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More Booze, More MMA: How combat sports became a key populist component of the Ontario government’s 2019 budget

Karim Zidan delves into the Ontario Progressive Conservative government plan to modernize rules for “combative sports” as part of its highly controversial 2019 budget and how it serves as nothing more than a distraction from key policy concerns in the province.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for CABC

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The Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) government recently unveiled its 2019 budget, which boasted a childcare tax credit, redesigned license plates, the legalization of single-sports betting, loosening laws governing alcohol consumption, and the promise to make Ontario a “destination” for combat sports.

Lead by Premier Doug Ford, whose 38% approval rating makes him one of the least popular Ontario premiers in history, the Ontario PC government has managed to maintain the populist trend that characterized their rise to power in 2018. Having campaigned on policies and pledges such as “buck-a-beer” and legalized tailgate parties, Ford has spent the last few months promising to slash Ontario’s budget, which included a proposed $25 million spending cut for education programs. He also promised to develop a new sex-ed curriculum, which meant scrapping aspects of the current program that the current government deemed controversial, such as same-sex relationships and consent. The 2019 Ontario budget carried forth the PC government’s populist strategy, choosing to “treat adults like adults” on topics such as alcohol, gambling, and combat sports.

In order to understand why Ford’s government decided to couple combat sports and legalized sports gambling with his more controversial and long-lasting changes, we must consider the factors that led to Ford’s election in 2018, and the benefits the controversial figure can reap from pandering to local combat sports fans.

Ford Nation…Again

On January 25, 2018, Patrick Brown announced his sudden resignation as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario following allegations of sexual misconduct. Brown had allegedly made sexual advances towards a 19-year-old staffer who was under the influence of alcohol. Four days later, Doug Ford became the first candidate to announce that he would seek the party leadership.

Ford’s decision to run for the party leadership was no surprise given his family’s history in the province. He is the older brother of Rob Ford, the 64th Mayor of Toronto who was embroiled in a substance abuse scandal during his time in office. Ford was forced to take a sabbatical as mayor and sought rehabilitation for his alcohol and drug addiction. Despite the scandal, Ford intended to run for mayor for a third time but was hospitalized with an abdominal tumour in September 2014 before passing away in 2016.

Doug Ford succeeded Rob as a councilor to Toronto City Council in 2010 when his brother was elected mayor. He served until 2013 and faced with several controversies during his time in office, including an investigative report that alleged he sold hashish during the 1980s, and a report from the City of Toronto’s integrity commissioner which revealed that Ford had used his influence to benefit two companies that were clients of his family business. Ford denied the allegations of both reports and was never charged. After announcing that he would not run for re-election as a councilor in 2013, Doug set his sights on the mayoral candidacy, which his brother had surrendered to enter rehab. He entered the race in September 2014 and managed to maintain the support his brother had despite criticism for alleged bigotry and sexist slurs during his campaign. Ford eventually lost the election to John Tory.

Ford once again announced his intent to run for Mayor of Toronto in 2017. While Ford backtracked in 2018 to focus on his campaign to be Ontario’s PC leader, his announcement got the attention of TV shows such as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

In March 2018, Ford campaigned for the Ontario PC leadership against three other candidates. He narrowly defeated Christine Elliottby, claiming 50.6% of the votes on the third ballot. By March 27, Ford had been named the party’s candidate for the 2018 Ontario general election. His campaign focused on divisive social issues such as criticism of Ontario’s sex education program and parental consent for minors seeking abortions.

“My friends, you have to give a note to your kids when they’re 12 and 13 years old to go on a field trip,” Ford said in reference to abortion during a campaign stop in London, Ontario. “You have to approve even getting their tonsils out, but you don’t have to approve and keep secret with a 12- and 13-year-old? I don’t know too many parents that would approve any of their kids going on a field trip without their knowledge. I don’t see anyone ever approving an operation on their children when they’re 12- and 13-years-old without approval.”

One of the key aspects of Ford’s campaign was his ability to drum up support from minority groups, emphasizing his particular brand of populism. The movement began with Rob Ford and was known as “Ford Nation” — a phrase that Doug has since incorporated as part of his brand. It is even his twitter handle. It represents the diversity of Ford’s staunch supporters, which include immigrants, ethnic minorities, and religious groups of all denominations.

Toronto City Council Meets To Limit Powers Of Embattled Mayor Rob Ford Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Getty Images

Ford eventually led the PC party to a majority government in Ontario. The party won 76 of 124 seats in the Legislative Assembly, usurping the Liberals as the governing party in the province. Prior to the 2018 general elections, the Ontario Liberal Party had won every election since the beginning of the 21st century and had governed the province for 15 consecutive years. However, Doug Ford and PC’s landslide victory was a devastating defeat for the liberals, who fell to seven seats and lost official party status for the first time in its 162-year history. It was the single worst defeat of a governing party in the province’s history. Ford achieved this after just three months as the party’s candidate.

MMA’s Troubled History in Ontario

Less than 10 months following Ford’s election, the PC government released its first budget, which included a section on “combative sports” such as MMA and boxing. While details remain unclear, Ford’s proposed legislation suggests changes to Ontario’s combat sports regulations in order to make it a more appealing destination for promoters.

According to the 2019 budget, “Ontario’s rules and regulations for combative sports such as mixed martial arts, boxing and kickboxing are out of date. This presents safety concerns for participants and barriers for business. Through new legislation, if passed, the government will address these concerns and make it safer for professional and amateur athletes to participate in combative sports.”

“These proposed changes would align Ontario’s rules and regulations with those in other jurisdictions. This would also make the province a more competitive destination to hold professional combative sport events, and provide a wider range of options for amateur combative sport contests to be held than is currently available. As a result, the economic benefit for the province could range from small local events at a local gym or club to large-scale international championships. These events will not only support athletes and provide a source of entertainment for the people of Ontario, but can also serve as an attraction for out-of-town visitors and present various career and business opportunities, including additional revenue for municipalities, media, goods manufacturing and retail.”

This is not the first time that Doug Ford’s name has been associated with MMA. During his tenure as a councillor in 2011, Ford’s office suggested that schools in Toronto should consider a community service program sponsored by the UFC. This occurred shortly after the leading MMA promotion launched ‘UFC Community Works’ initiative which “aimed to help communities across Canada.” The UFC allocated $129,000 for Canadian communities in 2011, starting with a youth centre in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood. While members of the Toronto District School Board dismissed Ford’s plan as free advertising for the UFC’s brand, Ford stood by his proposal.

”I am all for anti-bullying, I am all for educating students about anti-bullying and I think this is a program about athletes, who the kids look up to and admire, speaking out against bullying,” Ford told CP24. “It is not about promoting the UFC by any means. This is about anti-bullying.”

At the time, the resistance to Ford’s suggestion was mainly MMA’s status as a violent sport that had been considered illegal in the province until August 2010. Ontario began regulating professional MMA in 2011, which was also when the UFC ventured into the province for the first time in the promotion’s history. The event, titled UFC 129, featured a headlining bout between Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields and drew an attendance of 55,724 at the Roger Centre. — a UFC attendance record that would not be broken for another four years. Yet while Toronto started out as a key market for UFC events, it gradually became an afterthought. The UFC began to focus attention on new markets such as New York City, which caused local interest to plateau over time.

UFC 111: Press Conference Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Another pivotal factor that contributed to MMA’s decline throughout Ontario was the Office of the Athletics Commissioner, the regulatory body responsible for combat sports in the province. Over the past few years, several promoters and officials have complained that Ken Hayashi, then the Ontario Athletics Commissioner, placed exorbitant costs on promoters in order to host events in Ontario. Many promoters were priced out of the province, as was evidenced by the fact that Ontario held 14 MMA events in 2011, 11 shows in 2012, and a grand total of three events in 2013. The UFC, which held annual events in Toronto between 2011-13, has only been back to Toronto twice in the last six years.

When the promotion returned to Toronto for UFC 206 in December 2016, it was announced during the Pay-Per-View broadcast that the event was sponsored by the Ontario government. This came as a surprise, as the government of Ontario was also responsible for regulating the same show it was now sponsoring (UFC 206).

“Our government supports a number of high profile sporting events and festivals that attract tourists, generate economic growth and support job creation through our Celebrate Ontario Blockbuster Program,” a spokesperson for the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport in Ontario told BloodyElbow. “The Program has been tremendously successful, as funding recipients have helped generate $18 in visitor spending for every $1 received from our government. As part of this program, we committed $150,000 to UFC 206 at the Air Canada Centre. Attracting major international events of this nature builds Ontario’s reputation as a must see destination.”

Given the Ontario government’s early success with the UFC, it should not come as much of a surprise that Doug Ford’s government is interested in rekindling local interest in combat sports. Apart from the entertainment value, the UFC brings significant economic contributions to the city, as local businesses reportedly earned an estimated $40 million during the UFC 129 fight week in 2011. However, the PC government’s decision to couple the proposed combat sports legislation with its proposal for single-game sports wagering in the 2019 budget suggests that Ford views combat sports as a key populist component of his government plans.

Revitalizing combat sports in Ontario might appear to be a curious tactic to pander to local voters but it arguably benefits his popularity amongst the 18-35 demographic that the UFC product is tailored to. It can also serve as a useful distraction, especially when coupled with loosen drinking and gambling laws, from Ford’s more concerning policy changes and proposals.

Ford’s government plans to propose legislation that would repeal the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act, withdrew support for the resettlement of asylum seekers and migrants who are illegally crossing the border, phase out nearly 4000 teaching jobs, potentially rollback parts of Ontario’s sex-ed program, remove the “free tuition” program in post-secondary schooling, and scrap the Green Energy Act, which helped Ontario residents reduce their carbon footprint. The budget also confirmed the PC government’s plans to cut $1 billion from social services over the course of three years.

While the PC government claims that their reductions will help balance Ontario’s budget deficit over five years, Ford’s brutal cuts coupled with his failure to address key issues facing Ontario (eg. housing crisis) means that Ontario’s poorest and most vulnerable communities will be the first to suffer while others enjoy legalized tailgate parties, lax alcohol consumption laws, and more entertainment in the form of combat sports.

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