Friday, May 13, 2011

Zuffa's Union Blues and New York MMA (Updated 7/25/2011)

On May 1st, 2011 a video appeared on youtube that claimed to offer up the reason why mixed martial arts is still banned in the Empire State. The video features UFC President Dana White at the post UFC 129 press conference laying blame squarely at the feet of Culinary Union Local 226 and their parent organization, Unite Here. Unite Here has a long running skirmish with UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who also own the non-union Station Casino chain in Nevada.

In the video Dana states:

"It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts...the reason that we're not in New York. It has to do with the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of the guys'...of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of there because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest non-union gaming company in the country. So these union idiots, all these people work in the Culinary Union, pay their money towards dues, this is what all their money's being spent towards. Fighting the UFC from coming there and bringing money into the state of New York."

Since the video's release, the Coalition to Legalize MMA in NY has recieved many e-mails and inquiries regarding the interview and the possibility that union activity could be blocking the legalization and regulation of MMA in Albany. After all, Dana says in the interview that Unite Here has spent millions of dollars to stop MMA from entering our state as a result of the union's grudge with the Fertittas back in Nevada.

I was a bit confused by Dana's interview to be honest. While it has been fairly common knowledge, Zuffa has never so publicly acknowledged that the Fertittas' non-union business could be sabotaging our attempts to get MMA into New York. The Unite Here unions had lobbied against MMA in the past as a means of sticking it to the Fertittas. This fact alone is a shame as the sport of MMA is much larger than the UFC. Has the union spent "millions of dollars" as Dana claims? Who knows? Zuffa certainly has spent that much in NY and we still don't have MMA.

It is true that Unite Here had lobbied in Albany against MMA in the past and had contributed to rabid anti-MMA Assemblyman Bob Reilly's campaign. In fact, Reilly has not had a direct campaign contribution from Unite Here since 2006. However, conventional wisdom today in New York is that the unions had backed off years ago (with regard to MMA, not from going after the Fertitta owned hotels in Nevada). After Dana's interview I contacted my sources in both the Senate and Assembly. Accross the board I was told that the unions are not a significant problem in Albany.

Maybe I am not getting the whole story and the back room dealings in Albany run even deeper than acknowledged. But, if union opposition were such a critical issue in Albany, Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, chair of the Assembly Labor Committee would not be so publicly supporting MMA. On March 15th Wright dispatched an Assembly wide memo outlining his favorable position regarding MMA regulation in New York. He strongly urged all Assemblypersons to support regulation.

In recent years the Assembly has been the primary stumbling block for MMA in Albany. But, I am told that even our friend Bob Reilly is on the defensive and senses impending defeat as he has already sent out two memos this year urging Assemblypersons not to vote in favor of MMA (last year he only sent out one). I am also aware of an impending letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on behalf of Assembly supporters urging him to put the legislation to the floor for an up or down vote.

While being accepted as truth by most out-of-state MMA fans and bloggers, Dana's union blues were met with skepticism and anger in New York by those in the know and on the front lines of the battle for legalized MMA. How dare Zuffa use our state and sport as a pawn in their Nevada based union squabbles! MMA is not a tool for Zuffa to turn Unite Here New York members against their Nevada brothers; which may itself sabotage what union support we do have in the Empire State. It seems that MMA in New York may simply be acceptable colateral damage to Zuffa. After all, it was Dana who said at a January 13th press conference that at the end of the day Zuffa did not need New York. Sadly, this is true. The UFC can move on to Canada, any other contry or any other state and make their money. New York simply may not be a priority for Zuffa.

Almost on cue, as if to combat the negative PR building here in New York as a result of Dana's interview, Ariel Helwani posts a May 11th article clearly designed to bolster Zuffa's position that it is the unions that are blocking MMA in New York. In the article Helwani releases the text of what is presented as an April Unite Here memo to the State Senate outlining why they should not support the Senate MMA legislation (S01707A). The memo, which turns out not to be from Unite Here, but the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council (not a member of Unite Here), cites a lack of adaquate fighter protections and the union's opposition to what it considers unfair practices by the UFC. While on the surface, to fans not in the know, this may seem to be the smoking gun. It is not. In fact, Helwani does little to further asses whether the union has actually had any noted affect in the Senate where MMA has overwhelmingly passed through committe this year. Fortunately, US Combat Sport writer Peter Lampason did just that. [editor's note: On May 23rd, 2011, the Senate passed the legislation by landslide votae of vote of 42-18]

On May 11th Lampasona published his own investigation into the issue. Lampasona points out that the Senate, where Helwani's leaked "Unite Here" memo was targeted, has never been a barrier to MMA legislation in New York. Furthermore, Lampasona spoke with Assembly Labor Chairman Wright's spokesperson, Ben Rosen, who stated that he had no knowledge that Unite Here had contacted anyone in the Assembly this year. Rosen went on to state:

"I don't believe [Unite Here] is what's holding up MMA in New York. Unite Here has never reached out to us on this. You would think that they would want to come to the Chairman of Labor about something like this.... We're more than willing to meet with them and discuss their concerns."
Lampasona further reveals that on the condition of anonynimity, a source close to the Culinary Union Local 226's New York branch "described many leading members as not only being unopposed to MMA in New York, but being fans of the young combat sport."

There is obviously a strategic reason why such statements were made by Dana in his UFC 129 interview. First, they could be accurate. Or, they could be intended to take a shot at the unions and generate hostility towards them on behalf of the Fertittas (thus using MMA for non-MMA political gain); or they could simply be intended to save face because Zuffa's efforts in Albany have not had the results they would like. Lastly, Zuffa may be less aware of the issues we are facing here in NY than we assume and may simply be relying on talking points provided by their NY based PR & lobby groups.

Whatever the reasons, there is a movement in New York and more legislators are speaking out in favor of MMA than ever before. There is a loud calling for MMA in New York this year, louder than ever before. Fans have become much less apathetic. We have rallied, filmed movies, and even the main stream media is calling for MMA in New York this year.

In the end, even if the unions are lobbying against MMA here, take comfort in the fact that lobbying does not always work (as evidenced by the boatloads of cash spent by Zuffa). If the cry is loud enough from us voters, our legislators won't be able to ignore us as they have in the past.

Want to make sure we get MMA in New York? Contact your legislator today and let them know you want MMA! Petitions are not good enough. You NEED to actually call or visit your legislator and politely say you want MMA in NY.

Here's how:

Stephen Koepfer
Founder, Coalition to Legalize MMA in NY


7/25/2011: Seemingly in response to Lampasona's open letter to White, Zuffa continues to push their union story in the following stories: MMA's toughest match (Times Union, 7/25/11); Lorenzo Fertitta on ESPN Radio July 18th.

7/13/2011: In response to Dana White's radio appearance, Peter Lampasona writes an open letter to white challenging the union story and questioning the motives of Global Strategy Group (Zuffa's NY PR firm)

7/9/2011: Dana White appears on the Opie and Anthony show pushing the union angle regarding New York's Failure to legalize MMA this year

6/26/2011: No Hold Barred with Eddie Goldman. Eddie and Stephen Koepfer do a detailed post mortem of New York's failure to legalize MMA.

5/12/2011: Times Union: New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly’s position on MMA influenced by major contributor.
*Of note here is how this blogger, who was pushing the Union angle, was forced to edit and modify his story when presented with credible debate. The original title of his article was "Bob Reilly sells MMA Vote to the Highest Bidder." Be sure to read the article's commentary.

5/19/2011: Bloody Elbow: What's Keeping MMA out of New York? Is It the Unions Going after the UFC, or is It the Lack of a Union in the UFC?

5/19/2011: US Combat Sports: Dana White Continues to Push Anti-Union Storyline on Forbes Sportsmoney

5/19/2011: YES Network/Forbes Sports Money: Assemblyman Bob Reilly and UFC President Dana White
*While we generally disagree with the good Assemblyman, on the point of Union resistance in NY, we must agree that it is a far fetched notion.

5/19/2011: Right Hook Radio: Ariel Helwani discusses the Zuffa party line that the Unite Here unions are blocking MMA in NY
*We obviously disagree with Helwani, but want to afford our readers to hear all sides of the issue.

5/22/2011: Las Vegas Review Journal. Culinary challenging UFC to rile Fertittas.
*Another story pushing the union resistance angle in NY, yet this article does not present a single shred of evidence that the unions here in NY are mounting any effective resistance.

5/27/2011: Author's note:
Since writing this editorial, the Senate has passed the S01707A with an overwhelming 42-18 vote. Any resistance applied by Unite Here, or any other union, was simply a token show of resistance. Additionally, NY MMA NOW has obtained a copy of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council memo that is referenced in Ariel Helwani's article noted above. A bit of fact checking revealed that the NYHMTC is, in fact, not part of UNITE HERE as indicated by the memo and Helwani's article. Though, UNITE HERE and NYHMTC do share some board members and affiliates.

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