Report: NY MMA legalization delayed to extract $$$ from UFC

April 24, 2013

Mixed martial arts is now the world's fastest growing sport, but you can't have a professional fight in Madison Square Garden, historically a center of the combat sports universe.

In a startling essay, Aaron Elstein from Crain's NY says he was told by insiders that the reason MMA bills keep failing to get through the legislature is because the UFC is being strung along to extract the greatest amount of lobbying money.

While having a tinfoil hat quality to it, the piece still makes for interesting reading, including the unverified estimate that the UFC has spent $2,500,000 trying to get professional MMA legal in the Empire State.

In Albany, this sport has become a money pot.

The people who run Ultimate Fighting Championship have been lobbying for years to lift a state ban on professional mixed martial arts bouts. They've failed so far, even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports legalization and the state Senate has voted four times to end the ban.

Opposition from unions and concerns about head injuries are commonly cited explanations for why the ban endures. But the real reason may be that UFC is simply such an important useful pot of cash for Albany. As one person involved in creating the 1997 law banning the sport explained to me, there's no particular urgency in Albany to pass a bill overturning the ban because lawmakers and lobbyists have figured out there's much moolah to be extracted from the Las Vegas casino operators who own UFC.

"Everyone knows these guys have a lot of money," the insider said, referring to the Fertitta brothers, who bought UFC in 2001 for $2 million and built the company into one reportedly worth $2 billion. "The ban has nothing to do with people being concerned about the morality of the sport or injuries to the athletes. This is about getting more money from UFC before the law is overturned."

Albany has already pocketed a lot of money from the UFC. According to records filed with the New York State Commission on Public Integrity, UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC, spent $73,000 last year to hire lobbyists and to cover travel costs of bringing fighters to lobby the Legislature.

But in 2011, Zuffa spent about $400,000 on lobbying, print and radio ads and robocalls to press its cause. In 2010, it forked over $490,000 on lobbying, public relations, advertising and building a website. In 2009, it spent a bit more than half a million. And 2008 was the best year of all, with Zuffa shelling out $600,000 on lobbying and P.R.

Madison Square Garden, which presumably would host bouts, spent about $170,000 lobbying for legalization in 2009. Among the firms it hired was the one run by Patricia Lynch, a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Forest City Ratner, developer of the Barclays Center, also has lobbied in favor of legalization, and so has the Hospitality & Tourism Association.

Then there is the money spent lobbying the Cuomo administration and state Legislature. Zuffa contributed $207,000 to these parties last year, including $55,000 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign and $50,000 each to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, according to Followthemoney.org.

In 2010, it gave $135,000 to the Cuomo campaign and the various state campaign war chests. In 2008, it gave $35,000 to campaign accounts.

Add it all up, and over the past five years UFC has spent $2.5 million on lobbyists, public relations consultants, ads and campaign contributions with, as yet, nothing to show it. If Assembly leader Silver doesn't hold a vote to overturn the ban this year—and he doesn't seem inclined to—UFC will surely be back next year.

It is truly one singularly useful pot.

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