Mixed martial arts entering the ring for state fight fans' attention
Published 4:51 pm, Sunday, September 1, 2013
It's the sport that launched a new cable station last month, the sport that's growing quickly in popularity.
And in a month, professional mixed martial arts will be legal in Connecticut for the first time. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill in July, and those involved hope final details will be resolved in time for the Oct. 1 legalization date.
It could then just be a matter of time before MMA comes to Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena or other venues around the state.
"Most venues our size are lucky to get one."
More InformationMIXED MARTIAL ARTS
WHAT IS MMA?: "Mixed martial arts," as it sounds, combines facets of boxing, wrestling and a variety of other techniques. Both men's and women's competitions are thriving in popularity. Professionally, the two big outfits are Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is hoping to bring shows to Connecticut, and Bellator, which runs tournaments to determine its champions and has been presenting cards at Mohegan Sun (and has one coming Saturday).
WHERE TO WATCH: UFC has pay-per-view specials on some Saturdays and Wednesday night cards on Fox Sports 1 (including this Wednesday at 7 p.m.), in addition to other related programming on Fox Sports 1 and 2 during the week. Bellator's card Saturday at Mohegan Sun airs on Spike TV at 8 p.m. Spike will air regular Friday night programs at 9 p.m. beginning Sept. 13. Bellator also has pay-per-view events.
ON THE WEB: UFC.com, Bellator.com
UFC, Harbor Yard and local legislators were among those who pushed to get the legislation approved to legalize the sport professionally in the state.
"We've talked to Howard and Charlie Dowd (Harbor Yard's vice president of operations) about the first or second quarter of 2014," said Mike Mersch, UFC's senior vice president and assistant general counsel.
"Everything's dependent on dates. ... If we can find the right dates, we're looking forward to working with the people of Bridgeport."
Across the state, there's a relationship that has worked well. The state's casinos, on tribal lands, have hosted shows; Bellator, one of the two biggest organizations promoting the sport, has a show at Mohegan Sun Arena coming on Saturday, its seventh visit.
That's among the longest relationships the company has with an arena, said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
"We've always had a tremendous response when hosting events at Mohegan Sun," Rebney said in an email. "The arena is beautiful, and the crowds keep coming back."
Saturday's card begins at 6 p.m., with a three-hour live show on Spike TV beginning at 8. It includes Bellator's middleweight world championship between Brett Cooper and Alexander Shlemenko, a bantamweight semifinal and several other bouts. Tickets range from $30 to $70.
Tom Cantone, recently promoted to senior vice president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, didn't disclose exact attendances for the MMA shows. He would say the events draw well enough to keep them coming.
"The relationship has been growing as MMA has been," Cantone said. The events draw mostly a regional crowd, Cantone said, "and a young male-oriented demo, which is also good for our Night Life programming after the event."
A regional market would work for UFC in Bridgeport, Mersch said, but they'll look beyond as well.
"Fairfield County, New York -- we can draw on those markets," Mersch said. "One of the nice things about our fans: They travel."
For a card in Las Vegas in June, he said, about 12 percent of ticket sales came from Brazil in support of one of the fighters. Canadian fans follow Georges St-Pierre.
The sport has similarities with boxing but incorporates, as the name suggests, different types of martial arts: karate, judo, wrestling and others.
With legalization came the need for regulation, rules, insurance. Mersch said he's confident all the details will be handled, leaving New York as the lone holdout in the nation.
"Nearly every other state in the U.S. has MMA events going on every single weekend," said Bellator's Rebney. "So for Connecticut to join that universally embraced practice will be a good thing. Nobody likes to be the odd man out."
Saffan and his staff pushed hard to get the bill through.
"What happens is, these things are immediate sellouts," Saffan said. "An arena like our size, the push will be on for television, Wednesday nights. Saturday stuff typically goes to major stadiums, arenas."
Fox Sports 1 debuted Aug. 17 with a UFC show from TD Garden in Boston, for instance.
But Mersch talked about UFC shows in arenas anywhere from 5,000 seats to an event at the Rogers Centre, the former SkyDome, in Toronto, seating 55,000. Webster Bank Arena's 10,000 fits the mold.
Other state venues could see events: "Absolutely, we would look to Hartford, the capitol area," Mersch said.
"But Bridgeport, with Sen. Andres Ayala sponsoring (the legislation), being a leader in getting the sport to Connecticut, with Howard and Charlie spending the effort to push it through -- it's not so much favoritism toward them as an appreciation of their efforts."
Ayala, a Democrat representing Bridgeport and Stratford, issued a press release after the bill passed in June that said he expects MMA to bring jobs and help the economy. The release said the state projects an event in Bridgeport to bring the state $150,000.
"This is the fastest growing sport in the nation, and the hundreds of thousands of Connecticut MMA fans are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to view these events in their home state," Ayala said in the statement.
But once arenas can bring shows to the state, it's up to them to make them work.
"This is not Las Vegas where the market (has a) constant influx of new transient business," Mohegan Sun's Cantone said.
"We operate in a highly repeat market. You have to be careful to program (the events) with enough space and time in between for everyone to do well enough to come back."