At long last, MMA is on its way to being legalized in New York State. It took a little over eight years for those words to become a reality, but Tuesday, the biggest hurdles were cleared for the UFC to begin holding events in the Empire State.
For UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein, one of the generals in the battle to get the sport legalized from December of 2007 to today, the wait was worth it.
“It was absolutely worth it, and we couldn’t be more excited about doing our first event in New York, and doing many, many more,” he said.
The MMA bill had passed through the Senate for the past seven years. But this year, the bill to legalize and regulate professional MMA in the state moved through the Assembly Democratic conference for the first time, and it passed through the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development by a vote of 15 to 5, the Assembly Committee on Codes by a vote of 16 to 5, and the Assembly Committee on Ways & Means by a vote of 25 to 7.
This set the stage for the bill to move onto the Assembly floor in Albany for a full vote on Tuesday afternoon, and it passed by a vote of 113 to 25.
So what’s next?
“The first thing that has to happen is that Governor (Andrew) Cuomo has to sign the bill, and he’s indicated that he is going to do that and hopefully he does that as soon as possible, because according to the legislation, a law does not go into effect until 120 days after the passage,” Epstein said. “The reason for that is the state needs the time to draft regulations to govern the sport, properly staff and train the athletic commission, which will now have jurisdiction over these events. So that’s going to be the next phase of this process.”
Luckily, the work the UFC has done in helping get the sport sanctioned and regulated throughout the United States and around the world will make this process a seamless one in terms of getting New York up to speed on regulating MMA.
“The good news for New York is that they’ve got hundreds of models out there to look at, so the process should be hopefully pretty straightforward for them.”
Once all the nuts and bolts are in place, the next step will be the one fans and fighters have been waiting years for – having an event in New York. And while the aesthetics of having a UFC event in the state are obvious, it’s even more important when it comes to the growth of mixed martial arts, a goal the promotion has always placed at the forefront.
“We are not just trying to grow the UFC,” Epstein said. “We’re trying to build and grow the sport of mixed martial arts. One of our goals as a company has always been the concept of making the sport of mixed martial arts a permanent part of the sports landscape in the United States and around the world. And when you’ve got a state law that arguably prevents it from taking place in a particular state that’s as big and as important as New York, that’s an important thing to take care of if you’re truly trying to build a sport for the long haul, and we are.”
As for the aforementioned aesthetics, what would be better than seeing a UFC event in the same Madison Square Garden that recently celebrated the 45th anniversary of the first Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali bout?
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“New York is a great market for us,” Epstein said. “We know that because we know the number of Pay-Per-Views that we do in the state. We know the television ratings that we garner from fans in the state, and New York has two distinct markets that are both really important to the UFC. One of course is New York City, which has Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. It’s an international city, the most important media market globally, obviously a trend setter globally, and that’s important for us because we’re going to be able to do big and important events in New York City.”
There’s more to the state than the Big Apple though, and the UFC is well aware that all New Yorkers are ready to see the Octagon come through their city.
“In western and upstate New York, cities like Buffalo and Rochester have really strong fan bases that live in those communities,” he said. “And second, they’re very, very close to Canada, so our Canadian fans can very easily come across the border and attend events in those cities also. So we’re really excited about that opportunity.”
As for the UFC as a business, the legalization of MMA in New York removes any remaining stigma around a sport that has been waging those wars in the media for years and opens the doors for the promotion – and the sport – to get even bigger in the coming years.
“We’ve been very, very successful in selling global and big national sponsors on the UFC brand,” Epstein said. “But having the sport that’s associated with our brand being illegal in an important market like the state of New York is not good for selling sponsorship. So obviously removing that stigma and removing that negative inference that comes with being banned in a state will open up and enhance both existing and new sponsorship opportunities for the UFC. Plus, from a regulatory standpoint globally, people do ask us when we’re in places like France or Asia, ‘what’s going on with New York? Why is the sport banned in New York?’ It hasn’t prevented other jurisdictions from actively regulating the sport, but the question is asked, and we want to have an answer to that question, which is it’s no longer banned in the state.”
It’s the news Epstein has waited over eight long years to tell the world. And even in the dark days, he knew he would get his chance.
“Absolutely. We’ve had this debate in every state in the United States, provinces throughout Canada and other jurisdictions, and with federations around the world. We’ve never ever lost a debate, because the facts are on our side. So I always thought this day would come. I thought it would come a few years earlier, but I’m still very excited that it has happened finally.”