(Christy Martin talks with Marc Ratner, then-head of the Nevada Athletic Commission. Laura Rauch / AP)
After climbing to the second floor of the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, on the night of UFC 78, Marc Ratner stared across the Hudson River toward the lights of New York City. “I would say 60 to 65 percent of that crowd [in the arena] was from the state of New York,” he says.
But more than 10 years after former New York Governor George Pataki banned the nascent sport, the UFC still finds itself defending the legitimacy of mixed martial arts to New York politicians. Last June, a measure to legalize MMA failed to pass through the Assembly Tourism committee, with one senator making antiquated comparisons of the sport to cockfighting. The UFC has responded with education; just under a year after UFC 78, Ratner spoke at a hearing to teach New York lawmakers about his company’s product. “It’s all about letting people know it’s not the same sport it was in 1995 or 1996,” he says.
The UFC hired New York City-based consulting firm Global Strategy Group to help push a message that emphasizes the professional nature of MMA athletes, the attention paid to the fighters’ safety, the logic behind the rules, and the economic benefits MMA would bring. “[The economic impact] is the first thing we try and tell people about the UFC,” says Global Strategy Group’s Julie Wood, “because especially given the state of the economy now, that’s really the biggest benefit that MMA could bring to New York state.”
Some lawmakers don’t realize the UFC is a billion-dollar business that routinely sells out arenas across the country, Wood says. Along with $11.5 million in new spending in New York City, the UFC’s economic impact study says Buffalo—a city chosen in part to measure the impact of MMA in upstate New York—could expect $5.2 million in economic activity.
New measures for MMA sanctioning in New York could be presented anytime during the 2009 legislative session. A cornerstone of the UFC’s accompanying educational effort is MMAFacts.com, a Web site with statistics, rebuttals to myths surrounding MMA, and an e-mail form for supporters to contact their state representatives.
In some respects, the climate for sanctioning appears more favorable than ever. Melvina Lathan, the newly appointed chairwoman of the state’s athletic commission and an experienced boxing judge, supports regulating mixed martial arts. Ratner says Madison Square Garden is anxious to host the UFC, an affair that could come before the close of 2009. And despite setbacks in the legislature, Wood says the sport has a solid support base that has contacted politicians.
While the UFC will likely survive whether or not the sport is sanctioned in New York, Ratner says holding an event in New York City is uniquely necessary. “Whether it’s business, sports, or entertainment, to the world, that’s where everything revolves around.”