weird situation where the fans can rightfully ask, look, is this person good or not? Do they matter or not? Are they are they a serious pro athlete at the top of their sport or not? Because you sell them to us as if they are, but you pay them as if they’re not.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, I think the other part of that equation I’d love to get your your take on it is length of career. I mean, there’s been a lot of numbers bandied around, you know, I’ve seen the average length of career from one source being like something like 35 fights total, sometimes twenty something fights, sometimes higher. Six fights is by whatever number, by that average metric is a significant portion into the career of a fighter, so on the one hand, yes, you know, you’re just making your way into a career, on the other hand, if you’re only going to fight 35 five fights in your career, one fight is huge. That is that is a huge chunk of your career. So how can these fighters possibly leverage their careers in order to make more money? Like what would it take and how does the UFC manage to get away with paying them so little?


Ben Fowlkes: Well, that’s a, it’s kind of like a complicated answer. But I mean the short answer to that is collective action is what they need in order to really change their situation. They need some kind of collective bargaining. They need like an organization to speak for them. And that would take them getting together and unifying in a way that they haven’t really shown any real ongoing willingness to do. That’s one of the easiest ways that they could do it themselves. But it’s tough. They’re not naturally inclined to trust one another. And every time we’ve seen somebody try to come up with some sort of unionizing effort or collective action effort, there’s always a question of what is in it for that person, if we can really trust them. And the UFC has been at times notoriously, like vindictive against fighters who have stepped up and said, I’m not being treated well or I don’t want to sign this contract. I mean, years ago when they were trying to get everybody to sign away their rights for a video game deal and not offering anything for it, just saying we’re adding this under the contract, you sign away your likeness rights in perpetuity, and when one of the fighters spoke up and said, I’d like to talk about that and like, see what that is actually worth to you, they cut him. And then they said, you know, we’re going to cut his teammates too. None of those guys from that gym will fight here. And, you know, he signed up pretty quickly after that. And the UCF has gotten really used to being able to do that. And the only other thing that seems like a realistic path to them getting a better deal out of it is right now there’s an ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC. It seems like, you know, the class action element of it is going to be certified. It’s been moving forward, just creaking along slowly on the wheels of justice for a long time now. But it does seem to be making some progress. And if that keeps going and that class gets certified, that could become a serious problem for the UFC because that’s what you see in other sports, is antitrust has often been the avenue toward collective bargaining. And that’s one way that the U.S. fighters could get it. But a lot of it is that they’re very used to this being the way it works. They’ve seen this, the way it works. They’ve gotten used to it. They’ve heard this message and they’ve sort of accepted it. And they say, like, all right, it’s going to be a really tough existence, the pay is going to be pretty bad, but I’m going to be a champion. Because you don’t get into this kind of sport if you don’t think you can be the absolute best. There’s not a real percentage in being a pretty good pro fighter, you know? You better think that you’re going to be a champion and that’s where the real money is. And sometimes they tell themselves, like, OK, I just got to sit through this for a little while and then I’ll get the belt and then it’ll all be a gravy train. Kind of thing that John Steinbeck said about there being no poor people in America, only temporarily disgraced millionaires. And that’s sort of how fighters think of themselves, like, I’m going to get the belt and then it’ll all be different.


Renee Montgomery: So but I’m curious because, first of all, when I hear the P word ‘perpetuity’, that’s terrifying. It’s interesting that they even just said that out loud, that we’re using it forever, to offer nothing, but I know that you did a survey of the fighters in 2020. What was their biggest issues like? What are the things that bothered them the most?


Ben Fowlkes: Yeah, we did a really big wide-ranging survey with my colleagues and I at The Athletic. And among the questions we asked, and we tried to get a real cross-section of fighters from organizations and different countries and all kinds of weight classes and everything, and when we asked what’s the worst part about being a pro fighter, I think it was around 70% of them said some version of the money. And either it was just that the pay is not good enough or that the pay is not consistent enough. There’s so many variables and trying to determine how you’re going to be paid as an MMA fighter because you sign a deal and, you know, maybe you feel like you’re getting a pretty good paycheck at like fifty and fifty, you know, where you think, hey, I’m getting a hundred grand to fight every time. I mean, if you win, you are. You know, you might go in there and feel like you did a really good job and the judges don’t give it to you. You lose a split decision and then you go home with half your paycheck. And there’s also the chance that you might show up on Fight Week and your opponent goes to the hospital during the weight cut or gets injured at the last minute, you know, the week before the fight, or especially during the pandemic, there was a whole lot of last minute COVID positives that scratched people’s fights. And you might have gone into debt just getting enough resources to train for this fight. You’ve got to train usually for six to eight weeks for training camp. A lot of them that means, you know, they’re not working their day jobs during that, they got eat specialized diets, pay their coaches, their nutritionists. Fighters go out of pocket for all those costs. It’s not like the NFL where your coaches are paid for by the team. You know, you have to arrange all that for yourself. And then the fight might not even happen. And maybe they’ll give you the show money if it falls apart last minute, they don’t necessarily have to. There’s so many of those unknowns built into their lives, and so they’ve said that over and over again, you know? They love it, they love doing it, but the pay is absolutely the worst part.


Jason Concepcion: You mentioned collective action as a, you know, the most direct route towards something like pay equity. Another way would be if the stars in the sport lent their support to something of this effort. And of course, as you mentioned, just the structure of the sport, one-on-one competition. They’re not apt to do that. But, you know, obviously, Conor McGregor, an extremely toxic individual, is probably the most recognizable biggest star in the UFC. Forbes has him as the highest earning athlete of 2021 above Messi, Renaldo, LeBron James. Why, he’s 1 for 3 in his last four fights. Why is the UFC so centered still on McGregor? What is it about him that has allowed him to, like, elevate himself through this sport in to a level of superstardom that we’ve not really seen in the UFC before? What the, what’s the secret sauce there?


Ben Fowlkes: I think it’s a few different things. And you mentioned the UFC really wanting to center him and it’s because it’s, the fight promotion business is a sales business. And that’s what determines, you know, who sells pay-per-view, who sells tickets. The goal is, you know, a butt every 18 inches on fight night and whoever brings that that crowd in, that’s the guy who we’re going to pay a lot of attention to. McGregor got a lot of help, at least at first, because he basically had an entire nation behind him. He, very early on, Irish fight fans were really excited about him even before he was in the UFC. Now that’s how the UFC even heard about him, was Dana White like going to like an event in Dublin, not even a fight-related event and people just kept asking him, what are you going to sign Conor McGregor. And the UFC did something for Conor McGregor that it doesn’t do as much anymore, is that they really set him up for success, some helpful matchmaking early on, but also really putting him in the spotlight and telling people right away this guy is a big deal, like this guy has that star potential and you should care about him. And he did a really good job of maximizing those opportunities and a lot of great performances, great quick finishes, all that kind of stuff, and just did a really good job building a personal brand that people were into. Even when it was inconsistent at times, it was just this kind of swaggering Irish superstar, I think, I mean, one thing is that the fight world for a long time, it keeps loving the opportunity to find a great white hope, and Conor McGregor comes along, this white Irish guy. And they felt like, OK, here’s a guy that we can really sell. And, you know, you mentioned him being on the Forbes list. A lot of that is not fighting money that they are talking about.


Jason Concepcion: It’s his liquor line. It’s yeah, it’s his other stuff.


Ben Fowlkes: And he’s done an excellent job with that. He and his management team at Paradigm, Audie Attar, tor have done a great job with that whiskey, because when I was at his most recent fight against Dustin Porier, in Las Vegas, you see people walking around the arena wearing Proper Twelve whiskey merchandise as if it’s just a Conor McGregor t-shirt, you know, they’re wearing the hats, they’re wearing the t-shirts. Like the brand has, has been so synonymous with him that it’s their way of showing support is to go out there and rep this whiskey brand. And that’s something you don’t, you don’t see a lot of fighters have that kind of success with that sort of thing that they’re branching off into on the side.


Renee Montgomery: Wow. Well he’s the combat sports senior writer for The Athletic. Check out his podcast Co Main Event. Ben, thanks for joining us on the line.


Ben Fowlkes: Thanks for having me.


[ad break]


[game announcer] Kuminga’s going to get this last look. Top of the—


[clip of Renee announcing] Wait a minute! Wooooh! Kuminga stopped playing! Oh, my goodness! Oh, ho ho. We got to see that again. Don’t reach! Ah bloop. That was it right there and then he took off. Yakkum!


Jason Concepcion: We looooove a good call here on Takeline and his sports fans in general. God, we love a, we love walk off. We love a game winner, and we love that excitement. That was our own Renee Montgomery, who is having a time! Or had a time, I should say, at Summer League, AKA the NBA’s biggest networking event for people involved with the teams, involved in the media covering the teams, friends of players, players themselves, coaches, people trying to be coaches, trying to be shooting coaches. It’s is a fun time. I missed it. But, Renee, you got to go. How was it? Do you have a good time? It sounds like you had a great time. And what players stood out for you?


Renee Montgomery: Ah man, I had a great time. It was interesting because it was my first Summer League and just so people know, the WNBA also happens during the summer. So Summer League is not something that we get to indulge in because we’re usually in season. So I saw a lot of WNBA players there, shouts to the Vegas Aces, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Angel McCoughtry was there. And then on the NBA side, literally every superstar was there. It was really crazy. Like at games I called, Giannis was sitting courtside, D’Angelo, Russell, Kawhi, Paul George, and then I left. But then LeBron James, Russell Westbrook were sitting courtside. Liz Cambage. So it was like, like you mentioned it, it’s a who’s who event. So I never got to experience that. And so I thought that was interesting. I will say that people probably may not know this about me, but I like don’t leave the house much in a sense of like even if, even if I’m at Summer League, the chances of me hanging out with people there, just this is my saying it to everyone, I really don’t do that. Just FYI. So I go to the gym and I come back to the hotel and I kind of like, I work, I work a lot but I enjoy it. So I will say that I didn’t have that kind of fun festivities. If people were wondering. I didn’t even go see a show this time, because for four the days I was there, I was called in two games a day. So I don’t know if people know, but you have to—


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, you were working.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah! I was like working and working. So I enjoyed it though. And some players that stood out to me, I always say the two-year players and the players that played for the G League Ignite team, you could clearly, like and I know a lot of people when they watch college sports, they’re like, oh, man, he could start on any NBA team right now. But in Summer League, you really get to see the players coming in that were playing in college as opposed to the players that even skipped college and went to the NBA G League Summer, like the Ignite team, or the second-year players. There was a night and day difference. There was like no comparison. So what stood out to me was, what having one year of just being in the system, being with the NBA coaching staff, it’s a night and day difference. That’s what stood out to me. But what I mean, I know you was watching the games intently. Like what stood out to you about Summer League?


Jason Concepcion: Well, speaking of second year players who have a year of of top level basketball under their belt coming in and showing that they have internalized some of that. Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks. He had, you know, a shaky start to his rookie season, kind of came on at the end, provided some real punch off the bench in the postseason as well against the Hawks. But 31 points on 13 of 20 in a 93-87 loss to the Pistons with nine rebounds, three steals, two blocks. He’s just, the cool thing about Summer League is you see players just kind of trying stuff that maybe they wouldn’t get a chance to try in a game where it really matters, where, you know, as a younger player, you can have that shorter leash. If you take a wild three or try a certain move, you might get yanked. Here in Summer League, it’s like, OK, let’s see, let’s see how polished this move that I’ve been working on really is. Let’s see how good that catch and shoot from the corner really is. That’s what’s fun. You know, when ,I years ago when I was writing for Grantland, Zach Lowe, who is, of course, an NBA analyst and pundit and on-camera person and writer at ESPN now, we were at the same place and he, I was at Summer League, just like I was writing an article about international scouts, because just like there’s the entire American basketball ecosystem, the WNBA and the NBA, so many figures from those communities are there, there’s a lot of international basketball professionals who come to summer league because there’s going to be a lot of players that don’t make a roster, that don’t make a G League roster. And so they’re looking at those players and thinking, how do I fill out my roster? How do I find these pros that that maybe just missed out for whatever reason and can I sign them? And then one of the things that I was working on that article and one of the things Zach told me was like, look over there, there’s a, I think it was like, it was a Pat Riley, it was Pat Riley, like sitting in the stands watching games. Like you could go up to Pat Riley right now and talk to him.


Renee Montgomery: That’s crazy.


Jason Concepcion: Like, look over there, there’s Mike D’Antoni. He’s like, this is what’s so great about Summer League is all these people are here and this is your chance to like network and just make connections with assistant coaches, with assistant trainers, with whoever, and just talk to people. This is how you build sources. This is how you do that stuff. I was not good at that part of it but that’s what’s fun about Summer League, it’s just meeting people that work for teams that are like, that, meeting the person who’s like, yeah, in 10 years I want to be a GM, but I’m right now, I just, I just put, like, towels in a basket. You know what I mean?


Renee Montgomery: Yeah. And to that point, Jason, so my, I’m like, I’m literally—they they call him runners—so I’m literally with my runner and the runner is taking me from point A to point B because I got to get a COVID test, I got to get my credentials, I got to get the polo’s because we have to have our matching Polos so he, my runner, shouts the Jayce! That’s my guy. He was taking me all over the place. The very first day I got there, I like bump into Jerry West. Like literally, like Jerry West. And I’m from West Virginia, and so that has a way bigger historical reference to me, because Jerry West, as we all know, is the NBA logo. But he’s like the guy from West Virginia that became the NBA logo to me. So just to your point, like you can be, like it could be Pat Riley or it could even be Jerry West. They’re just right there, like easily accessible. To me, it was almost like I was on air, like, wow, Giannis is just making laps around the arena. Like, this is crazy. Like and this is like Giannis Antetokounmpo like just won the championship, back from Greece with his brother watching his other brother’s game, you know, and it’s just sitting right there and if you’re a fan of the NBA you got to put on your bucket list NBA Summer League. You have to, it’s just you got to do it.


Jason Concepcion: It’s fun. I will say especially that opening weekend because it kind of, it dies down a little bit during the week. But that opening weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, is so, so fun. You have fans that come up from Colorado. You have fans that come over from Utah. You have a lot of Lakers fans, a lot of Suns fans. And it is just a really, really fun atmosphere, really, really super fun atmosphere. And like you said, you know, you are there, Pat Riley is there, Jerry West is there. Any of these figures—


Renee Montgomery: LeBron James, Russel Westbrook.


Jason Concepcion: LeBron James, Giannis, they’re just they’re hanging out and you can sit as close to them, closer than you would ever have imagined and watch their reaction to these games. Not to mention you get to see Cade Cunningham, number one, overall pick current Pistons rookie who has been impressive at Summer League. You can watch him 40 feet away. Jalen Green, who might have the most swag of anybody in this room. [laughs] And not playing right now because of a hamstring injury, but has been really, really fun, pretty electric, 53% of his threes he’s hitting right now.


Renee Montgomery: And Jason, to that point, you know, Cade Cunningham, we know is the number one pick. Jalen Green is the number two pick. And Jalen Green, as we know, played for the G League Ignite team. So he had that year of pro experience. You could even tell with those two players and not to say that Cade Cunningham is not going to have a great rookie season. I’m just saying from Summer League watching X’s and O’s like I watch, you can clearly tell that Jalen Green had more comfortability on the court having been in the system one year. Like talent aside, like not saying that Jalen should have been the number one pick because Jalen has told us that Jalen should be the number pick plenty of times! Jalen believes it. But I’m just saying, as far as comfortability, you can just see it on the court.


Jason Concepcion: As a player, what is it like? Like have you been in these kind of situations where you’re playing either a scrimmage or on a team where there’s just such a range of motivation? You have a lottery pick, like a top three, top five lottery pick. You also have, you know, are second or third-year player who’s working on, you know, whatever their next level of of personal craft is. And then you’ll have a bunch of players that are just trying to find a paycheck somewhere in the world in the basketball ecosystem. Like what, how do you as a player, how do you manage all that, because, you know, there’s going to be a lot of incentive—that’s the other thing with Summer League—there’s a lot of incentive for some of these players to just be like, I got to shoot it every time I get it, because I got to show whoever is here that I can do this. How do you resist that? How do you how do you deal with that on the court? Like, what is that like?


Renee Montgomery: Yeah, I talked about that and it depends, Jason, in a sense of, if you’re going to the Cleveland Cavaliers, yeah, you might want to show that you can score, that you can carry the team, that you can basically do everything and you have that luxury. But when you’re going to a team like, let’s say, a Golden State Warriors, where they’re very highly skilled team, you know, their GM, Bob came on there to talk about things that they were looking for. They’re not looking, they’re looking for people that can complement what they have. So the players really in Summer League, scouts don’t care what you can do if it doesn’t fit into their system, basically. So when you come in, like that’s how draft work. Like sometimes the number one draft pick, like typically is going to be your overall talent, like whoever the best player is, but the further down you go in the draft, the six, seven, people want players that can fit into their system the best. And so Summer League is the same. So if you’re a guy at Sumer League, like I saw some guys at Summer League, let’s take Sacramento, who was the worst defensive team, not just this year, in the history of the NBA. We know that. Sacramento was the worst, right? So then they go get Davion Mitchell, who is known to be just this harasser on defense. He was killing it. I’ll called the Sacramento game. He might have scored nine points, but what he did to the other team’s offensive player, it was unbelievable. They could barely bring the ball up the court. They were turning over the ball. The opposing team that he played against had like 25 turnovers. That’s the thought process. You know, Sacramento needs defense. I’m a defensive, I’m about to turn up. So I think it’s really what your team needs and how you’re trying to fit.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about Summer League is watching that kind of emerge. Just one more time talk about my Knick because I watched every Summer League game. Miles Deuce McBride, like I love to overreact to Summer League, of course, a lot of this doesn’t matter, but I’m out there watching Miles McBride like is this guy Kawhi? Could he be Kawhi? Harassing the, harassing the ball handler, just crashing the point of attack, he is everywhere in everybody’s jersey and he’s making shots. It’s fun. It’s fun. And of course, some of this is not going to materialize on the actual professional basketball court during the season. But it’s so fun to watch stuff like this happen.


Renee Montgomery: All right. So, Jason, we got to send a shout out to someone and not just any someone, a Husky someone who might have been having the greatest month of all time. That’s WNBA superstar champ and former UConn stud Breanna Stewart. She just led the U.S. women to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.


Jason Concepcion: Pretty good.


Renee Montgomery: She was the MVP of the first inaugural Commissioners’ Cup. I’ll let you think about what I just said for a second, because, by the way, as iffen, I got to show up for the women, as if that wasn’t enough, she just welcomed a baby girl into the world on August 9th. Shouts to Ruby May! I can’t think of a better way to start a month. She’s been killing it. And I need to, I would be remiss not to mention, she’s coming off of an Achilles injury, which is one of the hardest injuries to come back from in all of sports. That’s Breanna Stewart! I’m just saying, Stewie, out here doing some Stewie things, Jason, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Husky and bleed blue. She’s killing it!


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, it really it, there’s a beautiful article written by Kurt Streeter in The New York Times today, quotes Breanna saying of the birth of her child: It took my breath away, the most important moment of my life. Just what a, what an incredible couple of weeks she is having. Really amazing. And I mean, there were moments during the Olympic run where it was just like, much like KD, to take away nothing from anybody, but maybe Breanna gets like one and a half medals or one, like a medal, like a sliver of metal, a sliver—


Renee Montgomery: Well then A’ja Wilson’s got to get about two of them things there because boy does she carry load!


Jason Concepcion: She carry a load. But I can’t, I just can’t imagine what, what an emotional high this must be. And really, one of the greats that we have that we get to watch play because she is, she’s everything. A real, purely modern basketball player in every sense of the word. Big, that can do everything, that can shoot, that could score however, that can move the ball. And then the added, I just can’t, like welcoming an actual human being into the world. I have a friend who is a doctor, is in her residency right now. She just did a residency on a Navajo reservation and she doesn’t want to talk like, you know, she’s like, what are you guys up to? And like, man, if I was delivering babies, I’d talk about all the time. I’d be like, why would you do today? You sent some emails. Oh yeah, I like brought two lives into the world, that’s what I did.


Renee Montgomery: Two whole humans! No, you’re right. That’s a job flex. Like if I brought life into this world.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah.


Renee Montgomery: You can’t really tell me anything at this point. Because, like, if they say, oh, how was your day? It was Ruby Mae. OK. That was my day, Ruby Mae, six pounds, seven ounces. How was your day? Like, oh, you answered some emails. You’re right. That’s the flex.


Jason Concepcion: It’s an unbelievable flex. It’s like, yeah, I got a gold medal, plus there’s another person on this planet that is here because my partner and I are raising this person. Like it’s just, it’s just really amazing, like a real inspiration for people.


Renee Montgomery: And then not to mention that we talked about the Olympic gold. Five days after winning a gold, she came to America and I have to say that because, you know, there’s a time difference that when your time in, yeah, you’re in Tokyo, you’re trying to adjust to their time difference as fast as possible because you want to perform at your highest level. Then fast forward. After you win your gold medal, five days after that, the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup is happening, the first-ever inaugural WNBA Commissioner’s Cup. All the Olympians played in it. There were three of them that came straight from Tokyo to play in it on the Seattle Storm team. Just went ahead and won that is, well, each player claimed a $30,000 cash prize, which for the WNBA, that’s a huge amount of money, bonus money. And then not only that, but Stewie went on to get another 5K of milk money for her MVP award. We got babies now, we got diaper money, we need milk money, we need all of that. What [unclear] say, cause my momma needs some milk money, my son needs some milk! They try to take my—but listen, Stewie is out here killing it, is the whole point of it. I mean, she won a title for, and the Russian League overseas is one of the bigger leagues. She won a title there. Got finals MVP there. Run that Euro League Championship. Final Four of the Euro League MVP, WNBA Title, Finals MVP. I’m just saying, like, Stewie is having a year and is beautiful because like coming off of an injury, Achilles injury. So I have to give up. [snaps] You know, we do this. Had to give some snaps for Stewie out here, because she really, I mean, Ruby May. And shouts to Marta, who is also a WNBA player that has retired now to raise her daughter, I’m sure. And shouts to her as well. That’s Stewie’s fiancé. Yeah, just a beautiful story.


Jason Concepcion: Let me ask you about the Commissioner’s Cup, because obviously this is, this is a thing that is pretty prevalent in international soccer, the mid-season tournament. It’s something that the NBA has looked into creating to give teams that don’t necessarily have a shot at an NBA title, something else to play for. And I think a cash incentive to me is the easiest and most direct kind of motivator because like who wouldn’t want to go out for an extra paycheck, especially if, you know, if you’re looking at from an NBA perspective, where they’re always talking about cutting games, if you populate some of these rosters with G League guys, you get them a nice extra paycheck. Do you like, do you like the mid-season tournament? Like, does it feel normal to you? I, I would love to see it. There is the issue of games and the fact that there are 82 already is a lot. So they need to figure out a way to stagger it so that you’re not putting more stress on players. But in theory, I love the idea.


Renee Montgomery: Yeah, I think for WNBA players and women’s basketball players, for us it’s just normal. You know, we play it in the WNBA every summer and then we play overseas. And as you talked about overseas, that’s like a way of life. There’s always cups. And honestly, that’s some of your biggest money because it’s the Presidents of your clubs overseas. It’s like this rivalry. So they want to beat each other. So if you’re playing for your team and your President like—this is a legit happened to me—I’ve been playing overseas in Russia where there’s a lot of money flowing and one of our Presidents has came into the locker room at halftime was like, we’re gonna beat them! I’m giving $15,000 bonus right here on the spot if we come back and win. So on top of the bonus that we already had, the President will just come in there and throw some money up to try to get us to turn up and win the cup. So when you talk about cup time, that is money-making time in my mind, because it’s that, it’s that bragging rights that the Presidents of your clubs want. So, yeah, that’s normal life to us. And to see it here in the WNBA, like the players for one game winning $30,000 when players for a full season could be making $60,000. I mean, that’s a huge bonus.


Jason Concepcion: Yeah, it’s huge.


Jason Concepcion: [buzz] You know what that sound means, it’s time for buzzer beaters, where we talk about the stories we didn’t cover in the show because of time. Renee, what do you have?


Renee Montgomery: OK, so mine is kind of a Buzzer Beater rant.


Jason Concepcion: I love it. I love it.


Renee Montgomery: Hear me out. So it was my son’s birthday, August 15th.


Jason Concepcion: Happy Birthday.


Renee Montgomery: Thank you. Happy birthday, boop. And what he wanted to do was go to an escape room. I’m like, oh, yes, I love it. So he, I was like ten of your friends, we throw them a little party at the escape room, pizza, cake, and then we go to escape the room. So they’re in the room and let me just do my proud mom thing here—all of his friends are in honors classes. They’re very like intellectual kids. So they had made up their minds that they didn’t want to get any clues. And people don’t know what escape room is, you go in the room, you get all these hints. And they don’t want to be clue, right, and so they had to escape Alcatraz. Well, they’re going through the process and we get to the tape recorder. They don’t even know how to, they’ve never seen one of these things that actually have an actual tape that you put in. You know, how you can rewind, press play. So I’m in the room with them and they’re like, what is this device? And I’m like stop playing, that’s a tape recorder, right? Then they put a rotary phone in there, and the kids don’t know what these—a typewriter was in there. The kids have no idea what this stuff is. And I was like, yo, y’all can’t be serious. They’re like, well, how can we hear the clues if we don’t even know what this stuff is? So I’m laughing out loud at this point because I’m like, they thought they were so smart not to get a clue and don’t even know what a typewriter is. A rotary phone. They didn’t even know how to twist it and make it come back around. It was entertaining to me, not to say, say the least, they did escape the room. They did have to use some clues. Shouts to his little crew. But I have to just say that it was a very interesting experience that when I told them that I had done homework on a typewriter before, the way that they looked at me, Jason, I’m still uncomfortable with it. Like, to me, it was like, something about it didn’t sit right with me that when I said, yes, I’ve used a typewriter in real life, they looked like I was this ancient artifact, like they looked at me like, I don’t know how to explain it, but I didn’t like it. So that, I had to get that off my chest. Shouts to my boo for his birthday, junior. But I don’t like how his friends looked at me, so I had to just get that rant off of my chest. Those were not ancient artifacts. Those were things that we used, a rotary phone, I know how to use that. They’ve never seen it before. They didn’t even know how to put the tape in, Jason! But I digress.


Jason Concepcion: I watched a TikTok video semi recently that was just like showing Gen Z kids like a VHS machine and being like, what is this, what are you doing? [laughs] They had no idea. I was like, man, just put, dig the grave now, I’ll lay down in it and just put the dirt over my face.


Renee Montgomery: I’m in there with you!


Jason Concepcion: My buzzer beater is going to be White Lotus. The finale was this past Sunday on HBO Max. A really thought provoking, funny emotional show about how centered whiteness is in our culture, about the effect of privilege, about how people use their privilege without understanding it, about the kind of intersection of feeling like you are a woke person who understands the issues, but also enjoying the fruits of colonialism through the lens of a Hawaiian resort on land that was snatched from the locals. It was just like a really, a show that is super thought provoking and that I think, and then had a finale that I think frustrated a lot of people because it was a lot of white people dump their problems on the staff and local people at this Hawaiian resort and then go back home as if nothing happened. And while that was a frustrating watch, it also rang true to me in very specific ways. And I think that, and it was a show worth thinking about and worth watching. If you haven’t watched it, go ahead and stream it on HBO Max.


Renee Montgomery: I’m gonna check that out, for real. I like that. I’m a, I’m going to check it out.


Jason Concepcion: That is it for us! Follow and subscribe to us on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. And don’t forget to subscribe to Takeline show on YouTube for exclusive video clips from this episode. Plus my digital series, All Caps NBA, which airs every Friday. Check it out. Goodbye!


Renee Montgomery: Let’s go!


Jason Concepcion: Takeline is a Crooked Media production. The Show is produced by Carleton Gillespie and Zuri Irvin. Our executive producers are myself and Sandy Girard. Our contributing producers are Caroline Reston, Elijah Cone and Jason Gallagher. Engineering, editing and sound design by Sarah Gibble-Laska and the folks at Chapter Four. And our theme music is produced by Brian Vásquez.