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UFC Tries to Help Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Deepens Political Involvement

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In case you haven't noticed, there has been quite a bit of crossover between the UFC and various political actors in the past few years. That crossover has come to a head in recent weeks with the UFC's support of embattled-Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. UFC President Dana White has stumped for him and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture recently endorsed him. Reid, a boxing and MMA enthusiast, asked the UFC to lend a hand in a very close electoral contest and the Zuffa brass obliged. Just a simple favor, right? Not really. There's a question to be asked here: what does it say about the UFC that politicians of serious significance are asking them for help? How interested is the UFC in political involvement?

Part of what it means, as Jake Rossen underscores, is that politicians - in this case, a desperate incumbent losing momentum late in a key Senate race - are recognizing the UFC's ability to sway younger audiences. In Nevada, that push is even more important as young voters in that state trend Democratic, although not heavily so. Still, most young voters sit out mid-terms and the Reid campaign is hoping Dana White, Chuck Liddell and others can energize a segment of the voting public that could help swing a tight race in their favor.

Up to this point, the UFC's involvement in politics has been superficial on the surface, but all business in the places business gets done. They want to show a public face where they look as politically neutral as possible while taking a tough stand on issues the public won't fight them on much. They're obviously still using any potential influence to pressure federal lawmakers into stepping up enforcement of laws prohibiting video piracy. However, as much as they make that the public centerpiece of their political involvement, there's really not much to that. What is of more interest to them is making sure the federal government doesn't regulate MMA. It would fundamentally change the way their business operates. It would empower fighters to negotiate how they are paid, where they are placed on cards and even how they negotiate matchmaking. To help further that process, they've retained the services of a very reputable lobbying group here locally in Washington, DC (not to mention offer modest campaign contributions).

The support for Reid is more a signal the UFC is willing to use it's political muscle how and when it can while also keeping political irons in the fire. Sen. Reid, even if re-elected, isn't much of an ally on any piece of legislation the UFC would predominately care about. He only sits ex officio on one committe, and it has nothing to do with piracy or regulating sports. Obviously having the Senate Majority Leader (or perhaps Minority come November 3rd) as an ally is politically favorable, but legislation begins in committee. Reid isn't sitting anywhere where the UFC is keeping a vigilant eye.

We also can't forget the state-by-state lobbying effort to get MMA legalized and regulated by state athletic commissions. I'd generally describe their efforts as successful and hugely beneficial to the sport, but the push in New York has been a failure. Some of what the UFC did was helpful. They created a website with clear action tools and released an important economic study trying to connect their product being in the state as a tourism and tax boon. But they never paid enough attention to how the levers of power are pulled specifically in Albany and more specifically, in the various committees in Albany.

Their present silence on the effort is partly due to an inability to get airwave and print ad space during campaign season, and, of course, because the State legislative body is not in session. But if they are serious about lobbying, there's no time to waste. After November 2nd, the UFC needs to hit the pavement hard. So far, the key failure of the effort is thinking an economic study would prove persuasive enough to lawmakers to overturn existing law. That certainly helped, but that's hardly sufficient to get attention or change minds. The numbers are too small. They also haven't been updated since the original study was released. And since the UFC's lobbying partners never created a grassroots push from New York constituents to lean on their local representatives, none of those in power had much of an incentive to listen to what Zuffa was telling them. Is it really an issue New Yorkers care about? No.

I'd also add that by going cheap on paid media and getting only minor hits in earned media (did they ever do editorial board visits with the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg or Reuters?), they enabled media-hungry politicians to empower themselves by controlling the narrative of the debate. The biggest winner so far in the push to get MMA legalized in New York? Bob Reilly.

The New York debacle aside, the UFC understands what a favorable regulatory climate looks like and why it's critically important to have one. They have the resources to help preserve or change that (depending on the situation). They also have the wherewithal to not be afraid to pursue matters legislatively. It's hardball, but it's the way lobbying is done and how laws happen...or don't happen. It's all just further proof that White & Co. are serious competitors. To their adversaries, a great challenge awaits you.