UFC star makes plea for Assembly to pass MMA bill

Chris_WeidmanThe lawmakers who are fighting to make mixed martial arts a professional, sanctioned sport in New York state hope their seventh attempt in as many years will finally pay off.

Sponsors of a bill (S.5949-a/A.2604-c) that would establish protocols for combative sports; authorize mixed martial arts events in this state; and impose taxes on those bouts say New York is missing out on millions in potential revenue.

“MMA is a popular sport with a huge fan base,” said Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome. “And this legislation would allow New York to bring significant economic opportunities to our state.” Griffo is the prime sponsor of the MMA bill in the Senate.

According to the bill’s supporters, if MMA had been sanctioned in New York six years ago, it would have generated $616 million in economic activity to date.

Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who is one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said officially sanctioning MMA in New York would “create a tremendous amount of economic impact.” MMA expansion would generate $137 million in total economic activity in New York state, plus an additional $5.4 million in annual fiscal benefits, say the lawmakers and fight promoters working to get this bill passed.

For example, three upstate MMA events averaging 17,000 attendees in cities such as Albany would generate $17 million per year in revenue, and two New York City events averaging 19,000 attendees in venues such as Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center would generate $15 million each year.

Other MMA events would generate millions as well. According to the bill sponsors, if there were 66 small MMA events in New York, ranging from 1,400 to 8,000 attendees, the total revenue would be $29 million. The expansion of training gyms could bring in an additional $76 million per year, as more fighters would be training in-state.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the largest and most recognizable promoter of MMA events in the United Stated. Its principals — and some of the sport’s biggest starts — have made dozens of trips to Albany in recent years to lobby for legalizing the sport here.

UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein and former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, a lifelong Long Islander, stopped in Albany last week during an upstate tour in support of legalizing mixed martial arts.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, sponsors the bill in the Assembly, where 70 of his colleagues have signed as co-sponsors. He points out that the bill would establish health and safety regulations for mixed martial arts fighters in addition to generating new economic activity.

New York is the only state that does not sanction mixed martial arts fighting. The result is that amateur fights go unregulated and there are no statewide laws to protect fighters.

“Over the past five years, I have sought to build a consensus within the Assembly on the merits of regulating MMA, which would enhance the safety of all participants and bring this great sport, with its many economic benefits, to the mainstream,” Morelle said. “MMA is already one of the fastest growing sports in New York as evidenced by television ratings, attendance at amateur events, and participation at existing training facilities.

“By strengthening safety standards and improving the governance structure I am confident this sport will continue to grow and thrive in the Empire State,” Morelle said. “We are gathering tremendous momentum and I am hopeful that 2016 will be the year we make this bill a reality.”

According to the sponsors, 50 percent of sports fans report that they regularly or occasionally watch MMA events. The sponsors believe that sanctioning MMA fights in New York would add to the already storied history of Madison Square Garden — the world’s most famous arena.

Griffo and Morelle hope that a bill can be passed in March with the possibility that the first MMA event can be held at Madison Square Garden in April. Sen. Griffo said he is optimistic that it can happen. “I’m confident because Leader Morelle is much more energized and aggressive”, Griffo said. “Last year, he almost had the votes at the end of the session, but there became a logistical problem because some members left, so I believe the core support is there, it actually has bipartisan support.”

Chris Weidman, the UFC’s former middleweight champ, was born in Baldwin, Nassau County, and has been fighting since 2009. He hopes to retake the title before family and friends at MSG.

“I grew up here. I went to school and was an all-state wrestler. I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees from Hofstra University, where I was an All-American wrestler.  I train for my job here and own a business here,” Weidman said.

“However, I can’t practice my profession in my home state. I want my family and friends to be able to see me regain my middleweight championship here in New York at Madison Square Garden, where so many historic fights have taken place. Please, New York State Assembly, make this year the year that it happens.”