The Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as UFC, has been a huge hit with audiences across America -- and around the world. UFC is the largest Pay-Per-View event provider in the world, claims a global audience of over 1 billion and is broadcast in over 149 countries and territories, in 30 different languages.
But, to date, UFC hasn’t been able to get a license in New York, home to Madison Square Garden, a.k.a. ‘the World’s Most Famous Arena’ and the scene of some of history’s greatest boxing matches -- as well as pro and amateur wrestling, and Muy Thai kickboxing.
“We’re legal in 49 of 50 states and everywhere else around the world,” UFC chairman & CEO Lorenzo Fertitta tells me in the accompanying video. “It’s strange, odd – the only place we’re not allowed is New York.”
Even stranger, perhaps, is why UFC hasn’t (yet) made it here: Union opposition from across the country with no link to athletics of any kind.
“The only opposition is the culinary union – Local 226 in Las Vegas,” Fertitta says. “They are the ones applying pressure, lobbying in the open to the Democratic caucus to try and prevent this sport from being legalized.”
The back-story here is Fertitta is also co-owner of Las Vegas-based Station Casinos, which happens to be a non-union shop. “Our employees have determined they don’t need a third-party to represent them,” he says, noting Station Casinos has repeatedly been named to Fortune’s list of ‘Best Companies to Work For.’
“The culinary union has not been successful organizing our team members, so they bring the fight to other areas and try to harass us in other businesses,” Fertitta says. “They’ve found a point of leverage in New York with the ability to hold up the process here.” (As with his casino employees, Fertitta says the decision by UFC fighters on whether or not to unionize is "clearly up to them.")
According to the casino owner and MMA-magnate, UFC has enough support in the New York State Assembly to get approval -- the state Senate has passed a bill in four-consecutive years -- but politicians sympathetic to the union, namely Speaker Sheldon Silver, are preventing a vote from reaching the floor.
Separate calls to Speaker Sheldon’s office and Las Vegas Local 226 seeking comment had not been returned as of this writing.
Noting a similar bill passed the New York State Senate, Fertitta is “hopeful” the Assembly will allow the New York State Athletic Commission to regulate UFC events.
“We’re saying ‘regulate the sport, protect the athletes, tax us’,” he says. “We’ll generate economic impact for the cities -- and not just New York City; places like Buffalo and Syracuse that are hurting.”
If approved, UFC would generate $135 million in annual economic impact for New York State, according to a report from HR&A Advisors. Fertitta calls that analysis – which was done by the UFC’s request – “conservative”.
As fate would have it, one of the sports biggest stars – Georges St.-Pierre (a.k.a. GSP) is French Canadian – and Fertitta all-but guarantees Canadian tourists would “pack the city” if UFC came to Buffalo or Syracuse or Rochester.
But will GSP fight again? The legendary star’s future was put in doubt after his highly controversial win – an emotional post-fight press conference -- at UFC167 last Saturday.
Watch the video above for Fertitta’s view on what’s next for GSP.