As the sport of mixed martial arts has fought for the respect and market share enjoyed by the nation’s more established professional pastimes, the industry’s biggest player has found that money talks in the halls of Congress and in statehouses across the country.
Zuffa, the Las Vegas-based parent company of Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting, has opened its corporate wallet to protect its interests on Capitol Hill and to legalize, legitimize and sanction mixed martial arts, known to its rabid fans as MMA, in state after state, shelling out more than $1 million to political parties, lobbyists and powerful politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The investment has paid off handsomely.
When Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, co-owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, purchased the fledgling UFC for $2 million in 2001, MMA was banned in most states and had been branded by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, as “human cockfighting.” Since then, the Fertitta brothers pumped more than $40 million into the UFC and, with the help of colorful company President Dana White, worked to clean up MMA’s image, improve fighter safety and make the sport more appealing to the general public and politicians alike.
Along the way, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a D.C.-based lobbyist, and splashed cash in federal and state campaigns in Nevada, Illinois and anywhere else they hoped to gain a foothold.
Today, they have several powerful allies in Congress, 44 states sanction MMA events - whereas, just a dozen years ago, 36 states outright banned the sport outright - and Mr. White has put the value of the company at $2.5 billion.
The Fertitta brothers also have a successful reality-TV show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” on the Spike cable channel and a popular “UFC Undisputed” video game.
“I think on the business side, the first thing it takes to be a major sports player is fans, and the fan base they have had has been incredible and helpful to their cause,” said Makan Delrahim, a Zuffa lobbyist on Capitol Hill. State efforts to restrict MMA “are not major hills to climb because the fan support for the sport is so huge.”
Zuffa has significantly increased its political contributions and lobbying efforts in the last four years.
Since 2008, Zuffa has paid Mr. Delrahim’s employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, $720,000 to keep an eye on issues of concern in Congress. In particular, Zuffa’s owners have pushed for a crackdown on online piracy of the UFC’s pay-per-view events, which usually cost about $50.
Mr. Delrahim said the UFC does not enjoy the lucrative multimillion-dollar television contracts that networks have with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. Much of UFC’s revenues come from pay-per-view events.
Sitting on a panel with executives from Major League Baseball’s Internet media company and sports cable giant ESPN, Lorenzo Fertitta in December told the House Judiciary Committee that the UFC is potentially “losing out on tens of millions of dollars a year from piracy.”
UFC’s success “was threatened by the theft in retransmission of our live pay-per-view events,” which account for nearly half of its revenues, he told lawmakers.
Getting Washington to listen to the upstart sport’s problems “takes some resources,” Mr. Delrahim said.
UFC and its owners “don’t have the history that an NFL does or an NBA does or the types of political network that some of the NFL owners have had, like [Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry] Jones, for example, or [Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb] Kohl, who is an NBA owner. But they understand that there are some things that the political process and only the political process can help.”
On the state level, Zuffa successfully fought to get the Illinois General Assembly to sanction MMA in 2007, and at the same time made more than $30,000 in contributions to elected officials, including $7,500 to then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
But soon after the battle was over, Zuffa’s money went elsewhere - since August 2008, reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show that Zuffa and members of their family have not given Illinois lawmakers a penny.
On the national level, Zuffa officials contributed to Mr. McCain’s presidential bid in 2008 and recently padded the coffers of congressional leaders, including Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, and Mr. Reid, a Democrat who is likely the sport’s most powerful political ally, according to records from OpenSecrets.org.
In July, Mr. Reid and Mr. White held a contest in which a fan could sit in the front row with them at UFC 116, an event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena just outside Las Vegas that featured heavyweight champion and former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar. Before the event, Mr. Reid expressed his support in a post on his website.
“I’ve been a fight fan ever since I boxed as a young man, and the UFC’s impressive rise has certainly caught my attention,” he said. “UFC 116 at the MGM Grand will bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to Las Vegas, giving our local economy a real boost at a time when we really need it.”
MMA’s latest battle is in New York, where Zuffa officials are trying to overturn a 13-year-old ban on the sport, and have stepped up their campaign donations to the governor and his possible replacement, and to lobbyists and members of the state Legislature.
Campaign-finance records filed in New York show that about a month after embattled Gov. David A. Paterson received $25,000 from Zuffa, he rolled out a state budget proposal in January that relied in part on raising $2 million from MMA events to help close a $9 billion shortfall. The budget maneuver would have constituted a de facto end to the Empire State’s ban on the sport.
When that plan and other sanctioning proposals died, Zuffa pushed forward, sending $74,600 to Democratic state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s gubernatorial bid, $36,200 to the New York State Democratic Committee and smaller amounts to friendly state lawmakers in Albany.
The Cuomo campaign did not return calls seeking comment on whether he wanted to see MMA sanctioned to operate in the state.
But Mr. Reid has weighed in from his perch, urging New York to welcome the sport and telling a reporter this summer that “I’m going to see if I can talk a little sense to them.”
The whole business doesn’t sit well with one opponent, New York state Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a Democrat who has led the fight against sanctioning MMA fights. He said the campaign money is “a blatant attempt to influence lawmakers.”
Mr. Reilly, who represents an Albany suburb in the state Legislature, also said Mr. Reid’s comments trying to influence the state crossed a line.
“That I find out of bounds,” he said, “especially when you attach that to the money coming to Reid from the UFC and Zuffa.”
At stake is Zuffa’s long-standing desire to tap New York City’s media market, the largest in the world, and to bring the Octagon, the signature cage UFC fights are staged in, to the fabled Madison Square Garden.
For the UFC business team, putting on a show in the Big Apple would be the culmination of a decade-long push to gain mainstream acceptance and a place in the pantheon of professional American sports.
This isn’t the first time a combination of politics and safety concerns have threatened to derail a sport’s growth.
Following the deaths of three college football players and a rise in violent play, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 brought leaders from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House to discuss ways to clean up the game.
Months later, colleges created a new rules committee - the Intercollegiate Athletics Association of the United States. In the ensuing years, professional teams started sprouting up, and in 1920, the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to the National Football League, was founded in Canton, Ohio.
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