Call it what you like -- barbaric, violent, loud, abusive, exploitative. No, we are not talking about Jersey Shore. We are talking about Mixed Martial Arts, or more specifically the UFC experiential version of MMA, which, unlike Snooki and friends, still cannot be held in the State of New York. However whether you love it or you hate it, for the right business reasons, it really is time that the state of New York legalize professional MMA at least in a limited manner or number of venues.
Just like the sport itself, you can either love or hate UFC frontman Dana White. And just like the sport, he has made a great effort to clean up his act, even tone it down a bit in a move that is both strategic and smart business for his brand and his backers, especially the ultra loyal Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Heck, White's work will take him to Oxford University, where he will speak this month, before bringing him to New York to accept an award on November 18 to accept the "Game Changer Award" for Promax BDA's first annual Sports Media Marketing Awards. All for a sport that still can't catch a break in the Empire State.
Why is MMA still on the outs in Albany? A few reasons. New York was one of the first states to ban the sport in its rough and tumble heyday, and the cost/benefit to bring it has been minimal until the last few years. Former Governor Eliott Spitzer was part of the group who brought the ban in, and his brother, a prominent neurosurgeon, always saw the injury factor as way too high. Then you had America's strongest boxing lobby pushing against a reinstatement, as boxing, even in its smallest venues, still was a money maker in New York and had no interest in sharing the fighting dollar with MMA.
Even with the lobbying that the UFC has invested in, the state still has been slow to react. Let's face it, in a challenged economy where people are fighting for jobs and a governorship hangs in the balance, the approval of professional cage fighting should not be a high priority for lawmakers. There is also the factor that the sport at its biggest overall impact level... at the grassroots in hundreds upon thousands of gyms... is a viable and thriving training sport across the state. So the only area that isn't legal yet is at the highest point. It is a thriving business in New York, just not as a spectator sport yet.
So where is the benefit in legalizing professional MMA for New York? It really lies in the venues and not just in the ones like Madison Square Garden or HSBC Arena in Buffalo, two places where the UFC, and probably the UFC experience alone, will stand to benefit. Like boxing, smaller, regulated MMA events could help fill casinos, small arenas and ballrooms that have distressed nights and need ancillary income for very small shows.
In truth, if the lesson holds true from other cities, the UFC will swoop in, fill a multi-million dollar gate and pay per view with a high action show at MSG, and then swoop away and won't be seen live in the area for another 18 months to two years. That's the model, much like the WWE, that works. Create the experience and build the anticipation over time, satiate the crowd, and then come back when the market is primed again. Don't overfeed the audience. Look at Atlanta, Boston, Philly, Chicago... all major markets, and that's the UFC model. Come back, but not too soon.
So that leaves the smaller venues and the smaller shows, all looking to perpetuate the idea that MMA is "hot" at the professional level and there is a pot of gold that comes with setting up a ring or a cage and throwing fighters in there. Yes that will bring rental fees and probably some concession sales, but it is a long way from what the UFC draws, and a long way from what the UFC spent carrying the smaller events on their backs for years building what is perceived as MMA. It is not. There are two things. The UFC experience... the big event... and then there is professional MMA outside of the UFC, which is what still worries lawmakers.
However, that worry should not deter the cursory moves of making the sport legal and regulated and regulated closely. As in other states, the commission from the State would oversee the rules and drug testing and venue control and work to keep out the gold rushers. Will some cry poverty and oppression and say the UFC is lobbying against them? Yes, and it may actually be true, as the UFC has built a standard now of professional, expensive to produce, experiential shows. However this is a business, with high stakes, even lives, at risk, and it should not be trifled at. If you can afford to spend and meet the rules across the board, great. If not, then you don't deserve the chance, especially at the start when the sport will be scrutinized by officials, naysayers, media and on and on.
At the end of the day it is violent, it is extreme in many ways, and it is not for everyone. But it is a business that has taken great lengths to minimize issues and clean itself up, and it is time for New York to give it a fighting chance.
Follow Joe Favorito on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joefav