In the summer of 2008, the Tennessee state Legislature approved the “Tennessee Athletic Commission Act of 2008” which created the governing body for mixed martial arts and boxing in the state. The next year was a banner year for Tennessee MMA with a UFC Fight Night in Nashville and UFC 107 in Memphis headlined by BJ Penn vs Diego Sanchez for the UFC lightweight title. Nashville and Memphis hosted two successful events, and local businesses were reaping the rewards of having fight fans in town. Everything was looking good for the new Commission led by Executive Director, Jeff Mullen. However, these big events started declining in 2010, and it has not been the same since.
In 2010, Strikeforce brought a televised card to Nashville airing nationally on CBS and seen by almost 3 million people. However, there were no major shows in 2011. Then, the UFC brought an FX Fight Night card to Music City in January of 2012 barely drawing 7,700 fans with a fight card with no star power in the middle of the week. There have been other smaller shows, such as the XFC and regional programs like 3FC, V3, and Sportfight X, but the state really makes its money when the UFC comes to town.
The Athletic Commission was formed to capitalize on UFC events in Tennessee. The State collects 4% of the gate, 3% of the first million, and 1% of the second million that come from television revenue in pro shows. The two events in 2009 brought in an estimated $85,000 for the Tennessee Athletic Commission and set high expectations of lawmakers. Now, with no major events in Tennessee, state lawmakers are considering pulling the plug on the Athletic Commission and all MMA events in the state.
This is not the first time this has happened. In 2011 the Commission came under fire, being told to “justify their existence“. For three years now, the Commission has not been profitable nor able to sustain themselves without the State’s help. In fact, the only year they came close to this was 2012 with the UFC show featured on FX previously mentioned. Even then, they missed their budget by over $30,000. In 2011 and 2013, the Commission was unable to self-fund itself by more than $200,000 according to last year’s Sunset Public Hearing for the Tennessee Athletic Commission.
One interesting thing about the Sunset Hearing document is the largest expenditure outside of payroll by the Commission. Each year they are required by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance to pay for State Professional Services. In 2011 the Commission was billed $53,468.48 for these services, which was approximately 30% of their total expenditures. In 2013 the Athletic Commission was charged $17,838.99 which was roughly 13%. How is this number calculated? In 2013 the Department of Corrections was charged over $23 million dollars for State Professional Services on an $899 million budget which is barely over 2.5%. Where does the state get this number? And what is it based on?
In January, Senator Bell and Rep Judd Matheny sponsored a bill to extend the Athletic Commission one more year until June 30 2015 as it was deemed the losses sustained were not significant. That is the last day the Athletic Commission could be in existence.
I met with Tennessee State Senator, Mike Bell, who is the chairman of the Government Operations Committee two weeks ago. I had been in contact with his office for several weeks until, eventually, Mr. Bell was kind enough to meet with me along with one of his assistants and an attorney. Mr. Bell and I talked about the situation here in Tennessee, in which he explained that the Athletic Commission had to support itself and could not rely on State funds. I followed up with his assistant the next day and was told, “Chairman Bell is working toward considering all options and scenarios”.
Mr. Bell told me that he wrestled in high school and watches UFC events from time to time. But as a lawmaker and politician, you must understand his position to balance the books and “trim the fat”, so to speak. Yet, just because the Athletic Commission isn’t profitable today doesn’t mean it can’t be profitable in the years to come. It also doesn’t take into consideration what could happen without the Commission and governing body of the sport. What it doesn’t make in dollars for the state, it can make for the local businesses near MMA events. Another concern are the costs of unregulated fights in Tennessee where promoters aren’t obligated to have insurance, in which fighters can go to the hospital on tax payer dollars to get treated for their injuries.
When I met with Mr. Bell, I told him that a UFC and/or Bellator event could change everything. His response was that he had been told that before by Executive Director Mullen as if it were an excuse. In 2009, there were only a few states with Commissions in place which is why we landed two major events that year. Since then, other states have come onboard, and the UFC has taken shows there (as well as to other countries like Canada and Brazil, home to many of their most popular fighters). Tennessee isn’t going to host a major show every year, but steps could be taken by lawmakers to ensure the Athletic Commission has money coming in (i.e. installing new fees for promoters, fighters, or gyms to cover the costs).
If we want to keep MMA in Tennessee, the Commission is going to have to support itself. Tennessee is different from a lot of other states in how it raises money to keep the Commission afloat. Professional fighters must pay the state for a license to fight in Tennessee every year, but amateurs are exempt. Many states require amateurs to purchase a license as well in order to compete. Nevada and Washington require $25 for an amateur fighter license. California charges $75 while Pennsylvania charges $100. There are over 500 amateur fighters in Tennessee but not all of those are active. If 400 fighters compete each year a $25 fee per fighter would raise $10,000 in new revenue. You could raise the fee to $50 or $100 but you don’t want to price guys out of fighting.
Another idea for raising money for the Commission is to charge for an amateur promoter’s license. Amateur promoters are only required to pay $50 for a permit, but they are not required to buy a license from the state. Professional promoters pay $500 plus an extra $50 for the application. In Washington amateur promoters pay $500 for a license plus $1 for every seat sold and 6% of gate. Nevada amateur promoters pay a $37.50 licensing fee plus 6% for the gate. California amateur promoters pay $250 for a license. Therefore, the Commission could get an extra $3,000 in funding if amateur promoters were required to pay $200 should there be 15 different promotions. Paying a percentage of the gate or a dollar per ticket is also a good idea to keep revenue flowing.
Another, less popular idea, currently going on in Washington is requiring all MMA gyms to pay $500 to be licensed. It’s a good idea on paper, but that is a lot of money. However, if each gym had to pay $100 to $200, it could go a long way in keeping them in with MMA in Tennessee.
I know amateur fighters, promoters, and gym owners will all scoff at the idea of fees, but if nothing is done, your place in the MMA world gets a whole lot smaller without an Athletic Commission in Tennessee. And thus far, with what I’ve heard from Senator Bell he and his fellow lawmakers, there is very little interest in taking in any kind of new fees just to keep the Commission going.
I reached out to Executive Director Mullen for comment but he declined only to say that he was working to get the UFC, Bellator, or another big show to Tennessee.
Right now everything is winding down for the government as the new fiscal year starts on July 1st. The lawmakers could go several different ways with the Athletic Commission. They could do nothing at all, as it seems they are going to do, and the Commission will “sunset” in July of 2015. (Sunset is the magic word lawmakers use that really means “go away”.) If we could get a UFC event showing the Commission is out of the red and into the black, it could continue to exist for at least another year. It would also allow another hearing to occur for lawmakers to determine how to move forward.
But, there is a wildcard in all of this. You. As a fan, fighter, promoter, manager, matchmaker, sponsor, or business owner whose livelihood is affected by MMA; you are a constituent to the lawmakers. They work for us, and as it so happens, 2014 is re-election time. Unfortunately though, Senator Bell is running uncontested. But if you live in his district, you can contact him and express your thoughts on what the Athletic Commission means to you. Even if you aren’t in his district, you can still contact him.
You can find out who your local Representatives and Senators are by clicking here. Even if they aren’t on the committee that oversees the Athletic Commission, they are still elected to serve you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them.
Below I have listed each member of the Government Operations, the group who oversees the Commission, along with some information about them, their re-election, and contact info.
•Chairman Mike Bell (Republican) running unopposed in 2014
District 9 — Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Polk Counties
Phone (615) 741-1946
•1st Vice-Chairman Ferrell Haile (Republican) not running until 2016
District 18 — Sumner, Trousdale and Part of Davidson Counties (Gallatin)
Phone (615) 741-1999
•2nd Vice-Chairman John Stevens (Republican) not running until 2016
District 24 — Benton, Carroll, Gibson, Henry, Obion, and Weakley Counties
•Senator Janice Bowling (Republican) not running until 2016
District 16 — Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren Counties
•Senator Rusty Crowe (Republican) running unopposed in 2014
District 3 —Washington, Unicoi and Carter Counties
Phone (615) 741-2468
•Senator Thelma Harper (Democrat) will face Brandon Puttbrese in the Democratic primary Aug. 7th 2014
District 19 — Part of Davidson County
Phone (615) 741-2453
•Senator Jim Kyle (Democrat) not running until 2016
District 30 — Part of Shelby County
Phone (615) 741-4167
•Senator Becky Duncan Massey (Republican) not running until 2016
District 6 — Part of Knox County
Phone (615) 741-1648
•Senator Jim Summerville (Republican) will face Joshua Evans, Kerry Roberts, and Wayne White in the Republican primary Aug. 7th 2014
District 25 — Cheatham, Dickson, Hickman, Humphreys, and Robertson Counties
Phone (615) 741-4499
As you can see Thelma Harper and Jim Summerville are up for re-election in August. So those that are in their district have some power and can put pressure on them if they really want your vote in the August primaries. They will also be looking for votes should they get through the primary and face another challenger in November.
Tennessee State Senators aren’t the only ones who have some say in the future of the Athletic Commission. The Tennessee House of Representatives swing a pretty big stick as well. The House Standing Committee on Government Operations is chaired by Judd Matheny. Like Senator Bell, he is running unopposed this year and can’t threatened by disenchanted voters. He can be contacted just like the Senators listed above.
I haven’t met with Mr. Matheny, but I have exchanged emails with Vice Chairman Mr. Ragan. He reiterated Mr. Bell’s position that the Commission must support itself and that it would likely be “sunset”.
Listed below are the Tennessee House of Representatives also on the Committee of Government Operations. Many are up for re-election as well.
•Chairman Judd Matheny (Republican) running unopposed
District 47 — Coffee and part of Warren Counties
Phone (615) 741-7448
•Vice Chairman John Ragan (Republican) will face Caitlin Nolan in August primary then will face Democratic challenger in general election in November if successful.
District 33 — Part of Anderson County (Oak Ridge)
Phone (615) 741-4400
•Rep. Joe Carr (Republican) not running for re-election
District 48 — Part of Rutherford County
Phone: (615) 741-2180
•Rep. Glen Casada (Republican) will face Cherie Hammond in August primary then will face Democratic challenger in general election in November if successful.
District 63 — Part of Williamson County (Franklin)
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone (615) 741-4389
•Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (Democrat) running unopposed in 2014
District 82 — Lauderdale, Crockett and Haywood Counties
Phone (615) 741-2134
•Rep. Curtis Halford (Republican) running against Bobby G. Barnett in November general election
District 79 — Gibson and part of Carroll Counties
Phone: (615) 741-7478
•Rep. G. A. Hardaway (Democrat) running against Colonel Gene Billingsley in November general election
District 93 — Part of Shelby County (Memphis)
Phone: (615) 741-5625
•Rep. Curtis Johnson running unopposed in 2014
District 68 — Part of Montgomery County (Clarksville)
Phone (615) 741-4341
•Rep. Gerald McCormick (Republican) running unopposed in 2014
District 26 — Part of Hamilton County (Chattanooga)
Phone (615) 741-2548
•Rep. Johnnie Turner (Democrat) running unopposed in 2014
District 85 — Part of Shelby County (Memphis)
Phone (615) 741-6954
•Rep. Mike Turner (Democrat) will not run for re-election in 2014
District 51 — Part of Davidson County
Phone (615) 741-3229
Mr. Ragan, the vice-chairman, is up for re-election. If you are in East Tennessee, I recommend contacting his office to let your feelings be known on the importance of the Athletic Commission. Let him know that you are supporting his opponent Miss Nolan in the August Primary. As the #2 man on the House Standing Committee on Government Operation, he has a lot of pull but is vulnerable with the primary and general election looming later this year.
The bottom line is that the lawmakers want the Athletic Commission to turn a profit and be able to support themselves. So to get them to see things differently we must;
a) Get them to change the laws and allow the Commission to start taking in new fees
b) Ask the lawmakers what exactly the Athletic Commission is paying for when they are charged for State Professional Services and how this number is calculated.
c) Convince them that the pros of having a commission outweigh the cons (unregulated fights and fighters [potentially with HIV and hepatitis] competing, uninsured fighters getting hurt costing taxpayers, etc.)
d) Get them to see the economic impact of having a large show come to Tennessee (bars, hotels, restaurants, etc…)
e) Speak up as constituents and let the lawmakers know we want MMA in our state and leverage our votes)
f) Pitch them your own ideas on how to increase revenue for the Commission
I don’t have all the answers, but this is definitely a battle that needs to be fought. If you care about MMA and boxing in Tennessee, want to see the sport continue to grow, and thrive in our state, I urge you to contact your elected officials to get this ship turned around.