Sunday, March 13, 2011

West Virginia legalizes MMA while New Jersey sits saturated - implications for New York (edited 4/11/2011)

Congratulations to our brother and sister athletes in West Virginia who can now compete in front of hometown crowds!
On March 8th, the bill that would legalize and provide for regulation of the professional sport of mixed martial arts passed through the West Virgina House of Delegates despite some predictions of the opposite just days earlier. The West Virginia Senate passed the measure by a vote of 23-10 on Saturday, sending the bill to Governor Tomblin to be signed into law. Once signed into law, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont will be left standing alone in the dark as the remaining three states with athletic commissions that do not regulate MMA. Like West Virgina, New York is doubly problematic as MMA is unregulated AND illegal under old draconian law.
MMA is also unregulated in Alaska however, Alaska has no athletic commission to oversee such endeavors.
In Connecticut, movement towards regulation is underway. However, there is a thriving MMA community in Connecticut thanks to the Mohegan Sun Gaming Commission and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation which both sanction and regulate MMA at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos. New Yorkers have no such consolation prize.
Compounding the problem for New York fighters, promoters, and MMA oriented business owners, is the fact that New Jersey (where the sport is legal and regulated) is saturated with MMA.
On September 30, 2000, New Jersey became the first state to host a regulated MMA show under the unified rules by sanctioning the International Fighting Championships. The Garden State made history again a few years later by becoming the first state to regulate amateur MMA.  New Jersey became a beacon for New Yorkers who simply had to cross the border to practice and promote the sport they loved.
A decade later and the story is changing dramatically. As we learned at our Coalition round table meeting last month, New York based promoters are having difficulties in New Jersey and having their calendars pruned due to the inability of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board (NJACB) to handle the massive influx of MMA promotions setting up camp in the Garden State.  In the case of Steven Katz (promoter of the Amateur MMA show "Evolution"), who requested 12 dates for his show in 2011, the NJACB approved 4. Katz was hoping for approximately 8 dates. Compounding the situation, Katz recently closed his Astoria, New York gym as he was out bid on the rent (recently raised by the landlord) by a larger chain gym. Katz (a New Yorker) has taken a significant hit on his potential 2011 income.
[editor's note: due to a misquote by the author, this paragraph was edited on 4/11/2011]
Most recently, Scott Morgan's amateur MMA promotion "New Breed Fighters" took a serious hit due to New Jersey's MMA saturation problem. Morgan's show was scheduled for April 16, 2011 at the Atlantic City Hilton. Approval was given by the NJACB, sanctioning fees were paid (and later refunded), the Hilton was backing the event, a billboard was posted along the Atlantic City Expressway, and promotional materials were distributed. In recent years "New Breed Fighters" has grown into one of the premier amateur shows with a reputation for having developed many of today's successful pro fighters, many of whom are from New York. According to Morgan, 40% of the fighters who have fought for New Breed during its 34 show history have been from New York. Some known pros who have stepped into the New Breed cage as amateurs include Jeff Lentz of The Ultimate Fighter, Sam Oropreza of Strikeforce, and Phil Davis of the UFC.
According to the Atlantic City Press, the NJACB backtracked on the pre-approved date to make way for a larger professional MMA promotion that wanted the same date at a different hotel to run its first Atlantic City show. The Board claims the cancellation is in part due to the fact that a professional show (which booked the date two months after Morgan) stands to bring more revenue into New Jersey. Whether or not this pro show (Caged Fury Fighting Championships) was able to demonstrate more revenue than a New Breed Fighters card has yet to be determined. Morgan notes that this was not the first time the NJACB has cancelled a show of his. Morgan publicly comments on the cancellation on his show's website.
Nicholas Lembo, deputy attorney general, noted that the NJACB's new cancellation policy was enacted on January 1, 2010 as a result of the massive influx of professional MMA shows wanting regulation in New Jersey. Lembo went on to say "You want a guaranteed date? Put on a professional show." 
This sad situation highlights several trends regarding MMA and implications for the future of the sport in New York.
First, and in my opinion, most importantly, mixed martial arts needs proper regulation which protects the rights of professional AND amateur promoters and fighters when the sport is legalized in New York. No sport can grow without a thriving amateur circuit. This is where our future pros will grow, build their skills, and develop their art. To toss them aside as the NJACB has done in Morgan's case indicates a short sighted view of the development of MMA.
Second, the saturation of MMA in New Jersey and insufficient staffing to handle such growth indicates a clear need for regulation in New York. The flooding of MMA in New Jersey is in many ways directly related to the fact that MMA is not sanctioned in New York. Were we able to hold shows in our own state, we would not be putting on as many shows in New Jersey.
Third, New Jersey's saturation with MMA after just 10 years clearly demonstrates the economic benefits mixed martial arts could provide for New York State. According to Nicholas Lembo, the NJACB sanctioned 19 professional MMA and 20 amateur MMA shows in 2010 (and 5 Muay Thai shows). That's a grand total of 494 sanctioned bouts in 2010 (180 pro bouts and 314 amateur bouts). The HR&A financial impact study commissioned by the UFC estimates New York State could stand to make $16 million from two UFC events and $7 million from non-UFC mixed martial arts events annually. Some opponents of MMA in New York suggest that this is not enough to bother with in such desperate financial times. However, I suspect the HR&A figures grossly underestimate non-UFC impact and do not refer to amateur mixed martial arts events which would certainly flourish in New York as they have in New Jersey and other states. In 2010, New Jersey had nearly twice as many amateur bouts as professional.
In the end, regulation is an ethical issue in New York. MMA is a professional sport with a growing amateur presence and all professional sports require regulation to ensure the safety of the athletes.

Stephen Koepfer
Founder, Coalition to Legalize MMA in NY.

UPDATE: 3/15/2011

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