As mixed martial arts explodes, is Minnesota missing out?
As mixed martial arts explodes, is Minnesota missing out?
Promoters claim state commission hinders local scene
BY BRIAN MURPHY
Article Last Updated: 11/17/2007 11:57:31 PM CST
Around the country, the sport of mixed martial arts is packing in the fans and throwing off cash. And in mixed martial arts, it doesn't get bigger than the Ultimate Fighting Championship - the big leagues of a sport that is hot and keeps getting hotter.
"Wherever we go," said UFC executive Marc Rattner, "we set merchandising, beer and attendance records."
Like in Cincinnati, which hosted an event called UFC 77 in October and grossed more than $2.4 million in ticket sales.
When does Minnesota get a piece?
Rattner, the UFC's vice president of government and regulatory affairs, said his organization is in preliminary discussions with the Target Center to bring a pay-per-view event to Minneapolis.
And why not?
The Twin Cities ranks 24th among the 50 top U.S. markets for percentage of pay-per-view buys, a key factor for hosting one of the UFC's showcase events. Cincinnati, by comparison, is 25th for pay-per-view buys.
But mixed martial arts disciples say Minnesota is far behind competitor states in creating a viable local scene and making the sport lucrative for fighters, promoters and the state.
When it comes to the nation's hottest new sport, Minnesota is being left out in the cold, MMA followers say.
September's gunfire at Target Center during the Twin Cities' highest-profile MMA event has not helped. No one was injured in what police said was a domestic dispute. But one fight was delayed about 25 minutes as investigators cordoned off a crime scene.
As it was, the hastily organized promotion under the fledgling World Fighting Championship drew only 3,500 to the 19,000-seat arena.
The responsibility for improving Minnesota's MMA stature - if not creating one - goes to a former heavyweight boxer from Crosby-Ironton known as the "Fighting Frenchman."
He's the man the state's mixed martial arts enthusiasts love to hate.
'I ENFORCE THE RULES'
As executive director of the Minnesota Boxing Commission, Scott LeDoux knows many in the local mixed martial arts community have despised him since he started regulating the sport in July.
"They all think I'm a horse's patoot because I enforce the rules," he said defiantly.
LeDoux's confrontational style and some new regulations are chafing promoters. They complain that operating costs have made it too difficult to stage high-quality, profitable shows.
Their anger is swelling because Gov. Tim Pawlenty has yet to appoint commissioners with MMA expertise to hear their grievances and replace the three board members who abruptly resigned in August because the sport was too time-consuming.
Without a quorum to tackle the problems, LeDoux and two commissioners with no mixed martial arts experience are responsible for overseeing all organized fights in the state.
The relationship between LeDoux and MMA promoters is tarnished by disorganization, poor communication and mistrust, limiting the number of local fights and raising questions about the commission's future.
"We were all for oversight and regulation, but there were concerns (about the boxing commission) because they don't know what they're dealing with or how our shows are run," said Jamison Klair, who has produced about 50 MMA shows in Minnesota since 2003.
"All this talk about the UFC being the fastest-growing sport out there, and (how) we must be making tons of money ... that's just not the case. Being taxed out of business is what we're afraid of."
Taxation without representation is the mantra among disgruntled promoters who accuse LeDoux of collecting MMA licensing and event fees to subsidize the commission, which operates on a shoestring $50,000 budget.
Promoters are required to pay:
-- $400 for an annual license
-- $1,500 as a fee for each event
-- $45 each for referees, judges, timekeepers, trainers, ring announcers and physicians
-- $200-$300 for each combatants' prefight physical examinations and blood tests
All told, promoters typically spend about $4,500 on licenses and fees per event, not including insurance. Promoters have to make sure each fighter has at least $20,000 in injury insurance, as required by state law, or the promoter has to provide it. (New Jersey and California require $50,000 for each fighter, but those states host major UFC events that routinely draw 18,000 people.)
Nick Gamst, who organizes MMA fights at the Myth nightclub in Maplewood that draw 1,000 on a good night, said standard insurance for most small promotions is $10,000 per fighter.
"When you've never had a death in the sport, why such a high premium?" he said. "Most of the injuries in MMA are broken hands that can be covered by a $10,000 policy."
Add everything up, and the costs can stifle grass-roots promotions. Brock Larson, who staged a Sept. 29 fight in Brainerd that drew about 700 people, said he lost $7,000.
"Smaller shows, it really hurts," he said.
Klair also promotes MMA events in Wisconsin, one of 19 states that does not sanction the sport.
Wisconsin urges promoters to follow the Nevada Athletic Commission's unified rules but does not license promoters or oversee competition, said Roxanne Peterson, licensing coordinator with the department of regulation. So promoters need only to check in with town leaders in, say, Superior or La Crosse, before they assemble the octagon ring at the civic center and start selling tickets.
In Minnesota, mixed martial arts licenses and fees accounted for $19,015 in revenue the boxing commission collected from July 19 to Oct. 23, according to the state budget office. Boxing fees generated $180 during the same period.
There were six MMA events over those four months, but no boxing matches.
Gamst, who used to host weekly mixed martial arts cards, has had five MMA events since the commission took charge. He claims to have lost money on four of them and said he cannot attract top fighters used to earning $500 to $1,000 per fight with half that purse.
"I've had to bring less-than-flattering shows to the Myth to cover our costs. The caliber of fighting is way down. We used to have (ring girls). I had a $3,500 advertising budget that's down to zero because I'm spending all this on insurance."
Never one to back down, LeDoux dismisses some of the griping as sour grapes from mavericks accustomed to operating without standards or reproach.
He recalled scolding an MMA judge for drinking whiskey and yapping on his cell phone during a fight. He also intervened during the Sept. 15 card at Target Center to correct an announced victory by decision; two of the three judges had ruled the fight even, making it a majority draw.
"As we've gone through the years with boxing, we've gotten rid of the chaff. The same thing will happen with MMA," he said.
LeDoux has been pilloried in MMA circles for carrying out his duties in a bullying, condescending manner despite his learning curve with the sport. He says he accepts that criticism and recognizes that he must soften his tone with promoters as the commission regroups.
Right now, it is stuck in bureaucratic mud.
The original boxing commission had five members, three of whom resigned - State Sen. Dick Day, who is running for Congress; retired judge James Morrow; and former FBI special agent Nancy Schuster.
To accommodate mixed martial arts, legislators this year required nine members, four of whom must have MMA backgrounds. That leaves seven vacancies.
Pawlenty is reviewing more than 20 applicants and is expected to fill the openings by the end of the month, said John Hultquist, the governor's director of judicial and commission appointments.
Once the new board convenes, LeDoux said, he will negotiate with lawmakers to try to reduce the insurance premium requirement and restructure fees. He wants a 5 percent tax on gross receipts to replace the $1,500 flat fee, meaning a show would have to rake in more than $30,000 in ticket sales to pay as much as the current event fee.
Depending on the talent and time of year, Klair said, small shows in 1,000-seat venues are lucky to generate $20,000 at the box office.
LeDoux also pledged state legislation to tap other revenue streams, such as getting a cut of the UFC's pay-per-view buys in Minnesota, so boxing and MMA can thrive side by side.
With so few boxing matches, LeDoux is under pressure to generate enough revenue to sustain the commission, which accounts for a trifle of the state's $33.8 billion biannual budget.
Pawlenty reauthorized $50,000 this fiscal year to pay LeDoux's part-time salary and commission expenses, mandating that the panel become self-sufficient by July.
"MMA will not be able to do it alone. Boxing won't be able to do it alone. But we'll bring the two together, and they'll both be financially sound," LeDoux said.
Because the UFC needs a feeder system to produce up-and-coming fighters, experienced and efficient state commissions have to oversee those. The UFC's Rattner travels the country holding seminars to educate longtime boxing experts on MMA standards and culture.
"One of the things we need to do is deepen the pool of officials. It's not an easy transition for judges and referees who have been in boxing all their lives to understand choke and submission holds," said Rattner, formerly of the Nevada Athletic Commission.
"It's an education process that needs to be refined."
Hope you spent 4 min reading the whole thing. Great article that is clearly well researched. MMA is a sport safer than boxing, and has re-energized mainstream interested in effective martial arts.
Well done. :qcheerlea
Holy ****! I plan on holding a local event for under $500 for all expenses. LOL@4500
Minnesota government loves bureaucracy and I don't expect anything to change for the better while Pawlenty is the governor. There are a lot of good ma schools in the area here, its too bad the MMA scene isn't better. I have to say it seems a lot of the fans here don't see MMA as a sport but just want to see someone get beat up. Its TUF Noob land here.
Not that MN doesn't need some kind of regulation. At the local venue there have been poor matchups and injuries/knockouts could have been handled better.
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