Mixed martial arts take fight to Capitol Hill

Ultimate Fighting Championship, upstart sports experiencing surge in lobbying activity

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Once mired in blood and disrepute, professional mixed martial arts now ranks among the world’s fastest growing sports. And its advocates are likewise ramping up their activity in another combative arena: Capitol Hill.

Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA’s leading promotion company, last year spent $620,000 lobbying on a variety of issues affecting its business, making it the No. 3 spender among sports leagues and recreational entities and eclipsing the government affairs  efforts of other well-established and conventional industry contemporaries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

UFC outspent former heavy-hitters such as Major League Baseball ($310,000) and the National Basketball Association ($125,000) last year. The National Football League remains the top lobbying spender in the live entertainment industry, but the league’s total spending fell from $1.6 million in 2012 to $1.4 million in the previous year, according to federal disclosures.

UFC is continuing its aggressive advocacy this year, spending $80,000 on federal lobbying in the first quarter of 2013, records filed with the U.S. Senate indicate.Video piracy is among UFC’s chief concerns.

Though some of UFC’s live competitions — in which fighters spar for victory in an octagonal cage — are now available with a basic cable subscription, the company still relies on pay-per-view broadcasts for much of its revenue. When bootleggers surreptitiously film and post fights to the internet for free, UFC loses money, according to Makan Delrahim, an attorney at the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Scheck who represents UFC.

“Or even worse, [copyright law violators] are charging $9.99,” for access to the illegally-captured fights, Delrahim said. “My clients are deprived of the economic benefit that intellectual property laws allow.”

Before lobbying on behalf of the UFC, Delrahim served as deputy assistant attorney general to the Department of Justice’s anti-trust division and chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Anybody who believes in property rights supports this issue,” he said, “It’s a bipartisan issue."

And MMA, it turns out, attracts a bipartisan fan base. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Jim Jordan of Ohio, both Republicans, are fans, according to Delrahim.

UFC has also lobbied on Internet gambling regulation— the group is now sponsoring an online poker tournament, with a grand prize of trip to Las Vegas to watch a UFC fight in July — and educating members of Congress about mixed martial arts, federal records show.

“We just want to be sure that people who may not be watching it every night know what it is,” Delrahim said. “And don’t react in an immediate kneejerk reaction, thinking that it’s some sort of nefarious sport.”

Mark Gonzalez, managing partner at the Washington-based One World MMA, a much smaller outfit that hosts professional and amateur fights , said his operation has opted to influence legislation on a more grassroots level.

It takes “big money in order to lobby anybody here in DC,” Gonzalez said.  Instead of traditional routes, Gonzalez said he works directly with DC Boxing and Wrestling Commission to influence the safety regulations and licensing rules that affect his organization.

Several other emerging or niche sports and recreation brands have also recently doubled down on federal lobbying.

Feld Entertainment — the company that produces the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, Monster Jam monster truck shows and Disney On Ice — also outspent both MLB and the NBA last year. the $350,000 it spent places it No. 7 on the list of  top lobbying spenders among sports and recreation outfits.

Just this past quarter, Feld Entertainment spent $35,000 to lobby Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration on laws related to the conservation of endangered species — namely the elephants and big cats that star in the company’s traveling circus. Ringling Bros. in particular has been a target of animal rights activists, who accuse the circus of animal cruelty.

Feld Entertainment lobbied against the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, a House bill introduced last year that would have banned animals performing within 15 days of travel, which the company argued would effectively dismantle its circus’ operation. Ringling Bros. currently gives its animals anywhere from 24 to 72 hours of rest between travel, said Tom Albert, the company’s vice president of governmental affairs.

“Our point is that there was no science behind it,” he said of the bill, which has not been reintroduced in the current Congress. “It was sort of an arbitrary number that was picked precisely because it would keep animals from performing.”

Feld Entertainment’s past lobbying efforts helped pass the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997, which set a up a federal fund to support faltering elephant populations. That law established a model for funds supporting other endangered species, Albert said.

“Given the very difficult economic and budgetary climate, our little coalition has been remarkably successful in advocating for support for those funds,” Albert said.

Though hardly a niche sport, NASCAR has also stepped further into the political fray in recent years, increasing its total federal lobbying expenditures to $150,000 in 2012 from $90,000 in the previous year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lobbying is “not a terribly active space for us,” NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte asserts, although the association did spend $30,000 in last year to block a bipartisan amendment that would have slashed the military’s budget for sponsoring professional sports.

NASCAR — and the military recruiters whose logos still whiz past fans in Daytona and Dover — won that race in a close 216-202 vote.

NASCAR does not plan to rev up its political involvement any further by forming a PAC or endorsing candidates.

“Absolutely not,” Jadotte said. “As a business, we’re not involved in endorsing candidates."

While UFC has changed its rules over the past decade to make the sport safer, more athletic and more palatable to a broader fan base, its intense violence and that it is not a team sport has impeded its reach beyond a niche audience, according to Marie Hardin, associate director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.

“You have to wonder if part of this is simply the growing pains of a very fast growing sport in the United States,” Hardin said.

As MMA grows in popularity, there will be “more legislative eyeballs” monitoring the sport, she said.

“It’s going to come under more scrutiny.”

Correction: The article originally stated that Rep. Duncan Hunter represents a North Carolina district. The congressman represents a California district.