Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in America, and it recently earned one more big fan — the state of Tennessee.
With economic development dollar signs in their eyes, the state Legislature approved the “Tennessee Athletic Commission Act of 2008” in its final hours this year. The act creates a new governing body to legalize and regulate the previously unregulated mixed martial arts industry in Tennessee.
Proponents say regulating mixed martial arts was a necessary step to lure large events — and the tens of millions of economic impact dollars that can come with them — to the state’s arenas.
Otherwise, promoters would not organize fights in Tennessee.
“We were simply told by (Ultimate Fighting Championship) officials and other large boxing promoters that take their events to Mississippi casinos that they just would not come in our state until we had the Tennessee Athletic Commission,” said Melissa Bast, a lobbyist for the FedEx Forum in Memphis. “People that were knowledgeable, knew the sport and were able to regulate the sport.”
Mixed martial arts is unarmed, full-contact combat that utilizes a variety of martial arts techniques as well as wrestling.
When large, mixed martial arts events come to town, supporters say millions of dollars in economic development come with it.
For example, Ed Clay, who operates Nashville’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy, said three UFC events in Ohio recently generated $30 million of economic development each. Other estimates are as much as $50 million for an event.
While attracting a larger event may be rare, supporters hope that smaller fight nights will take place and additional mixed martial arts-oriented gyms open in Tennessee.
“The biggest benefit for me is now we can have shows in Nashville,” Clay said.
CATCHING THE WAVE
The state’s entrance into the mixed martial arts octagon comes as the combat sports’ national prominence is spreading from a wildly popular niche spectator sport into the middle of the mainstream.
Saturday, CBS showcased mixed martial arts for the sport’s initial primetime feature on network television. The event drew blood from an ear as the result of a blow inflicted by fighter Kimbo Slice as well as drawing solid ratings for its time slot, especially among the younger viewers advertisers love to target.
Nashvillians registered the second-highest ratings in the country for the broadcast, receiving a 10.3 and being seen in nearly 100,000 households, according to USA Today. Oklahoma City had the highest ratings. CBS is reportedly planning more mixed martial arts broadcasts.
“That was the first time one of the networks has carried mixed martial arts, so that was a big breakthrough,” said state Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson), the main Senate sponsor of the legislation.
While Tennessee looks to join the mixed martial arts fray, other states have already beaten it to the punch. Clay estimated that mixed martial arts events are already legal in 36 states.
“We’re pretty behind on the times,” Clay said. “All of these other states are making money off of it.”
ECONOMY, FANS TO BENEFIT
Supporters of the mixed martial arts bill say it will contribute to state tax coffers as well as Tennessee’s economy. A large mixed martial arts production, while likely not occurring too often in Tennessee, is estimated to bring in tens of millions in economic impact.
Smaller events can now occur as well, the FedEx Forum’s Bast says, which could be a more constant stream of economic benefit. She said other leagues, organizations and promoters who want to come to Tennessee have already contacted the FedEx Forum and Sommet Center.
When those promoters come, the bill prescribes ways to aid the state’s coffers. Promoters have to pay a 4 percent gate tax of whatever their gross admission receipts are.
In addition, the bill imposes a broadcast fee to televise the events, which will be an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 for each televised fight night, Bast said.
For Sen. Jackson, there’s more to the legislation than economic development.
Jackson said the mixed martial arts bill would help a new sport flourish in Tennessee by giving “thousands and thousands of fans in Tennessee” a chance for their sport to be showcased here.
“We’re satisfying the desire of a large and growing fan base and at the same time we’re providing very important economic development opportunities for cities all across the state,” he said.
BOXING TO MMA
Prior to the mixed martial arts bill’s passage, Tennessee regulated its legal combat sports, which included boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, through a state boxing commission.
That board, however, was plagued by mismanagement and not authorized to regulate mixed martial arts, proponents of the mixed martial arts bill said.
Wanting to bring mixed martial arts to Tennessee, lobbyists were hired, beginning about two-and-a-half years ago. Then, a study committee was formed, and recommended legislation creating a new athletic commission was filed this year resulting from that panel’s work.
Bast, the central lobbyist on behalf of the bill, said lawmakers initially raised several questions regarding the fights.
“We found that many of the General Assembly lawmakers just simply didn’t know what mixed martial arts was and so we really had to take the time to educate them,” Bast said.
In addition, legislators questioned the state’s need for another combat sport when the boxing board was not fairing well financially, Bast said.
But over time, the legislation gained widespread acceptance and passed the General Assembly through overwhelming votes that were unanimous in some instances. It will abolish the boxing program, folding professional boxing under the new athletic commission’s purview.
While creating another governmental agency, the legislation is designed to be self-sustaining through license fee revenue.
The question of what to do with any excess revenue delayed the legislation’s ultimate passage as two Chattanooga-area state senators, Dewayne Bunch of Cleveland and Bo Watson of Hixson, wanted funds diverted to aid NCAA Division I wrestling programs.
It just so happens that UT-Chattanooga has the only Division I wrestling program in the state.
A last-minute compromise amendment was attached to the bill to allow as much as half of the excess fee revenue to fund a grant program to develop wrestling programs or maintain existing ones starting in 2010.