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Feature: Sued for screening the UFC - How an OC gym owner nearly lost everything

A California-based gym owner was slapped with a $170,000 lawsuit. His crime: screening a UFC event in the mat room. This is his story.

Three hours after leaving Las Vegas a car sped off of I-15, passing through the Santa Ana Mountains at Corona, California. Ben Wynkoop and his buddy were in a rush. A few minutes later, the car’s headlights flashed on a sign, illuminating it against the dark winter sky, Welcome to Orange County.

Wynkoop glanced at his phone. 6:30pm. “Damn,” he thought. The event would be starting soon. The car snaked through the Anaheim Hills and suburbs of Irvine before arriving in the sleepy city of Lake Forest. Wynkoop left the freeway and skirted a gated neighborhood. Eventually he entered a sprawling commercial district.

Security lights hanging from shuttered and silent warehouses lit the way towards the only building in the lot with any signs of life: OC Jiu Jitsu.

The gym had a couple of cars out front and a half-dozen people milling around. Some were holding crates of soda, others had Tupperware and pizza boxes. Wynkoop’s car eased into a parking spot among the gathering. He stepped out and scanned the faces in the small crowd. “You made it,” he said with a smile as he produced a jangling set of keys from his pocket.

He opened the doors of the gym and turned on the lights, revealing a front office area and a doorway to a 900-square-foot mat room. The group followed him inside as a couple more people showed up.

As his guests began setting up food and drinks on the front desk, Wynkoop checked his phone again. It was 6:55pm. He opened his MacBook, clicked on Safari, and slammed in the address to UFC.com. The homepage showed Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar squaring off and a counter ticking down, with under five minutes remaining.

He drew his credit card and bought the pay-per-view for $50. The screen changed. Live event will begin shortly. From his desk Wynkoop yanked out an HDMI cable. He carried that, and his computer, into the mat room where the crowd of now twenty people were getting comfortable.

Wynkoop set his MacBook down, beneath a wall mounted 55” flat screen TV. As soon as he connected the machines, the television’s blue screen came to life and the room began to fill with the familiar tones of Face The Pain. Wynkoop grabbed a plate and took a breath. After the long trip home from Vegas - where he had watched one of his instructors compete in an MMA bout - he was ready to enjoy a night of UFC fights with his gym friends and family. Little did he know, what he’d just done, might have cost him every penny he owned.

Ben Wynkoop is a former US Marine. He wrestled in high school and got serious with BJJ after attending Marino Jiu Jitsu in North Carolina, a gym frequented by well-known nutritionist George Lockhart and UFC veteran turned color-commentator Brian Stann (both of whom are also former Marines).

After his time with the Marine Corps, Wynkoop moved to California. There in 2011, with his business partner Oliver Haller, he founded Synergy Performance, LLC. for the sole purpose of operating OC Jiu Jitsu.

Wynkoop managed the gym and spearheaded all of OC Jiu Jitsu’s marketing efforts. In early 2013 he thought it would be fun to screen a UFC event for instructors, students, and their families at the gym. So he set up a Facebook event page for a screening/potluck which would be held on February 2nd, featuring UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar.

That night, sometime between Demian Maia smothering Jon Fitch and Rogerio Nogueira upsetting Rashad Evans, Wynkoop noticed an unexpected and uninvited guest appear at the gym.

“He was a grown man, saying he wanted to find martial arts training for his brother, another grown man, who had anger issues,” remembered Wynkoop. “Which is odd because people search for those solutions for children in martial arts and he was coming by our gym at 10:30pm.”

Wynkoop didn’t speak to the man himself, but he was in the room as others did. “He seemed somewhat nervous,” said Wynkoop who described the individual as a “normal white guy” with “nothing interesting about his appearance”.

From the stranger’s vantage point in the front office, he would have been able to see there was a party happening in the mat room. But, he couldn’t have seen the TV screen or what it was showing.

After a few minutes of strange conversation with Wynkoop’s colleagues at the front desk the man left the premises. Wynkoop quickly forgot about him and turned his attention back to the fights.

Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar trade blows at UFC 156.
Esther Lin/MMA Fighting

“It was fun,” recalled Wynkoop. “Because we got to watch the fights in a laid back family atmosphere, just like you have at someone's house. So it was a good time.” The evening was punctuated by an entertaining featherweight title fight that signaled Jose Aldo as one of the best fighters of his generation, as well as solidifying Frankie Edgar’s standing as one of the hardest outs in the hurt business.

After Aldo’s hand was raised in victory Wynkoop closed up shop and, other than a few people overdoing it on pizza, everything was cool. The next day he opened the gym again and business went back to normal. But two months later, on April 1st, Wynkoop received a letter that changed everything.

“I was hoping it was a bad April Fools’ joke at first,” laughed Wynkoop. But the letter was no joke. It was from the Law Offices of Thomas P. Riley, P.C., notifying Wynkoop that he and his business partner should expect to be served a lawsuit in the near future. The lawsuit, the letter explained, was on behalf of Riley’s client Joe Hand Promotions (JHP).

Joe Hand Promotions is the exclusive distributor of commercial licenses for UFC pay-per-view events. Any bar, restaurant, or other commercial enterprise wishing to legally screen a UFC pay-per-view must pay JHP for the right to do so. JHP recently quoted $788 for a commercial license for a martial arts gym with a fire code occupancy of 50 people or less.

As he inspected the letter more closely Wynkoop saw that he was being accused of “unlawful interception” of UFC 156. And that the forthcoming lawsuit would request statutory damages from him and his partner to the tune of $170,000.

After the reality of the situation sunk-in, Wynkoop wondered how JHP had known about the OC Jiu Jitsu screening. Then he remembered that uninteresting man and the angry brother he claimed to have. It seemed clear to him that the individual who stopped by the gym unannounced was working undercover for JHP. And while he couldn’t have seen the TV from the front desk, Wynkoop reckoned that this man would have been able to witness the event through an open side door.

“We were definitely worried,” said Wynkoop of his initial reaction to the letter. Though, he did state that running a business is inherently stressful and that he and everyone else at the gym tried to take this news “in stride” as they began working on a solution.

Wynkoop’s instinct was not to engage with the Law Offices of Thomas Riley or Joe Hand Promotions personally, and to instead find an attorney as soon as possible. Fortunately, one of the BJJ students at the gym was also a lawyer.

“He sent [Thomas Riley] a letter saying, ‘It’s probably $800 for a license and whatever amplifier based on your occupancy - we’ll just give you $1,500 and let’s call it a deal, to cover your damages and your time for nuisance.’” However, according to Wynkoop, Riley’s firm was not interested in their offer.

Wynkoop’s first lawyer attempted to follow up this letter with a phone call to Riley’s office in Pasadena. Wynkoop said the call was answered by one of the firm’s attorneys, who didn’t seem in any mood to negotiate. “She was very aggressive,” claimed Wynkoop. “She was not even willing to talk to [our lawyer], just very combative.”

This call happened around a month after the initial letter. It was at this time Wynkoop felt sure that there would be no easy fix to the situation. “We realized that they're not having it, they're not listening. That it's their business model, they just want it all. They either want to go to war, and trial, or make you settle, whether you're guilty or not, and make you settle for a lot. At that point it became apparent.”

Around this time Wynkoop secured the services of a new attorney, Elliot Stone from the Stone Law Firm. And then, to his surprise, everything went quiet. As time wore on, Wynkoop thought he might have gotten lucky. “We thought, ok hopefully whatever the statute of limitations is, it’s going to run out.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

In Los Angeles, on January 1st, 2014 the Law Offices of Thomas P. Riley filed JHP’s lawsuit versus Benjamin Wynkoop, Oliver Haller, and Synergy Performance LLC.

The lawsuit outlined multiple counts versus Wynkoop and his co-defendants. Count I was labeled, “Violation of Title 47 U.S.C Section 605” referring to the United States Code of Laws’ definition of unauthorized publication or use of communication. In describing that count the lawsuit stated the following:

As a commercial distributor and licensor of sporting events, including [UFC 156: Aldo vs. Edgar], Plaintiff Joe Hand Promotions, Inc., expended substantial monies marketing, advertising, promoting, administering, and transmitting [UFC 156] within their respective commercial establishments in the hospitality industry (i.e., hotels, racetracks, casinos, bars, taverns, restaurants, social clubs, etc.

With full knowledge that [UFC 156] was not to be intercepted, received, published, divulged, displayed, and/or exhibited by commercial entities unauthorized to do so, each and every one of the above named Defendants, either through direct action or through actions of employees or agents directly imputable to Defendants, did unlawfully intercept, receive, publish, divulge, and/or exhibit [UFC 156] at the time of its transmission at their commercial establishment in Lake Forest, California.

The lawsuit continued to state that this action was done “willfully” and “for purposes of direct and/or indirect commercial advantage and/or private financial gain.”

For this count, the lawsuit stated that JHP were seeking $110,000 in damages.

The second count in the lawsuit was labeled “Violation of Title 47 U.S.C. Section 553,” referring to unauthorized reception of cable service under US Code. For an alleged violation of this law, with the same actions that allegedly violated the law in Count I, JHP sought a further $60,000.

Along with the proposed $170,000 in damages the lawsuit also demanded that Wynkoop and his co-defendants reimburse JHP for “reasonable attorneys’ fees”, all other costs associated with filing the suit, and restitution equaling any of the defendants “ill-gotten gains”.

“Ignorance is no excuse at all,” started Wynkoop before he explained what he took issue with in the lawsuit. “We're not making money off charging for the fight,” he reasoned. “We're not making money from ancillary increased foot traffic, by selling food or drink like bars do. The bars make a lot of money during the fights from sales of food or drink, that didn't even cross our mind.”

The only possible commercial gain Wynkoop can identify his business receiving as a result of showing UFC 156 was that pictures from the event could be used on social media to promote his gym. Other than that Wynkoop said the event could have benefited OC Jiu Jitsu by having a positive impact on the morale/camaraderie among his employees and clients. Still, Wynkoop didn’t believe his gym deserved to be litigated in the same manner as a sports bar.

If Wynkoop were forced to pay his share in the damages sought by JHP, he would have been left bankrupt. His only hope was to settle with JHP for as low as possible. Wynkoop got his shot at doing this on May 13th, 2015 in a settlement conference at the Spring Street Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles.

At the conference Wynkoop was accompanied by both his business partner and his attorney. On the other side of the table was JHP’s attorney Thomas Riley. Between them was a magistrate judge.

Wynkoop described Riley as “a little heavier set” with a thick east coast accent, “Philadelphia or something like that.” The only other word Wynkoop used to describe Riley was “aggressive.’

“[Riley said], ‘We have $5,000 or $5,500 in legal fees, so, you know, were not willing to settle for under $10,000,’ and then my heart just sank,” recalled Wynkoop.

Wynkoop held his tongue regarding exactly what Riley said or did during the settlement conference. He just repeated that it was “aggressive”, and that it got to him.

“I took it personally,” admitted Wynkoop. “You're talking like this and you're ruining my life, this isn't some sort of game, you know? I want to pay you for your damages, but you could destroy my life right now.”

After some sparring back and forth across the table, each party went to the judge’s chambers to discuss the case and how much money they wanted to settle for. When Wynkoop was in the judge’s chambers, the magistrate gave his team a little intel on what they could expect from Riley.

“The judge noted that, as of late, he's noticed Riley's been getting more aggressive and really following these cases through instead of trying to settle them quickly and moving on,” said Wynkoop. “That was where we kinda felt that we needed to settle quickly, right there that day.”

Also encouraging Wynkoop and his team to take a quick settlement was the threat of having to pay JHP’s legal fees for an entire trial. Wynkoop believed that in this type of case, if he had lost - even $1 - to JHP he would have had to pay for all their legal fees. However, he did not think JHP were obligated to do the same for him if he and his co-defendants won.

With the fear of a lengthy and expensive legal process hanging over them, Wynkoop’s side of the table came to an agreement with Riley and JHP. The final price they agreed upon was a settlement under $10,000, plus $6,000 worth of legal fees. Once this was agreed, all that was left was a handshake.

“I wanted to go shower after it,” said Wynkoop of the actual physical handshake he shared with Thomas Riley.

“I felt relief to be done,” he added. “And relief that we weren't spending $170,000, but I felt absolutely disgusted because I felt it was justice for profit. It wasn't them just trying to recover damages.”

With the agreement signed, Wynkoop et al were able to cut a cheque for the damages and owed legal fees. “It definitely hurt my bank account,” laughed Wynkoop who was between jobs at that point, with OC Jiu Jitsu closing down before the settlement was reached.

Though the lawsuit wasn’t the main reason the gym shut down, it certainly didn’t help. Wynkoop said he, “just wasn’t feeling it anymore,” and that many of the people involved in the gym were looking to move on to something fresh.

Wynkoop now works in marketing; specializing in search engine optimization. Many of his clients are cross fit gyms and Brazilian jiu jitsu schools. A number of his former instructors remained in Orange County, teaching at Gracie Barra Garden Grove.

Though he is no longer a BJJ gym owner, Wynkoop is still a keen admirer and participant in BJJ. And even though he got sued for screening a UFC event, he still watches the UFC’s product, though he does so with a new perspective.

“I still watch it because they're a monopoly,” remarked Wynkoop. “But it definitely makes me look at people at the UFC more critically, because we've all heard, if you follow it, Dana White's hawkish comments about people who pirate [their product]. The UFC should go after them, the people who outright steal it. For me, I made a mistake, and I'm willing to pay for it. I'm willing to pay more than the damages I caused (for nuisance), but to try to just come after me this way: to ruin my life, potentially. I definitely look at them kinda like they're gangsters, because they don't care. They just want to conquer as much as they can, that was my feeling towards them after.”

Having learned his lesson the hard way, he has some well earned advise for others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

“A lot of people call Riley and just try and plead for sympathy, explain what happened, and hope they get sympathy, and when they do that they're showing their cards and disclosing information they shouldn't to the opposing counsel,” said Wynkoop. “Instead they should immediately seek legal protection and not say anything to Riley or JHP.

“They're gonna go for exorbitant amounts, but try to settle quickly and for as little as possible. They're gonna make other demands, like $30,000. It's still a lot. I settled for under ten grand so try and come with that number in mind, don't shell out the first large amount. It may sound attractive, but in all reality, try and get below $10,000.”

Wynkoop also recommended business owners look into insurance which can be purchased to protect officers in a company from lawsuits, which is something he later learned about by reading an article by Neil Patel on Quicksprout.com.

Referencing the article Working Undercover for the UFC Wynkoop also said it was important for business owners to know that if they promote this kind of event an investigator will find them. He also warned that rival companies might tip off JHP to illegal screenings, as well.

Ben Wynkoop has paid the price for ignorance. He admits this, readily and repeatedly. But in sharing his story, he hopes more people will realize it’s not just bars and restaurants who need a commercial license to screen pay-per-view sports. If you know the facts (and you’ve read about JHP’s undercover army and relentless legal team) and you still pirate the next big fight card, then you too should expect to be sued for screening the UFC.

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