October 16, 2017

Budget woes delay efforts to woo mixed martial arts, boxing bouts

Photo | Will Paul, CESMMA.com
Photo | Will Paul, CESMMA.com
Photo | Will Paul, CESMMA.com
Matt Bessette is a Hartford mixed martial arts fighter who is presently the featherweight Classic Entertainment & Sports champion.
Photo | Will Paul, CESMMA.com
Classic Entertainment & Sports is planning fight events, like the one above, in Hartford.
Photo | Khoi Ton, Mohegan Sun
Mohegan Sun has hosted Bellator MMA events like this one in Mohegan Sun Arena.
Photo | Will Paul, CESMMA.com
Carlos Candelario is a New Britain native who fights in mixed martial arts events.

Playing Catch-up

While Connecticut's laws previously made it financially difficult to host boxing and mixed martial arts bouts in the state, Boston and New York City have been home to fight nights for years.

In testimony to the General Assembly earlier this year, Jeff Novitzky, vice president of athlete health and performance for Las Vegas-based MMA promoter UFC, outlined the economic impact to Connecticut's big-city neighbors.

In Boston several years ago, he said, UFC netted $8.9 million in total economic output, $2.8 million in salaries and wages, and $230,000 in taxes.

Most recently in New York City UFC generated $37.4 million in economic output and $18.3 million in compensation, he said.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters can begin kicking and punching in cities like Hartford and Bridgeport once the verbal sparring ends in the statehouse and lawmakers agree on a budget the governor will sign.

At least one MMA promoter is ready to host a bout at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford as early as January and the Capital City could soon host its first professional boxing match in years. First, though, Connecticut must get its fiscal house in order with a new budget and allocate funds for hosting fights that, until a new law that took effect Oct. 1, previously only made financial sense for promoters to do at tribal casinos.

When financial clarity returns to state departments, including one regulating combat sports like boxing and MMA, promoters and venues like the Connecticut Convention and XL centers in Hartford and Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport are expected to try to ink bouts they say will please fans and generate money for venues, employees and surrounding bars, restaurants and hotels. Venues are already speaking with promoters about dates and other details for possible future fights.

"The Convention Center is ready to go, we're ready to go, I think the state of Connecticut is very ready to go," said Jimmy Burchfield Sr., president and owner of North Providence, R.I.-based Classic Entertainment & Sports Inc. (CES), which promotes MMA and boxing matches.

He's hoping to hold a boxing event at the Convention Center Dec. 2 and MMA event the following month, pulling from about 40 to 50 fighters it has under contract in each sport. He said CES, which has been promoting boxing for 25 years and MMA since 2010, is the largest promotional company in New England. It also has promoted numerous bouts at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.

Burchfield planned an MMA event at the Convention Center Nov. 17, televised on Mark Cuban-founded AXS TV, with which CES has a TV agreement, but a kibosh on new state spending has delayed CES's MMA action until 2018.

Regulation of MMA and boxing events requires full-time and per-diem staffing within the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection and in light of funding uncertainty and limited available resources, requests to hold fights are not being approved at this time, according to the agency's spokeswoman, Kelly Grant.

MMA and boxing promoters are interested in bringing bouts to Connecticut after legislation, H.B. 6266, passed earlier this year brought fighter health insurance requirements more in line with the rest of the country. MMA has been allowed in Connecticut since 2013, but cost prohibitive for promoters outside of tribal casinos, which operate under their own government rules and have regularly held MMA events since 2002, when Mohegan Sun Arena hosted a UFC bout.

The new law essentially eliminates the requirement that MMA promoters remain liable, in perpetuity, for any healthcare costs related to injuries a fighter incurs during a regulated bout in the state.

Instead, MMA promoters must provide health insurance coverage of at least $20,000 and death benefits of at least $50,000. The new law also eliminates the 5 percent gross receipts tax boxing and MMA promoters must pay.

Proponents said the new law will give nontribal venues an equal shot at MMA events.

"This change will level the playing field and allow all venues in Connecticut, not just the casinos, to compete for a variety of MMA events," Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, which operates the XL and Convention centers, said in testimony favoring the bill.

Officials at Mohegan Sun, which has enjoyed success with MMA for years and has a bout planned Oct. 20 put on by promoter Bellator, are confident their history with MMA will serve them well as more arenas enter the MMA ring.

"We are always aware and cognizant of competitive influences that could impact our business," said Ray Pineault, president and general manager of Mohegan Sun. "While other venues may enter into this field of sports entertainment, we are confident in our relationships, our team and all our venue has to offer."

Bellator MMA is the most frequent and popular MMA promotion Mohegan Sun hosts, he said.

Fighter protections are also paramount in tribal bouts, said Mike Mazzulli, director of the Mohegan Tribe's Department of Athletic Regulation and president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports. He was on the ground floor of MMA regulation for states and tribes.

"We're as stringent on the MMA end as we are on the boxing end," Mazzulli said. "At the end of the day it's all about the protection of the fighter and the safety."

MMA expected to be moneymaker

The Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau estimated 16 MMA bouts would generate more than $5 million in hotel, sales and admissions taxes for the state per year, Freimuth said last winter.

Mohegan's Pineault said the Bellator bouts, with their recognizable fight cards, generate significant ticket sales and also have a positive impact on businesses at Mohegan Sun and in the surrounding region.

"Dining, bars (and) lounges and hotel revenue are all positively impacted," Pineault said. "The event demographics are predominantly male aged 21 all the way up to 50 and on a broader scale, Mohegan Sun receives significant TV media value for our Bellator events, as they're frequently broadcasted on SpikeTV, with viewership often over 1 million households."

Previous insurance rules made it financially unworkable to even approach promoters for MMA bouts, said Chris Lawrence, XL Center's general manager.

"We couldn't even pick up the phone and have a conversation" about hosting bouts, Lawrence said. "This allows us to have conversations around dates and deal points."

The XL Center is talking with promoters and hopes to have a bout next year, but nothing is solidified yet, Lawrence said. XL Center, one of many arenas managed by Spectra by Comcast Spectator, can also leverage relationships its sister arenas have with MMA promoters, he said.

"We're definitely out being aggressive to see what we can land," Lawrence said.

Webster Bank Arena also is working to land MMA bouts. Charlie Dowd Jr., senior vice president of operations, is hopeful for a 2018 date.

"We continue to pursue a relationship with UFC," Dowd said. "We've talked to some other providers. They're very much in demand, so we're hoping that we can find dates that coordinate that make sense for everybody involved."

Michael Costelli, general manager of the Connecticut Convention Center, hopes to have four to six MMA events a year at the facility, plus two to three boxing matches.

"I fully expect this facility to be — if not the first — one of the first venues that hosts an MMA event," Costelli said.

The Convention Center isn't large enough to host UFC, but strong regional promoters like CES are a good fit, he said.

Costelli also believes MMA will help rekindle interest in boxing in Hartford. He viewed the recent boxing match between champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and champion MMA fighter Conor McGregor as good for both sports.

"I think boxing kind of gets reintroduced to the MMA folks and vice-versa," he said. "To me that's a huge benefit to the sport."

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