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MMA News: Bill to Legalize MMA in New York Remains Stalled by Bureaucracy & Feuds

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First Posted: May 08, 2014 11:01 AM EDT
Bjorn Rebney
Bjorn Rebney, founder, chairman and CEO for Bellator Fighting Championships, supports the legalization of MMA in the state of New York but says that the feud between the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas and Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta is major stumbling block too passing a bill through the New York state legislature. (Photo : Getty Images/ Ben Gabbe)

While a mixed martial arts (MMA) bill continues to languish in New York's senate and assembly, the state continues to miss out on $67 million in annual spending, according to HR&A Advisors, Inc., which help relieve the state's $1.7 billion deficit.

"We are the only state where professional MMA is illegal and banned. New York is not living up to its sports tourism potential," says State Senator Jose Peralta (D). "Legalizing MMA creates jobs, enhances tourism, boost businesses for hotels, retaurants, and puts money into the pockets of all New Yorkers. We need to get into that flow."

New York banned MMA, one of 36 other states, in 1997 because the sport was was deemed too dangerous because of its lack of rules -- with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) describing it as a "human cockfight." Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), working with the athletic commissions around the country, changed their rules and worked with the various state commissions to help lift their bans on the sport, with MMA now legal in every state and Canada except for New York.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been luke-warm about the subject. While he acknowledges that MMA is not "barbaric," he says he wants to know the specifics of the economic benefits hosting MMA would bring the state, telling the New York Daily News last year that “it’s about jobs. It’s about economics.” 

"My question is why should we do it?," said Gov. Cuomo. "The obvious answer is, well there will be an economic impact in the state and it will generate economic activity. That could be persuasive if it's true."

Yet despite reports such as HR&A Advisors, Inc., Gov. Cuomo has not pushed hard for state legislators to lift the ban.

Both political parties in the State Senate have passed bills to legalize MMA on various occasions, but the State Assembly, led by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D), has failed to put a bill up for a vote. Assemblyman Denny Farrell, Jr. (D) reintroduced a bill that would create licensing procedures, establish penalties for violations, tax on gross receipts for MMAs events, and create a Mixed Martial Arts Injury Compensation Fund.

"Every state has approved mixed martial arts. They run shows just about anywhere. You've got shows that generate revenue everywhere -- from hotel rooms, to restaurants, to the actual fights," says the founder, chairman and CEO of Bellator MMA, Bjorn Rebney, to Latin Post. "It's regulated appropriately by every state commission in the country. The New York State Athletic commission is one of the top athletic commissions in the country and would be able to regulate the sports at a drop of a hat."

When contacted by Latin Post, Farrell's office said that the bill is still being reviewed by the state assembly's Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee, with no further update on a potential vote.

One of the biggest obstacles in the legalization of MMA is Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas, who have Silver's back via the union's parent organization UNITE HERE. Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas has waged a war against against UFC chairman/CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank, who own a non-union casino in Las Vegas and have refused a card-check vote -- a public "yay" or "nay" vote to begin their unionization process. Although the culinary union is based out of Las Vegas, Silver is skittish about angering their New York allies.

"I think it's pretty obvious to everyone what it really is, and it's funny that more people don't state it for what it is. The unions have a tremendous amount of power and influence in the state of New York, and the Fertittas have a horrible relationship with unions," says Rebney. "That is obviously the crux of the problem and the motivation between the lack of MMA in the largest media market in the entire United States. And for people to shy away from it or try to position it as something else is just inaccurate. And that's what it is, that's the problem at its core."

While Rebney is supportive of the legalization of MMA -- noting the boost to tourism, hotel industry and the restaurant industry -- and is aware that it would be great for his company, considering their Viacom partners are based in New York City, Rebney has taken a different approach in the struggle to legalize MMA in New York.

"I've stayed out of it, to a large extent, because I recognize that the issues that are prohibiting the sport here are so much bigger than my perspective or my opinion. I'm the chairman and CEO of the world's second largest MMA organization, largest tournament MMA organization in the world, an organization that is consistently beating the UFC -- Spike versus FS1 -- in the ratings. We're climbing very quickly from that perspective. I could spend 20 hours a day [in New York] and it's not going to move the needle in terms of getting sport into the state of New York," says Rebney.

"Anytime someone calls me to ask me, 'hey can you do this, can you speak on that,' I'd be more than happy to. But I'm smart enough to know that unions are very important to this country. They play too vital of a role in people's lives for them to back off, nor do I think they should back off in their fight that they are putting up against the Fertittas."

UFC, for their part, is self-aware of how business interests outside of the sport are influencing the politics behind putting a bill to lift the ban up for a vote, placing the onus on the union for preventing the state of New York from cashing in on allowing companies like UFC and Bellator to do business in the state.

"Culinary Local 226 has not been successful organizing our team members, therefore they take other tactics and follow us around in, not just New York, but other states where we do business," said UFC chairman/CEO Lorenzo Fertitta at the press conference at Madison Square Garden late last year. "They're the ones putting out these stereotypes, putting out this misinformation about the sport, about the participants of the sport, and the fans of this sport. We think it's absolutely unfair, and think it isn't right that a Las Vegas union should interjecting as far as what happens in New York."

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