SBJ/April 22-28, 2013/In Depth

Is this the year NY finally sanctions MMA?

Before Joseph Griffo was elected to New York’s State Senate, he was a regular guest on Bill Keeler’s morning radio show in Upstate New York. During one segment in 2005, Griffo — then Oneida County Executive — was interviewed alongside Matt “The Hammer” Hamill, a local mixed martial arts fighter. Hamill pressed Griffo on New York State’s ban on mixed martial arts and asked the politician for help.

The conversation stuck with Griffo, and when he was a freshman state senator in 2007, he helped draft a bill that would allow the New York State Athletic Commission to oversee mixed martial arts in a similar fashion to its 90-year oversight of boxing.

The UFC has led the push to get New York to sanction mixed martial arts and has even secured a November date at Madison Square Garden should the state legislature approve the measure before it adjourns this summer.
Photo by: Getty Images
“It reminded me of when I wanted to build a skateboard park and the people in the recreation department told me skateboarding was just a fad,” said Griffo, who was mayor of Rome, N.Y., from 1991 to 2002. “At this point [mixed martial arts] doesn’t seem like a fad. It’s on prime-time TV. It’s not going away.”

Fast-forward several years and mixed martial arts competition is still illegal in New York. Griffo’s bill has become the focal point of a proxy battle that pits the UFC against two Nevada labor unions, the New York State Catholic Conference, and the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. The opposing sides have spent millions on lobbying efforts, and because of the political pressure, Griffo’s bill has repeatedly bogged down in Albany’s political gears.

For the past four years, the State Senate has approved the bill, but in order for the bill to become law, it also must win a majority vote in the state’s lower house, the 150-member Assembly. Each year the bill has become stuck in various assembly committee debates, and it has never reached the floor for a vote. “The opposition always moved the bill to more committees to stall it,” Griffo said.

But 2013 could be the year that Griffo’s bill finally becomes law. In early March the senate again passed the bill, this time by a vote of 47-14. A week later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his first public comments about mixed martial arts’ legalization, saying in a televised interview that if mixed martial arts shows could bring revenue to the state, “that’s something we’re interested in.”

Griffo’s bill gained momentum when Joseph Morelle, who is the Assembly’s Majority Leader, introduced it to the Assembly this year. And as of press time, 64 Assembly members had co-sponsored the bill, meaning it needed only 12 additional supporters in a vote to become law.

Morelle said the Assembly’s Democrats will decide how to vote on the bill at the annual Democratic Conference in early May, which could determine the bill’s fate. Morelle said he’s optimistic because of turnover in the Assembly’s Democrats. The bill’s staunchest opponent, Democrat Bill Reilly, retired last year.

“We’ve hit the high-water mark,” Morelle said.

Perhaps the most important sign that mixed martial arts could pass this year comes from the seemingly innocuous
comments made by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who told the New York Daily News that mixed martial arts will “at some point probably” be legalized. Silver has the power to pull the bill out of committee discussions for a vote. And if Griffo’s bill hopes to pass, it must be voted on before the legislature ends its session on June 21, or else the process resets.

“We’re asking for a vote, and if they give us the vote, I think we’ll get it,” Griffo said. “This is the best chance we’ve had.”

Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO of the UFC, shares Griffo’s sentiment, and the UFC has begun planning for the New York market. The UFC has even secured a November date with Madison Square Garden so it could move quickly if approval comes. It also has stepped up advertising in Times Square.

Fertitta promised lawmakers that he would hold 12 events in New York State over the next three years, should the law pass. The number of dates would put New York State on par with Southern California, UFC’s strongest market. Fertitta predicts a show at Madison Square Garden would generate $12 million in overall revenue.

“New York already represents the biggest piece of our pay-per-view business, with over 10 percent of the buys coming from the area,” he said.

But Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s general counsel and executive vice president, said he’s seen the bill die on the vine too many times to be overly optimistic. “Let us have a vote — if we lose, then we lose and it’s settled,” Epstein said. “We’re not getting a vote on the floor, and we feel it’s an abusive process and a thwarting of the democratic process.”

Fertitta is the lightning rod in the political debate. He and his brother, Frank, own Nevada’s Station Casino chain of hotels and gaming establishments, which are non-union chains. Nevada’s Culinary 226 and Bartenders 165 Unions have long protested Station Casinos and the Fertitta brothers. The Fertittas have accused both unions of enlisting the New York Hotel and Motel Trade Council to help block the vote in the Empire State.

While New York lawmakers opposed to the bill have never publicly acknowledged a tie between the unions and the political opposition, the Fertitta brothers and UFC President Dana White have regularly accused the unions of hijacking the debate.

Lorenzo Fertitta said the arc of the discussion around mixed martial arts speaks to the political influence. Five years ago, he said, the UFC’s lobbying efforts focused on convincing lawmakers that mixed martial arts were safe.
“In the last two years not one legislator has asked me about health and safety,” Fertitta said. “This is solely a political issue relative to the Culinary Union in Las Vegas.”

Representatives from the Culinary Union of Nevada and the New York Hotel and Motel Trade Council did not respond to requests for comment.

While the UFC has lobbied hard to gain approval in New York, the company’s role in the debate has soured some of mixed martial arts’ biggest supporters in New York. Stephen Koepfer, who coaches athletes at the Manhattan-based mixed martial arts training facility New York Combat Zambo, said his fighters regularly compete in New Jersey, where of the 50 or so mixed martial arts matches each year, only one is UFC sanctioned.

Koepfer also operates the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York, and runs a blog dedicated to documenting the push for legalization. He wonders whether mixed martial arts would have already gained legal status in New York if the UFC had played a smaller role in the lobbying effort.

“You don’t see the unions going after Bellator or Strikeforce or the other companies; it’s just the UFC,” Koepfer said. “The UFC has spent a lot of money to establish itself as the dominant brand in MMA. Now it’s hurting us in New York.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.


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