UFC’s New York Lawsuit: A Sign Of Desperation Or Shrewd Move?
By Joshua Molina
MMA’s top promotion and the catalyst that has launched MMA into the fastest-growing sport on the globe, UFC has sold out shows in California, Nevada and Canada amongst other places. Fans have flocked to sanctioned mixed martial arts shows in 45 states across the nation. But despite the unbelievable rise of the sport, one market remains elusive.
Mixed martial arts is banned in New York State. The UFC has been fighting for years to push the state legislature to approve a bill that would legalize the sport there.
Lawmakers have repeatedly quashed the proposal, saying that MMA is too violent and barbaric, despite the fact that kickboxing and, of course, boxing, are legal. After making the most progress through an unsuccessful bill a year ago, UFC has decided to take the matter to court.
Last month, the UFC filed a lawsuit against the state of New York alleging that it is unconstitutional for the state to ban MMA. Mixed martial arts, the suit claims, is an expression, and therefore protected under the first amendment.
New York’s rejection of the UFC is unfamiliar territory for a company that has enjoyed widespread success, without much pushback from competitors. But will the UFC’s aggressive tactic of filing a lawsuit be the right move to overturn the MMA ban? It’s too early to tell.
“The lawsuit comes on the heels of another year, when the legislation has stalled,” said Justin Klein, a New York attorney, who also runs an MMA blog. “I don’t want to call it a desperation move, but part of it is frustration.
“It could offend New York governor Andrew Cuomo,” said Klein. “It could have an adverse impact.”
But Klein also said that the lawsuit could be exactly what the state of New York needs. It could be the final push that forces the state to take the sport seriously.
“They could say, ‘Look, the sport’s on Fox. It’s mainstream enough that it is on a major network,” said Klein, who advocates for the sport’s legalization in New York. “It may be exactly what is needed in terms of moving this along.”
The state of New York is expected to ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit, likely in a motion in the next few weeks. If the lawsuit is thrown out, UFC would have to convince lawmakers to introduce another bill next season, or convince Governor Cuomo to legalize MMA with the stroke of a pen.
Cuomo has the power to put the legalization of MMA into his executive budget for next year, with the idea that the sport would generate revenue for the state of New York. Klein estimates that MMA could generate as much as $2 million annually for the state.
Klein said it appears inevitable that MMA will eventually become legal. There’s support even in the legislature.
The recent bill was passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and numerous Assembly committees, but then stalled out when it got to the Ways and Means Committee. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver nixed the bill.
Silver, a Democrat, is widely regarded as one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state. He has been the assembly speaker since 1994.
Silver did not return calls from Full Contact Fighter.
“New York is an interesting political place,” Klein said. “You have a lot of power concentrated in a few pieces.”
Silver’s critics, including White, say that the real reason that Silver opposes MMA is because he is tight with the state’s culinary union, which has raised concerns about fighter contracts and fighter rights.
In addition, the union is active in organizing casino workers in Nevada, where the Fertitta brothers — who own a majority of the UFC — own casinos that are not represented by unions.
Regardless of the union’s motives, Klein believes it is just a matter of time before MMA gets legalized in New York.
“It’s going to happen,” said Klein, noting that there is already a huge underground world of mixed martial arts events in the state. “Ultimately it is going to get done. We just have to keep up the fight.”
Legalization of the sport has its New York supporters.
Melvina Lathan, the chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, has publicly stated her support for MMA.
“The New York State Athletic Commission’s primary objective is to ensure the safety of the athletes we regulate,” said Athletic Commission Spokesman Christopher Valens, in response to a question to Lathan.
“Currently, MMA is not legal in New York. As with all contact sports, should the New York State Legislature approve legislation legalizing MMA, the Commission stands ready to regulate it.”