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UFC lobbying report 2008-2012: How ZUFFA hired the future head of US antitrust law

In the first of this series of reports, find our how UFC money was spent to influence US politics from 2008 and 2012.

A sunset view of the United States Capitol
| Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Lobbying is an ever-present facet of U.S. politics. To put it simply, those who can afford to participate, pay teams of professionals to schmooze politicians with hopes that laws will be made, broken, softened or hardened to suit their interests.

The UFC is like every other successful corporation in America. Over the past decade they’ve utilized lobbying in attempts to affect US laws. But who, what and how did they do all this lobbying? And how effective was it? That’s what this series hopes to find out.

Over the coming weeks you’ll find lobbying reports detailing what lobbyists have been paid to do on behalf of the UFC. You’ll discover that the promotion’s interests are rather limited. However, within that narrow scope the fight sport purveyor has shown a great deal of commitment. Their investments have not always paid off, but on one or two occasions, ZUFFA cash has likely contributed to little known, yet still dramatic, shifts in lawmaking and policy at the highest levels of government.

Before we delve into the numbers, first let’s outline what lobbying is and the regulations that are supposed to keep it in check.

Lobbying has been around since human beings have been able to form power structures. In the United States of America the practise has been going strong ever since the documents that pulled that nation into being were drafted. Early lobbyists maintained that their attempts to sway those in power were covered by both the newly minted right to petition and freedom of speech.

By the 1970s lobbying had become so woven into the fibre of US politics that every decision being made in the country could be tracked back to special interest groups and the attention (or money) they spent on politicians.

In 1995 Congress passed The Lobbying Disclosure Act to create more transparency regarding lobbying at the federal level. This law meant that all lobbyists had to register with the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives and the Secretary of the United States Senate and that they must log all of their activity. Within those logs lobbyists must divulge who their clients are and how much they are getting paid. Lobbyists must also divulge what issues their clients are paying for them to lobby.

Thanks to this law there is a massive amount of public data available that catalogues all the federal lobbying activity in the U.S since the late 90s. For our purposes, this means we know exactly who and what ZUFFA LLC has lobbied (at a federal level).

Based on documents acquired by Bloody Elbow we know that ZUFFA has been active in the world of lobbying since 2008. In this, the first of this series of reports, we will look at their first forays into US politics and how their efforts picked up steam as the years went on.

Here’s a breakdown on the lobbying ZUFFA conducted between 2008 and 2012, during the first half of the Obama Presidency.

2008

Hired lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP.

Paid BHFS $320,000.

BHFS lobbied on the following issues: mixed martial arts and S.84-Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2007 & H.R.4031-Professional Boxing Amendments.

2009

Paid BHFS $320,000.

BHFS lobbied on mixed martial arts and piracy of copyrighted programming.

2010

Paid BHFS $320,000.

BHFS lobbied on mixed martial arts, piracy of copyrighted programming and internet gambling.

2011

Paid BHFS $260,000.

BHFS lobbied on mixed martial arts and online streaming piracy/piracy of copyrighted programming.

Hired SB Strategic Consulting.

Paid SB $40,000.

SB lobbied on online streaming piracy and online gaming issues.

2012

Paid BHFS $640,000.

BHFS lobbied on mixed martial arts and online streaming piracy issues.

Paid SB $120,000.

SB lobbied on online streaming piracy and online gaming issues.

Total amount ZUFFA LLC spent on lobbying in 2008-2012: $2,020,000.

Now we we know the numbers involved over this span, let’s dive into the specific issues and the machinery ZUFFA accessed in attempts to sway things in their favour.

‘Mixed Martial Arts’ or how to win at Monopoly

ZUFFA LLC dba Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) first became an official lobbying client on April 1, 2008. That’s when they registered with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP.

BHFS is one of the US’s largest lobbying firms. Today they have around 250 lobbyists on staff. They were founded, as a law firm, in 1968 by University of Colorado Law School alums Norman Brownstein, Jack Hyatt and Steve Farber. The firm began lobbying in 1995. In 2007 they merged with a company owned by Frank Schreck, who is the former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Schreck was also the attorney of Frank Fertitta Jr., father to former UFC owners Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta. According to the Las Vegas Sun it was Schreck who helped the Fertitta family patriarch get his gaming license. So it’s easy to guess how ZUFFA LLC and BHFS started doing business together.

In their Lobbying Registration form the UFC’s ‘general lobbying issue areas’ are listed as ART (arts/entertainment), COM (communications/broadcasting/radio/TV) and LBR (labor issues/antitrust/workplace).

By 2008 the UFC’s fight for survival felt like a distant memory. The sport, thanks to the success of the initial The Ultimate Fighter series, had gotten its hooks into fringe pop culture and was surging towards becoming a mainstream sport.

Georges St-Pierre after defeating Jon Fitch during the UFC 87 on August 9, 2008.
Georges St-Pierre after defeating Jon Fitch during the UFC 87 on August 9, 2008.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

The UFC’s increase in popularity was given a major shot in the arm when WWE superstar Brock Lesnar joined the company and made his debut in February 2008. Despite losing to Frank Mir by kneebar, Lesnar’s inclusion in the Octagon would earn the UFC some of its greatest exposure to date. Lesnar fought two more times in 2008, getting his first UFC wins over Heath Herring and Randy Couture.

At this time the UFC was also in its ‘Dominant Champion Era’ with both Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva looking unbeatable atop their divisions. In 2008 GSP retained his title from Matt Sera and then bested Jon Fitch. ‘The Spider’ spent the year handing losses to Patrick Cote and former Pride champ Dan Henderson. B.J Penn was top of the food chain at lightweight with bloody wins over Sean Sherk and Joe Stevenson.

With the promotion rising out of obscurity, thanks to a fleet of fascinating and ferocious stars, ZUFFA sought to invest in the future of the company through lobbying.

In their first year with BHFS the UFC coughed up four payments of $80,000 for a total of $320,000. In the lobbying disclosure forms this money was designated for lobbying on the following ‘issues’: ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ and ‘S.84-Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2007 & H.R.4031-Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2007’.

‘Mixed martial arts’ would be listed as an issue on disclosure forms for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 as well.

Unfortunately, lobbying disclosure forms don’t provide any more information than that when it comes to what is being lobbying. We don’t know whether lobbyists are being told to lobby for or against something and we don’t know if there are specific aspects of an issue that is of particular interest to a client.

The disclosure forms also don’t name the politicians that were contacted by lobbyists. They only reveal which branches of Congress or which Federal agencies were being lobbied.

So we’re left having to make a few assumptions. However, we can make some pretty good guesses about the UFC’s positions on a number of issues. The specific lobbyists listed on the forms also give us a good idea of what members of Congress or agencies they would be best skilled at back-channeling.

For the lobbying of simply ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ we could assume that this means that the UFC are paying to have the sport presented to various politicians as part of a PR campaign, to demonstrate that MMA is a legitimate sport and a far cry from the ‘human cock-fighting’ label that almost handed the sport a death blow (courtesy of the late Senator John McCain).

However, when you look at the lobbyists listed as working on this specific case, it seems possible that part of this lobbying effort was to buttress against future allegations that the UFC is running a monopoly (as alleged in the current ant-trust lawsuit ZUFFA is fighting in court).

US-MEDIA-MERGER-TRIAL-AT&T
Makan Delrahim, former ZUFFA lobbyist and recent US Assistant Attorney General Antitrust Division.
Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Starting in 2008 Makan Delrahim is listed as one of the lobbyists under the ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ issue. Before he became a lobbyist Delrahim was Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division under the administration of George W. Bush. He was also commissioner of the Antitrust Modernization Commission.

Given his background and connections Delrahim was more than capable of presenting strong arguments on behalf of the UFC when it came to ZUFFA’s business practises and the company’s opinion that they were not a monopoly and weren’t violating any anti-trust laws.

In 2016 Delrahim wrote an oped praising then Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump and imploring that Republicans get behind their candidate. After Trump was elected Delrahim worked on the new President’s transition team and inauguration. He was then hired as deputy White House counsel.

In 2017 Donald Trump made him Assistant Attorney General for the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. And so the man who spent years defending the UFC over anti-trust laws was handed control of the government agency that pursued companies for anti-trust violations.

Delarhim lost his position in government when Trump was defeated by President Joe Biden in 2020. His replacement is William Baer, who has a reputation for going after monopolies and enforcing antitrust laws.

Delrahim’s position on monopolies has been summarized as monopolies are legal as long as they do not abuse their monopoly powers (per New York Times). Though he had been viewed as soft on monopolies, The Wall Street Journal noted that during his tenure he took some unexpected anti-monopoly actions, such as suing to stop AT&T acquire Time Warner. Delrahim’s critics state that his actions either for or against monopolies were dictated purely by whether or not Trump liked or disliked the companies involved.

Given Delrahim’s specialty it is a reasonable assumption to make that from 2008 onward he was in the trenches for ZUFFA in Washington, D.C. making sure his client would not get tagged as a monopoly. In later posts we’ll track how long Delrahim works this assignment. We don’t know if Delrahim, after reaching the most powerful position in US government with regards to anti-trust and monopolies, continued to look out for companies who used to be his clients, but if he did ZUFFA could not have had a more powerful ally in defending them from anti-trust accusations.

Other lobbyists working the ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ issue on behalf of ZUFFA include William Moschella, who was US Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs under President George W. Bush. During his time in office he was instrumental in changes to the Patriot Act that allowed interim US Attorneys to serve indefinite terms.

House Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On Fired US Attorneys
William Moschella testifying at Capitol Hill in 2007 regarding the controversial Bush-era firings of federal attorneys.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Moschella was also involved in the controversial 2007 firings of seven US Attorneys. It was alleged that those attorneys were removed from their positions by President Bush because they had failed to initiate investigations that would target Democratic politicians and their supporters. In front a House Judiciary Committee Moschella testified that the White House did not play a role in the firings. Though email evidence would prove this testimony to be inaccurate.

Also on the ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ team in 2008 were BHFS partner Norman Brownstein, Democratic strategist Alfred Mottur, Sarah Thornton (former legislative assistant for Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)) and Kathryn Bentfield (who would go on to work on the former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld’s 2020 presidential campaign).

In the second half of 2009 the ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ team reduced to just Delrahim, Moschella and Brownstein. From the second quarter of 2010 through 2012 it was just Delrahim and Moschella. Delrahim and Moschella handled all other ZUFFA lobbying duties for BHFS during this time, too.

Killing a US-wide boxing/MMA commission

In 2008 ZUFFA’s lobbying disclosure forms directly reference S.84-Professional Boxing Amendments Act of 2007 & H.R.4031-Professional Boxing Amendments.

The team who worked on lobbying those bills for ZUFFA included Brownstein, Delrahim, Moschella and Thornton. Joining them was David Cohen, Alexander Dahl and James Flood.

Cohen was part of the Whitewater investigate staff that looked into the real estate dealings of President Bill Clinton. Later he worked in the U.S. Customs Service and became Deputy National Political Director for the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.

Dahl was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He left BHFS in 2018. Currently he is General Counsel for Lawyers for Civil Justice and the founder of the lobbying firm Strategic Policy Counsel.

Flood is a former counsel to Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Assistant U.S. Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. He worked for BHFS between 2007 and 2013 and later joined the lobbying firm Crowell & Moring.

S.84 and H.R 4031 were identical bills that were submitted to the US Senate and US House of Representatives respectively in 2007. The Senate bill was introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and the House bill was introduced by Peter King (R-NY).

Senator John McCain meeting with former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield and then UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at an event focused on head injury prevention in 2015.
Senator John McCain meeting with former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield and then UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at an event focused on head injury prevention in 2015.

The bills attempted to create a federal commissioning body called the United States Boxing Commission. The USBC would have replaced the various state commissioning bodies—like the Nevada State Athletic Commission and California State Athletic Commission—and been responsible for the regulation of all boxing that occurred in the US.

The bills also included language that would “prohibit any person from arranging, promoting, organizing, producing, or fighting in a match within the United States unless the match is approved by the USBC and is held in a state or on tribal land that regulates professional boxing matches in accordance with standards and criteria established by the USBC.”

The bills also proposed measures to ensure fair treatment for boxers and more robust health and safety requirements.

Both bills were referred to committees, but neither ever made it to a vote. They died when the 110th Congress ended on January 3, 2009. Neither bill was reintroduced after that.

Based on the lobbying disclosure forms alone it is impossible to know for sure whether ZUFFA was lobbying for or against the bill.

If the bills had been passed, and the scope of the bills were expanded to mixed martial arts, the UFC would have had to drastically change how they did business. Their relationship with the NSAC, and other state commissions, would have been rendered redundant and they would have been forced to work with a new body based out of Washington D.C.

Who watches the UFC watchers? ZUFFA’s first forays into online piracy law

In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 the issues of piracy were included on ZUFFA’s lobbying disclosure forms. It was worded two different way across reports: “online streaming piracy issues” and “piracy of copyrighted programming”.

In 2011 and 2012 the reports got more specific, listing the following legislation:

  • S.978-A bill to amend the criminal penalty provision for criminal infringement
  • S.968-Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011
  • H.R.3261-Stop Online Piracy Act

In 2009 the lobbyists working the piracy beat for BHFS were Brownstein, Delrahim and Moschella.

In 2010 they were joined by Dahl. In 2011 and 2012 it was just Delrahim and Moschella working this beat (and all other ZUFFA beats).

Starting in 2011, In addition to BHFS, ZUFFA also hired SB Strategic Consulting Inc. to lobby on online streaming piracy issues.

SB Strategic Consulting is operated by Scott Bensing and Ryan Cherry. Bensing is former Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He is a former Chief of Staff for Senator John Ensign. Ensign was a US Senator for Nevada between 2001 and 2011. Ensign resigned in 2011 after a Senate Ethics Committee investigation looked into his affair with a woman who worked for a Political Action Committee that supported his election campaigns.

Cherry is a former Chief of Staff for Nevada Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison. On all the disclosure forms regarding SB’s work for ZUFFA, Bensing is the only person named lobbying on their behalf.

Like many of the lobbyists working for BHFS, Bensing’s time in government was spent exclusively within the Republican party. So we could assume that most of his lobbying efforts were directed at fellow Republicans.

We can also make a big assumption about the position Bensing and the crew from BHFS were lobbying for when it comes to ZUFFA and online piracy. And that’s that ZUFFA was absolutely paying those firms to lobby for more robust policing of online piracy and stiffer penalties for those deemed to have infringed on copyright.

We can make this assumption thanks to UFC President Dana White’s public comments regarding piracy. White’s views on piracy border on the fanatical with disdain consistently being expressed for illegal streaming of UFC events and his hopes that those responsible are caught and face the harshest penalties available.

Unfortunately for ZUFFA, the companies first attempt to change US law to make things tougher on pirates hit a brick wall.

S.968-Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 aka (the PROTECT IP Act or PIPA) and S.978-A bill to amend the criminal penalty provision for criminal infringement were both introduced on May 12, 2011 in the US Senate.

The PROTECT IP act was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). S.978-A was introduced by Senator Amy Klobucher (D-MN).

Klobucher’s bill was co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Christopher Coons (D-DE). The bill sought to amend the federal criminal code to increase the penalty for criminal infringement of copyright.

Specifically the bill targeted offences that consisted of 10 or more public performances by electronic means during an 180-day period where either the total retail value of the performances would, if purchased legally, exceed $2,500 or the license to offer those performances would exceed $5,000.

An illegally streamed UFC pay-per-view that was viewed by around 40 people on a single night would have fit this criteria.

The bill would have made the penalty for this offences up to 5 years in prison as well as a fine.

A month after this bill was introduced it was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee. During a committee hearing on Oversight of Intellectual Property Law Enforcement Efforts on June 22, 2011 the amendment was discussed. In that hearing Senator Leahy gave an opening statement saying that the bill would compliment his PROTECT IP Act. However, Klobuchers’s bill would never receive a vote on the Senate floor and so it died when the 112th Congress ended on January 3, 2013.

The PROTECT IP Act also failed to make it out of committee and was not reintroduced after the 112th Congress ended. The path to get there was a lot more interesting than what happened with Klobucher’s amendment, though.

Leahy’s bill was introduced with 11 co-sponsors and would add 20 more. Among those co-sponsors were prominent Democrats including Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Republicans John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC). Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also co-sponsored the bill.

The bill was an attempt at sweeping reforms to US copyright law that would have given copyright holders more tools to combat “rogue websites dedicated to the sale of infringing or counterfeit goods”. The bill was especially aimed at overseas pirates who were infringing on US based copyright holders.

Opposition to the bill was immediate and robust. Opponents in Congress warned that the bill could damage freedom of speech, innovation and internet integrity. Companies who opposed the bill (and would have lobbied against it) included internet giants Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, eBay and Reddit. The charitable organizations Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Wikipedia also opposed the bill.

Opposition from the tech industry included a letter to lawmakers that claimed the bill would, “hurt economic growth and chill innovation in legitimate services that help people create, communicate, and make money online”

Wikipedia and other websites staged blackouts to express opposition to the bill.

After witnessing this opposition to the bill the White House commented that, though it believed combating online piracy is important, it believed the PROTECT IP act was too extreme in its potential for creating online censorship and inhibiting innovation.

Those words from the White House pretty much killed the bill. Days later Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that a vote on the bill would be postponed until issues were resolved. The bill was never heard of again.

People hold signs at a protest by the te
A protest against the PROTECT IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act in New York City on January 18, 2012.
Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

H.R.3261-Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA) was introduced on October 26, 2011, after PIPA was introduced, but before that bill was taken down by opposition voices.

SOPA was introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX-21) and had bi-partisan support in the form of 23 co-sponsors. It was very similar to PIPA and suffered an identical fate. This one didn’t even make it to committee.

The UFC invested in lobbying all three of these bills, likely because they wanted to see them turned into law. However, their investment was heavily outweighed by those who were fighting against the bill. Whatever lobbying power they could exert was surely overshadowed by what Facebook and Google were doing, both in the halls of Congress and with their online advocacy against the bill.

These bills probably represent ZUFFA’s first strikeouts in the sport of lobbying. However, when it comes to fighting piracy, the game for ZUFFA did not end here.

Dabbling in internet gambling

The only other issue mentioned in lobbying disclosure documents between 2008 and 2012 is ‘internet gambling.’

BHFS had this issue on their books for ZUFFA in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Delrahim and Moschella handled the issue each of those years. Dahl was involved in 2010 and Mottur helped out in 2010 and 2011.

In 2012 the Nevada based Bensing also got involved.

With no specific legislation listed on the forms it’s hard to know exactly what ZUFFA were lobbying for at this time. It’s unknown if these efforts were in pursuit of specific issues regarding online betting on the UFC or if these efforts were designed to benefit the Fertitta Brothers other business; Station Casinos.

Conclusion

From looking at the documentation available we can track the early history of the UFC’s lobbying activities rather well. We know that their entry into this world was with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a company with a deep connection to the Fertitta family. And we can see that their first salvos with lobbying were modest and successful.

The $320,000 ZUFFA invested in lobbying in 2008 was spent on efforts regarding a federal nationwide boxing commission (which we assume they didn’t want to happen) and their campaign to advocate for ‘mixed martial arts’ (or their stance that the UFC was not a monopoly).

If 2008 was viewed as a success by ZUFFA, that may have emboldened the company to try and reach beyond issues directly affecting MMA, namely online piracy.

After two years of lobbying this issue, they upped their ante in 2011 and 2012, hiring a second lobbying firm to bolster their efforts on the issue. As they did this, three focal points for their activism came into light in the form of bills that would have made life much tougher for pirates.

ZUFFA threw down for PIPA and SOPA, paying their lobbyists more than they ever had, but they were knocked out thanks to the heavyweights fighting on the other side of the issue.

After tasting some success and then a big defeat, where did ZUFFA go from here? We’ll answer that in our next report, covering 2012-2016.

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