Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
New York City trades on its highly marketable reputation as the capital of the world, the center of cultural cool, the epicenter of all things hip, hot and hype.
Yet the fastest growing sport in the world remains illegal in this state. Mixed martial arts can make it anywhere, so long as anywhere isn't followed with an "NY" in its postal address.
"We want the sport to be approved and sanctioned in New York," Ultimate Fighting Championship VP of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner told Newsday. "They have the ability to regulate the sport in the proper way. I don't want to hear 'Well, we ran out of time.' "
New York took a step toward changing that May 23 when the State Senate again voted to pass a bill that would legalize and regulate MMA. Bill No. S1707-A sits in the Assembly's Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Committee and awaits a vote by that body.
The same thing happened last summer, and it never made it to the Assembly floor for a full vote.
"For anyone who knows about mixed martial arts, no one can understand why it's not legal," Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) said. "We shouldn't have a problem getting it out of committee. My fear is that it's going to stick in rules, and that's entirely up to the speaker."
Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), as Assembly speaker, has the power to steer legislation one way or another. His position on this issue never has been made public.
The chief opponent of sanctioning MMA in New York is Assemblyman Bob Reilly (D-Colonie). Last year, he got 48 members of the Assembly to sign a letter asking that MMA not be included in the budget. He won that fight and MMA was removed from then-Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget.
Few other politicians campaign as actively as Reilly against the legalization of a sport that combines the disciplines jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.
His arguments revolve around the violent nature of the sport and what he believes to be an adverse economic impact on New York.
"My opinion has grown more in opposition to it," Reilly said. "My overriding opposition to it, one that supersedes everything, is that it's a violent sport and violence begets violence. I find it hypocritical to support this."
UFC and other MMA promotions have gone to great lengths to make the sport safer. This is not 1997 and "anything goes."
"I find that type of statement unethical," Reilly said. "I understand where people come from with that, because it's about the money."
Reilly added that there is no sales tax collected on tickets sold on the secondary market. True, but that's the case with all sports, concert and Broadway tickets, so that argument seems wobbly. Reilly also expressed dismay with the idea that a UFC event could generate a huge gate -- $4 million was the example he gave. Most of that money -- $3.5 million, he said -- would go to the company.
"The net effect would be money going out of the state rather than money coming into the state," Reilly said.
Those were hypothetical numbers Reilly used to illustrate his point. But based on his example, doesn't that leave half a million dollars for New York State?
Ratner's job the past few years has been to get the sport legalized in as many states as possible. Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, only New York, Connecticut and Vermont have yet to legalize MMA.
"All we're asking for is to get it out of committee and let the whole Assembly vote up or down on it, not let it stay there or let time run out on it," Ratner said. "That's my big fear, that we won't even get a fair vote on it."
That leaves 45 states for the UFC, Strikeforce and any other MMA promotion to operate. Hello, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio, to name a few. And hello to our friends north in Montreal and Toronto, which last month hosted 55,000 fans for UFC 129.
They all host MMA events and they all accept monies from New Yorkers. An estimated 30 percent of tickets to UFC 128 in Newark on March 19 were bought by New Yorkers, Ratner said.
An economic study by HR&A Advisors, an economic, real estate and public policy consulting firm, estimates one UFC event at Madison Square Garden would generate more than $10 million in economic activity. MMA events statewide, regardless of the company promoting it, could spark more than $23 million in monetary impact. Those numbers include ticket sales, hotel rooms, restaurant and bar spending, shopping and other associated costs of travel. Throw in sales tax and local jobs and you've got a nice stimulus package for a city.
"It makes no sense to keep telling people from New York to go to Toronto, to Boston, to Newark, to Philly," Ratner said. "We know by the pay-per-view ratings, the amount of bars that show it, the ratings on Spike TV, that the sport is really big."
According to a UFC official, more than 500,000 pay-per-view buys are expected across the entire state this year. With at least 14 PPV events in 2011, that's an average of 35,714 buys for the third most populous state in the country (19-plus million residents).
The senate bill passed May 23 by a 42-18 margin, which improved on last year's vote of 32-26. Five of Long Island's nine state senators voted in favor of the bill, up from one last year. That boost is encouraging to promoters and to fans.