HARTFORD, Conn. - Connecticut lawmakers are moving forward with a proposal to lift the state's ban on mixed martial arts in a bid to cash in on the sport's growing popularity across the country.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 117 to 26 on Tuesday, advancing it to the Senate. Adam Joseph, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said Senate President Donald Williams has concerns about the violent nature of MMA but is open to conversation.
Though some matches are currently permitted at the state's Indian-run casinos, MMA advocates complain that a lucrative industry is passing Connecticut by. Promoters and venues in Hartford and Bridgeport are campaigning to host the fights, which they say would create jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenues. New York is the only other state in the country where the sport is banned.
MMA is a form of fighting that features boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, judo and other disciplines. In 2008, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ruled that the events were illegal under existing boxing laws and legislation would be necessary to allow them. While other states have legalized MMA since then, Connecticut remains a holdout.
In discussion on the floor of the House Tuesday, Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said lawmakers concerned about the sport's promotion of violence should support its regulation.
"Without this bill, we have no say in this sport," he said.
The proposal has been held up in recent years by concerns about the sport's promotion of violence and a labor dispute involving a Las Vegas casino. This year it garnered the endorsement of more than 30 lawmakers, including House Speaker Brendan Sharkey.
In a written comment Tuesday, Sharkey said regulation will make the sport safer and MMA events will provide host cities with "a solid economic punch on fight nights."
"Right now, it's a faster growing sport than boxing has been, and the venues around the country have filled out," said Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee. "We've got to make sure we regulate it, and that's it."
Connecticut is missing out on the jobs and revenue created by MMA events, said Charles Dowd, vice president of operations for Harbor Yards Sports and Entertainment, which runs Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.
The legislation would allow MMA events to be held at Webster Bank Arena and the XL Center in Hartford as well as smaller venues and local gyms. Dowd predicts one large event could draw thousands of fans and generate more than 250 jobs and over $300,000 in wages.
"Connecticut is simply not enjoying the value of the work it creates, the taxes it creates," said Dowd.
The state Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates that five annual MMA events would generate between $195,000 and $360,000 of revenue for state coffers. That would outweigh the estimated $40,000 to $90,000 cost of regulating the sport.
But some unions are worried that state oversight will not protect fighters and other workers. The owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship promotion company are also co-owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, which is involved in a dispute with a local culinary workers union.
Lori Pelletier, secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, questioned the wisdom of supporting an industry that she says does not deal fairly with workers in another part of the country.
"If we want to bring entertainment into Connecticut," she said, "we want these to be good corporate citizens."
Michael Mersch, senior vice president of UFC, responded to the charge saying that his company is being penalized for the actions of a separate company and MMA would bring union jobs to Connecticut.
Opponents of the bill also have concerns about the sport's promotion of violence and hate. Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, called MMA "a blood sport" at a February public hearing and questioned the effect it could have on youth.
"You're going to have springing up these mixed martial arts youth centers with these little kids out there bashing each other's head in and that's not what I want Connecticut to be," he said.
But for most lawmakers, the public policy argument may end up settling this fight. Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who has advocated for this bill the past three years, said it is bizarre to suggest not regulating MMA because of its violence.
"This is not an endorsement of any individual sport," he said. "It's a recognition that we don't regulate the sport in the state of Connecticut. And if you're concerned about injuries and such, the lack of regulation, that is more scary to me."
If the bill is approved in the House, it could face a tough final round in the Senate where the Democratic leadership has opposed it in the past.