Once the political mess in Albany is cleared up and the Senate gets back to business (and who really knows when that will be), advocates and lobbyists will be rushing to sign countless bills into law before the end of session. Some issues are high-profile (like gay marriage), but others you might never have heard of — like S2165A, a proposal to legalize the mixed-martial-arts, pay-per-view bonanza better known as Ultimate Fighting. Yes, cage fighting in Madison Square Garden.
As the state budget deficit plunges, supporters of the bill say that New York is losing out on the badly needed revenue that mixed martial arts could bring. According to a perhaps self-serving study conducted by Ultimate Fighting Championship (the Las Vegas–based promotional company that’s spent tens of thousands on donations to lawmakers, lobbyists, and consultants in recent years), one sell-out event at the Garden, where average tickets cost $200 apiece, could bring in roughly $955,000 in local and state taxes — not to mention help hotels, restaurants, and local merchants.
But what the study doesn’t account for is how Ultimate Fighting will cost the state. There’s regulation, which would be handled by the New York State Athletic Commission — a historically underfunded patronage mill that will have to hire more staff and spend countless resources to train and retrain new teams of doctors, referees, and judges.
There are also medical bills: To ensure safety standards and reduce costs for promoters, the state now subsidizes brain scans, eye tests, and heart exams for boxers; the medical bills for each boxer that steps foot in a New York ring comes out to roughly $650 per boxer per year (it’s hard to imagine taxpayers too thrilled about having to pay for the medical tests of Ultimate Fighters from Alabama or California who are stopping by New York to literally kick the shit out of one another).
And then there’s the economic effect on depressed upstate towns: Opponents of the bills argue that selling popcorn and other ancillary things at Ultimate Fighting matches won’t encourage sustained economic development — the money is transient and mostly profits the mixed-martial-arts promoter — the biggest being UFC, whose owners run a casino empire in Las Vegas that has been staving off bankruptcy.
If the legislation passes, New York will make out slightly better than other states that have legalized Ultimate Fighting: 8.5 percent of all ticket sales for matches, and 3 percent for all television rights and pay-per-view proceeds — but it’s capped at $50,000. Granted, the only state that’s wrangled a better deal is New Jersey, which has a $100,000 cap on television proceeds. Still, that’s popcorn kernels compared to what UFC has been taking in: In 2007, some $23 million in pay-per-view sales per show. To put a $50,000 cap on a single event that could actually bring in as much as $23 million? That’s quite a catch.