Vermont votes to regulate MMA in state
A decision by lawmakers in Vermont on Friday to regulate mixed martial arts delivered a timely boost to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), with top executives saying the move was one more step in the sport's long-term growth plan.
UFC executives were in New York to promote a series of fights that will be held Saturday night in New Jersey and broadcast live on network television, a big chance for mixed martial arts to win new fans. The news from Vermont brings to 46 the number of states that regulate the sport.
State approval is essential for UFC, which has to contend with critics who see it as a more violent and dangerous version of boxing. Presenting itself as a highly regulated, tightly governed sport is necessary as it seeks to attract mainstream audiences and corporate sponsors.
UFC president Dana White said Friday that MMA has made considerable progress over the years in changing perceptions, claiming it was regulated more than any other sport. He and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta have conceded that part of the stigma came from the fact that the UFC was seen as promoting violent, no-holds-barred cage fights before they purchased it in 2001.
Under White and Fertitta and Fertitta's brother, Frank, UFC has stayed away from holding fights in states that are not regulated.
"Without regulation, you don't have mandatory insurance, doctors, referees, judges. You don't know what you're getting, and that's why you need an athletic commission," said Marc Ratner, vice president of regulatory and government affairs for UFC.
That careful approach appears to be paying off. Saturday's fight card, broadcast live on FOX, will be supported by well-known brands including Bud Light, MetroPCS Communications Inc. and Dodge, something White said was unthinkable to many people a few years ago.
The four-fight main card will be just the third time UFC will appear on US network television. Part of UFC's seven-year deal with FOX -- signed in August and worth at least $100 million annually, according to media reports -- is for the network to show four fight cards a year. FOX Sports presents UFC programming, which includes the reality show "The Ultimate Fighter" on its FUEL and FX cable channels.
The network-TV stage gives UFC a chance to pull in casual fans as it tries to muscle onto the sports-broadcasting scene.
FOX's January UFC broadcast saw 4.7 million people tune in, one million less than its first UFC fight night in November. This year's National Basketball Association regular-season games on ABC averaged 5.4 million; the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs averaged 2.6 million viewers on NBC.
White is hopeful that showcasing events on network TV will make UFC more culturally relevant. "This is the formula that boxing got away from," he said. "When pay-per view came along, all the boxing guys got greedy and left the [network] model behind."
FOX's broadcast will be geared at newcomers to the sport, introducing the main card's eight fighters individually with short video biographies. Commentators will also explain in-fight moves and the strategies used by participants.
"We don't come at you like you're a hardcore fan," commented White. "We'll be explaining who the fighters are and why these fights are important to UFC."
Saturday's event will be held in East Rutherford, N.J. Because the state of New York still has not approved rules for MMA, UFC can't hold fights in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden -- host to some of the most famous boxing matches of all time. A fight card at MSG would be symbolically powerful for the sport, potentially raising its profile and adding legitimacy.
Fertitta shrugged off the importance to the sport of having a fights across the Hudson River. "Would we like to have New York regulate it? Yes. But do we need it? No," he said.
In the meantime, UFC executives say they are focused on continuing to expand internationally. UFC programming is in 149 countries and broadcast to almost a billion homes, in about 20 different languages, according to the organization.
"We just came from Stockholm, and the month before we were in Sydney and Tokyo," Ratner remarked. "We were in Rio de Janeiro in January, and we're going back to Brazil. The UFC is growing unbelievably internationally. This is an international sport."
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