With Congress unable to pass healthcare reform or immigration reform, and with tax reform at risk of going down, some in Congress have turned their sights to increasing regulation of sports.
In 2000, with the passage of Ali Act, Congressional oversight was extended to boxing. Since boxing, unlike baseball, football, basketball, and other professional sports, is not governed by a single majority league or association, the law was written to protect boxers from exploitation, rigged rankings, and rigged matches. With the sudden growth of MMA fighting in the last decade, the question of whether to add MMA fighters to the Ali Act has been brought before a congressional committee. It’s an issue that divides many figures in the same industry and demonstrates the complex regulations governing American sports.
Although both boxing and MMA are combat sports, the rules governing them are very different. Federal laws protect boxers from being forced to sign coercive contracts that require them to sign an extension before being allowed to fight in a particular event. Boxing matches must also be supervised by a state or tribal boxing commission and must meet certain safety specifications. At present, MMA fights are not held to any of these rules. Increasingly, state regulators and fighters are pressuring for Congress to step in to stop league practices they deem abusive.
“As one of the longest serving state regulators in the country, I firmly believe that all pro-fighters, just like their pro counterparts in other sports, deserve to be treated, particularly financially, on a level playing field and deserve the right to request certain financial information that can enable them to make a more informed decision about their fighting careers,” said Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, in testimony before a House subcommittee on Thursday.
Sirb encouraged the representatives to amend the Ali Act to include oversight of MMA fighters, saying that in the current system, regulations can vary widely between states. While regulations between states may vary, the sport’s promotion is heavily dominated by a single company: UFC. UFC captures more than 90 percent of the revenue generated by MMA fights. Much of this money comes from the 13-16 pay per view events it produces each year.
Despite UFC generating annual revenues of over $600 million, fighters say that they see little of this money under the current system. Instead, they struggle to compete in a system that lacks objective rankings. Randy Couture, a six-time MMA world champion, claims that the UFC uses this to pressure athletes into signing contracts with the UFC in order to be allowed to compete for titles. Even then, these titles are considered “ceremonial,” meaning that the league can strip a fighter of his title at any time.
“A promoter’s ability to write fighters in and out of rankings arbitrarily serves to drastically reduce a fighter’s marketability and leverage,” said Couture. “This practice is rampant in MMA, impugns the integrity of the sport, and serves to strip fighters of virtually all negotiating leverage at the time their marketability should be at its peak.”
“Sanctioning bodies bring consistency to a sport — the kind of consistency that fans can understand and root for,” wrote fighter Jon Fitch in an op-ed this week. “These entities manage the sport by creating a uniform set of rules and ensuring the members follow those rules. It is the reason sports are able to function, grow, and thrive.”
The UFC defends itself against these accusations by arguing that its leadership was necessary to grow MMA into the multi-million dollar industry it is today. Under the UFC, MMA adopted a consistent set of rules and developed state and tribal regulations under which fights proceed today.
“A very small minority of fighters have urged this Committee to enact legislation because of some perceived unfairness. The contrary is true,” said Marc Ratner, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs at the UFC. “The UFC is the undisputed leader in how it supports athletes, and promotes athlete health and performance. Because there are many competitive promoter options for MMA athletes around the world, UFC does everything it can to be the prime destination for top tier talent.”
The UFC argues that the problems, like self-dealing and conflicts of interest, that plagued boxing in the 1990s and which led to the enacting of the Ali Act are not taking place in today’s MMA world. Other fans of the sport agree. Boxing had a long history of injuries to fighters and a record of questionable ethics when Congress stepped in with the Ali Act. So far state level regulation has prevented either of these from becoming a concern in the world of MMA, in part because the UFC has worked with area commissions to develop safe practices.
Congressional regulation would allow federal regulators to exercise a great deal of authority over how the sport is run, including whom fighters fight and where these matches take place. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R., Okla., himself a former part-time MMA fighter, has pushed for regulation of the sport and for fighters to form a union. Other unions, including the Mixed Martial Arts Fighting Association (MMAFA) and the Teamsters Local 986 have also backed the bill.
However, Mullin’s involvement in the legislation has led some observers to see his push for Congressional oversight as more of a personal grudge than anything the sport wants or needs. Writing for National Review, John Fund suggests that the law also has support from trial lawyers with union ties who have already targeted the UFC with lawsuits.
“If it’s not broken, why bring the feds into ‘fixing’ MMA all the way down to the level of matchmaking?” he asks. “One possible answer is that a powerful group of trial lawyers has often clashed with UFC’s vision of the sport and has even launched an antitrust suit against it. Rob Maysey is one of the leading attorneys in the lawsuit and at the same time is also a leader of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighting Association (MMAFA), the union that wants to hobble MMA and increase its power over their fighters.”
What that means for the future of the sport is less clear. This is the second year that Congress has hosted a hearing on MMA fighting. Last summer, sixteen groups including the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the American Conservative Union, and the National Center for Public Policy Research sent a letter to the committee chairman, arguing that the legislation was of dubious necessity and shaky constitutionality.
“This legislation also tramples the principles embodied in Article 1 and the 10th Amendment of the Constitution,” they wrote, criticizing the bill for directing a private entity (the Association of Boxing Commissions) to write regulations to be adopted by state boxing commissions.
“We have long been concerned about Congress’ bad habit of delegating broad unaccountable authority to federal regulatory agencies,” the letter continued. “Rep. Mullin’s idea takes this bad idea several steps further. He would delegate broad unaccountable authority to a private entity and have state agencies adopt those regulations. This is an affront to our constitutional order.”
Given the long list of issues on Congress’s plate right now, developing oversight for MMA fights is hardly a top priority. Still, the second set of hearings shows that for at least one representative, the sport remains a central issue, perhaps tied to some bad blood. What that means for fighters and fans, however, is still to be seen.