New York Governor Introduces MMA Bill


The push to legalize mixed martial arts in New York is now being led by the state’s top official.

Governor David Paterson unveiled a state budget proposal Tuesday that includes a bill that would nullify a 13-year-old ban on MMA in the Empire State as a way of raising sorely needed revenue.

“Currently, 40 States safely regulate the sport of mixed martial arts and enjoy local and statewide economic benefits associated with the conduct of mixed martial arts events,” reads a summary from Paterson’s office of his revenue proposals. “While New York’s ban on professional combative sports would be removed, conduct of the sport would be carefully regulated.”

Paterson’s proposal means that legalization of MMA will be taken up as part of the annual state budget process, which has to be completed by April 1. The timeline is much stricter than it would be if an individual legislator proposed it.

If the Assembly passes the bill by April 1, Marc Ratner, the UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, said that it could take five to six months for the New York State Athletic Commission to get up to speed and the earliest a MMA event could be held in New York would be fourth quarter of this year.

A budget summary from the governor’s office estimates that legalizing MMA will put $2.1 million in the state’s coffers in the 2010-11 fiscal year, which runs from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011. New York is facing an estimated $7.5 billion budget deficit. Paterson’s legislation proposes an 8.5 percent gate tax on MMA events, one of the highest in states where the sport is regulated. The bill that passed in neighboring Massachusetts last month imposes a 4 percent gate tax, as does Nevada. New York’s gate tax for boxing events is 3 percent. UFC brass scoffed at an earlier New York proposal that called for a 10 percent gate tax.

The Assembly still has to debate the bill and vote to approve it. Only one member of the 150-member Assembly, Bob Reilly of the state’s 109th district, has been outspoken in his intent to vote against MMA legalization. Reilly’s disapproval stalled progress of the bill in an Assembly committee two years ago; last year the bill didn’t get to a vote because of a political stalemate unrelated to MMA.

The effort to legalize in New York has been the most palpable of that in any other state, with everyone from promoters to lobbyists to documentary filmmakers pushing it. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has held only event in New York, UFC 7 in 1995 in Buffalo, headlined by a Ken Shamrock vs. Oleg Taktarov superfight.

The UFC, under its prior owners Semaphore Entertainment Group, managed to get the sport legalized in New York in 1996 through the help of prominent lobbyist James Featherstonhaugh.

But a series of articles in The New York Times, coupled with an announcement by the defunct Extreme Fighting organization that it planned to run in hallowed Madison Square Garden, put pressure on politicians to justify their votes in favor of a still-unrefined sport. Soon Governor George Pataki was proposing a ban, and nearly every Assembly member who had voted to legalize the sport changed their positions. The ban was passed in 1997. The activity forced the last-minute relocation of UFC 12 from Niagara Falls to Dothan, Alabama.

Pataki has since had a public change of heart. "With more rigorous oversight, training and medical requirements -- mixed martial arts has made considerable strides to ensure the safety of participants,” he said recently through a spokesman.

Paterson’s bill legalizes MMA by adding “professional mixed martial arts” to sections of state law that govern athletic commission oversight of boxing, and adds some new sections specific to MMA.

The bill calls upon an advisory board to draft regulations and standards for the physical examinations of MMA fighters as well as boxers. It also calls for the board to advise the commission on “any study of equipment, procedures or personnel which will, in their opinion, promote the safety of boxing participants and mixed martial arts participants.”

In addition to the gate tax, the bill also imposes a $500 fee on promoters who acquire a license to hold an MMA event. Promoters must also pay license fees, which vary depending on the size of the arena in which they will promote, from $500 (not more than 2,500 seats) to $3,500 (more than 25,000 seats). Fighters would be charged a $50 license fee.

The bill has its quirks.

It bans MMA fights from buildings “wholly used for religious services.” It also requires anyone seeking a commission license to submit fingerprints so the commission can run a criminal background check. The commission can suspend or revoke the license of someone convicted of a crime or who “has not acted in the best interests of mixed martial arts.” It also requires promoters to list ticket prices on every poster and advertisement.

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