The Ultimate Fighting Championship, mixed martial arts’ largest promoter, sued Tuesday to overturn New York’s ban on live bouts, saying the 1997 law runs roughshod over its freedom of expression, a novel argument that likens MMA to live ballet, music or theater.
Zuffa LLC, which owns the UFC, filed a lawsuit in US district court against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. seeking a declaration that the ban violates the First Amendment.
Spokesmen for Schneiderman and Vance declined to comment.
The company was joined in the lawsuit by fans and a group of mixed martial arts fighters, who "have suffered, and will continue to suffer, irreparable harm" under the ban.
"Live professional MMA is clearly intended and understood as public entertainment and, as such, is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit comes as the sport is broadening its audience. In August, Fox Broadcasting Co. and the UFC entered into a seven-year deal that includes four fights a year on broadcast television and will pay the promoter at least $100 million annually. (The first fight aired Saturday, and, according to Fox, drew 5.7 million viewers.)
UFC, which hosts its fights inside a chain-link cage dubbed "The Octagon," holds about 27 live events each year, according to the complaint.
While the arts are protected, no court has ever directly confronted the question of whether athletes have a First Amendment right to be seen in action, said Barry Friedman, a professor at New York University School of Law who is representing the plaintiffs.
"This is the first time to my knowledge that a professional athlete is claiming a First Amendment right to communicate with fans in a live event," said Friedman.
New York and Connecticut are two states with a ban on live MMA fights. Madison Square Garden and upstate venues have expressed support for hosting the fights, but UFC has been unsuccessful in lobbying the state legislature to overturn the ban, which passed about 15 years ago.
If the ban’s purpose is to curb "a message of violence," the lawsuit said, it "makes no sense" because New Yorkers can watch MMA on television.
Fox Broadcasting Co. is owned by News Corporation, which owns the Wall Street Journal and NewsCore.