The UFC has made tremendous strides to get the sport of mixed martial arts legalized and regulated almost everywhere in America (and many places outside of it). As a result of its work with the various legislatures and athletic commissions to educate government officials and members of the public about the sport, the UFC and its competitors are now able to promote MMA cards in 49 U.S. states. Notably absent from the list, due both to its unique nature as the lone holdout and its jurisdiction over the country’s No. 1 media market, is the State of New York, where MMA not only remains unregulated, it remains illegal.

In an effort to get the state—and its 7.5 million-person New York City Nielsen Designated Market Area—in the MMA fold during the state legislature’s 2014 session, the UFC sent its chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta to the Big Apple to state the company’s case once more. Fertitta, along with a group of the UFC’s top fighters and other backers of MMA’s legalization in New York, conducted a press conference last week at prestigious Madison Square Garden where they laid out some pretty persuasive economic projections.

According to a study put together by HR&A Advisors Inc., legalizing MMA in New York would generate upwards of $135 million in annual economic activity in the state within four years. The UFC promised to hold five annual events in New York—three upstate in cities like Buffalo and Syracuse and two downstate at places like Madison Square Garden or Brooklyn’s Barclays Center—and to open a company-owned MMA training center. This says nothing of the dozens of other non-UFC MMA cards that would take place in New York and the increase in training centers generally speaking throughout the state.

Nevertheless, the sport’s legalization in the Empire State is far from a foregone conclusion. For a host of reasons, the UFC and its allies have not yet been able to gather enough votes from New York’s elected officials to change the laws, which have been on the books since then-Governor George Pataki instituted the ban in 1997, years before MMA’s concerted attempts at regulation and eventual acceptance into the mainstream sporting community.

The most controversial reason has to do with conflicts between the Fertittas (Lorenzo and brother/UFC owner Frank, who also own a group of casinos in and around Las Vegas) and the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas, which has long attempted to bring the casinos’ employees under its umbrella. At least one report insinuates the union has used its influence to hold up the UFC’s efforts to legalize MMA in New York by appealing to the state’s more Labor-friendly legislators. No doubt the sport’s violent history, the bad press it generated during its earliest years and New York’s rich boxing history have also given certain elected officials pause, and it’s likely a combination of all of these factors that has kept MMA underground in New York.

The UFC will obviously continue to try to appeal to those members of the Assembly and state Senate who are on the fence, since the money the company spends in this area would be returned to its bank account with significant interest if the efforts of Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White and their supporters are eventually successful. At the end of the day, though, it’s worth noting that New York needs the UFC more than the UFC needs New York.

If MMA is made legal in New York, it amounts to little more than a feather in the UFC’s cap. Sure, the UFC will stand to make a lot of money with five yearly shows in the state, two of which would take place in large arenas in the country’s most densely populated metropolis, but New York’s absence is not currently preventing the company from promoting as many cards as it can effectively produce. Since 2004, the company has put on more shows each year than the previous, culminating in 2013 with 33 live events. Fertitta says that number will increase to 46 in 2014, even despite New York’s continued prohibition.

Through UFC 167, the promotion has held 253 live events, just one of which (UFC 5) was in New York. Adding on the four more 2013 shows and the 46 planned for 2014, and the company is slated to have put on 303 cards by the end of next year. While the UFC would surely like to include New York venues in that number, thus achieving nationwide legalization and the increased public cache that comes from holding a major sporting event in Madison Square Garden, it won’t have any problems finding other venues elsewhere in the country to showcase its fighters if the state’s elected officials maintain their current stance. In short, the UFC has done just fine without New York, and will continue to thrive regardless of whether MMA is legalized there or not.

On the other hand, New York would be foolish to turn away the money and job creation that MMA’s legalization would bring. The state will begin its 2014 legislative session running at a $1.7 billion deficit. The UFC’s eventual economic contribution would relieve nearly 10 percent of that amount, and continue to do so on a yearly basis. That’s no small number, considering all the state has to do is legalize a sport that’s already regulated in every other state and can annually be seen dozens of times on national television.

Economics aside, New York could use a shot in the arm when it comes to sports. Take New York City alone. Besides the Yankees, there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about. The Knicks have made the NBA Playoffs precisely five times since the 2000-01 season and as of this writing are an unimpressive 3-10 in the current campaign. The NHL’s New York Rangers have fared better, but their games would likely not attract attention beyond the metro area. Outside the city, you’ve got the Brooklyn Nets, who last season made the NBA Playoffs for the first time as a franchise since 2007, but are still in just their second year in New York. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres have not had consistent success for several years and, inherent to their locations outside the big city, are typically relegated to also-ran status nationally. Baseball’s New York Mets have not been good for a while, and the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets actually play their games in New Jersey.

Think that argument is a little thin? Fine. Let’s relegate it to just combat sports.

When was the last time a nationally significant boxing event took place in New York? Sure, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier put on a couple of legendary bouts at MSG, and the state certainly has had its share of thrilling combat, but since Roy Jones, Jr.’s retirement, boxing’s biggest stars have taken their talents elsewhere. Bernard Hopkins did have a fight in Brooklyn in early 2013, but he’s 48 years old and, all respect to “The Executioner,” has passed both his athletic and drawing prime. To put a finer point on it, neither Floyd Mayweather, Jr. nor Manny Pacquiao, currently boxing’s two biggest draws by far, have ever fought in New York.

Madison Square Garden did technically host Glory 12: New York, a world-class kickboxing event, last weekend, but the card was staged in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, a much smaller room that holds just a fraction of the main arena’s 20,000-person capacity. (Kickboxing events are allowed in New York because they’re not sanctioned by the state’s athletic commission.) The event was broadcast live on Spike and had the promotional power of a national cable network behind it in the weeks and months leading up to the card. Glory 12: New York featured some of the absolute best kickboxers in the world fighting in America’s largest city and still the promotion could only book a small room for the card.

Imagine how well a UFC event at Madison Square Garden would perform from a ticket-sales perspective. Forget the Theater, a UFC event with the proper headlining fight (which would unquestionably include one or more of the UFC’s absolute top stars) would sell out actual Madison Square Garden faster than you could say “millions in tax revenue to the state.” It would do the same thing in Brooklyn and would likely perform well in Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Long Island and anywhere else the UFC would decide to promote a fight card. Legalizing MMA in New York would revitalize the state’s fightsport prestige, and would only add to its already diverse panoply of professional athletic offerings. The UFC will be just fine without New York, but New York will miss out on hosting the best fighters in the world without the UFC.

Again, this is not to say the UFC should simply abandon its efforts to get MMA legalized in New York. Not only does the company stand to benefit financially through events and company-owned MMA gyms in the state, but, despite its diminished status in the world of combat sports, hosting a UFC event at Madison Square Garden would symbolize the sport’s complete integration into mainstream sports. It will ultimately be up to the state’s elected officials whether to ignore their previously held prejudices and join the rest of the country in our acceptance of MMA. Not only will doing so help the state’s finances, but the UFC will finally be able to promote a card in the city so nice they named it twice.

Manhattan is the other name.

Photo: The New York City Skyline (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.