Legislature again considering bill to legalize MMA in NY

UFC president Dana White addresses the EA press UFC president Dana White addresses the EA press conference on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. (June 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty

advertisement | advertise on newsday

There can be no walk to the octagon in a New York arena without first steps in the state legislature.

The bill to legalize professional mixed martial arts in the state has begun a fourth year of travel through legislative committees.

After passing through the senate's Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee on Thursday, the hope for MMA fans is that this trip will end with an affirmative vote on the floor of the Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's signature.

There are steps in between, the most immediate being the Senate's Finance Committee.

"From my perspective, this is a sport that exists, it's growing, it's not going away," said Sen. Joseph A. Griffo (R-Rome), the sponsor of the bill that would legalize MMA events in New York. "We have an opportunity to benefit financially from it. We have an opportunity to regulate it."

New York and Connecticut remain the only states with a ban on the sport. Legislation to legalize the sport is pending in Connecticut as well.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Under the proposed bill, New York State would collect 8.5 percent sales taxes on gross ticket receipts and 3 percent of gross receipts for broadcast rights. Plus, there's the additional economic impact from hotels, restaurants, shopping, etc. -- an estimated $20 million per year statewide, according to a 2011 independent study by strategic firm HR&A Advisors.

The bill has passed in the Senate by an increasingly wider margin each of the past three years. "We have every expectation we'll go four in a row in the Senate," said Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Ultimate Fighting Championship.

As the political process begins again, so, too, does opposition from Unite Here, the parent organization of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas. The union has actively lobbied against the legalization of MMA in New York, including the creation of websites such as unfitforchildren.org, which highlights aggressive and insensitive comments from fighters and UFC president Dana White.

In a letter addressed to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and sent to Gov. Cuomo and other state lawmakers, Unite Here urged them to not allow these "violent spectacles" from the Las Vegas-based UFC in New York.

The Culinary Union, the largest in Nevada, represents workers in the hospitality industry, including hotel, casino and restaurant employees. Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, majority owners of Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC, also own the Station Casinos, a non-union gaming entity with 10 casinos across Nevada. The two sides have battled for years over the unionization of workers in that state.

There is also the matter of Zuffa LLC's lawsuit filed in November 2011, based on First Amendment issues. Two weeks ago, In U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan, the State Attorney General's office, represented by John M. Schwartz, made clear its position by affirming the words written into law in 1997 that allows a third-party sanctioning body to oversee pro bouts across the state.

Any MMA company (UFC is the biggest) could, in theory, promote a show in New York by having a group such as the World Kickboxing Association or U.S Judo Association sanction the event. The New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing and would do the same for MMA if the ban is repealed, would have no regulating authority over such an event. Judge Kimba Wood set a date of March 8 for the next proceeding.

"The statute simply says certain events are banned in New York, except certain events sanctioned by these certain groups. The question has been exactly what the statute meant," said Barry Friedman, an attorney representing Zuffa.

Amateur MMA remains perfectly legal and completely unregulated by the state. On March 23, the Manhattan Times Square Hotel will host the "Kings of New York" amateur MMA event promoted by Fighters Source.

Zuffa has lobbied New York legislators since 2007 to overturn the law, but each year it has stalled. During the 2012 legislative session, the bill was never brought to the Assembly floor for a vote.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

White said last December that he asked to reserve a date for this November at Madison Square Garden for its 20th anniversary show. MSG has said repeatedly that it wants to host a UFC event.

Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse remain interested host cities. Nassau Coliseum could feasibly host an event, as well.

"It's here and you're not going to deny its existence," Griffo said. "At this point, this is an opportunity to do it right in New York."

A total of 119 bars and restaurants across the state regularly show UFC pay-per-view events according to bars.ufc.com. UFC events on Fox in December and January averaged 243,000 in New York, more than any other market in the country, according to Nielsen.

The Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., will host UFC 159 on April 27, headlined by Jon Jones. The light-heavyweight champion was born in Rochester, grew up in Endicott and lives in Ithaca. Also fighting on the card are Levittown's Gian Villante and Wantagh's Al Iaquinta. Based on three UFC events held in New Jersey since 2011, UFC officials said close to 40 percent of those ticket sales came from New York State, compared with 30 percent from New Jersey.

You also may be interested in: