HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut lawmakers are again being asked to consider joining 44 other states and legalize and regulate mixed martial arts matches, allowing the popular events that draw thousands of fans to venues in cities such as Hartford and Bridgeport.
While some matches are held at the state's casinos owned by sovereign Indian tribes, mixed martial arts events cannot be held off the tribal reservations, such as the XL Center in Hartford and Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. Advocates for both locations say the matches will help generate revenues for local hotels, restaurants and parking.
"This would be one of the largest grossing events ever done at the XL Center," said Keith Sheldon, who manages business affairs and bookings at the facility, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center. Sheldon predicted an event promoted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship would likely draw more than 14,000 people, as well as provide the venue and the city with tremendous exposure considering some mixed martial arts, or MMA, matches are on pay-per-view television.
"The restaurants would be full in Hartford, the hotels would be full," he said. "You'd bring tourism in the city."
Mixed martial arts draws from different forms of fighting, such as jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing and kickboxing. Scoring is based on athletic-commission approved definitions and rules. In 2008, at the request of the chairman of the State Boxing Commission, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ruled that mixed martial arts events are currently illegal in the state under existing boxing laws and legislation would be necessary to allow them.
The General Assembly's Public Safety Committee has scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday on a bill that would make the sport subject to regulation by the state's Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Last year, the state agency, then known as the Department of Public Safety, opposed the bill. At the time, the agency argued it did not have enough employees or the necessary state funding to take on regulating MMA matches. Several years ago, the state legislature required the agency to regulate boxing instead of the Department of Consumer Protection.
The agency has not said yet whether it still plans to oppose the legislation this session. The bill requires the commission to adopt regulations to govern the conduct, safety and supervision of the matches, including licensing of the sponsors and participants. The commissioner would also have to set various license fees.
According to Ultimate Fighting Championship, similar bills are pending in New York and Vermont.
Besides the cost of regulating MMA matches, State Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said there have also been concerns expressed about the violent nature of the sport.
"We'll just have to listen to how one would regulate it," he said. Last year, his committee approved a similar bill, 24-1. The legislation, however, later died in another legislative committee.
Since last year, the state has stopped exempting certain venues, including the XL Center, from Connecticut's 10 percent admission tax. Sheldon said he believes that a mixed martial arts event at the downtown Hartford arena could prove to be a financial boon for the state, considering a single sell-out event could gross $2 million.
The bill also calls for a five percent tax on promoters and sponsors of each martial arts event. After federal taxes have been deducted, the remainder must be paid to the state.
"It's just another revenue stream for the state and a tremendous opportunity for a city like Hartford, to get a sell-out event like this," he said, adding how 400 jobs would be created at the XL Center that night, such as stage hands and guest services workers.
State Rep. Charles "Don" Clemons Jr., D-Bridgeport, said he believes the Bridgeport arena would also benefit from mixed martial arts matches, as well. The facility typically attracts about 8,000 to 10,000 people for big concerts.
"We're in the midst of a renaissance and in terms of the economy this would bring people to our city, to come downtown, patronize our local businesses and help put Bridgeport back on the map," the lawmaker said. "The economic benefit that generates from this could be really a home run."