Ontario Decides to Sanction MMA; UFC Eyes Toronto in 2011

UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner (file photo): Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com

The sport of mixed martial arts has taken another step towards legitimacy, as the Canadian province of Ontario announced it will sanction MMA beginning in 2011.

“We’re thrilled [MMA is being sanctioned],” said UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner. “Ontario and Toronto, in particular, are hotbeds for MMA and not to have it there didn’t make sense. In the past, it wasn’t that the government was against sanctioning MMA; it’s just that it wasn’t the right time for it. Now, it’s the right time, and we're excited about it.”

Ratner has said previously that Toronto is one of the UFC’s top markets in terms of pay-per-view buys and viewers on a per-capita basis. The UFC’s Canadian office, which opened about three months ago, is based in Toronto. At that time of the opening, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said Canada was the promotion’s second biggest market outside of the United States, accounting for 17 percent of its overall business.

Sophia Aggelonitis, the Minister of Consumer Affairs for Ontario, said the decision to sanction MMA in the province was one that has been a long time in coming.

“Our government has been monitoring MMA for a while, and the sport has really evolved and exploded,” said Aggelonitis, whose ministry includes the Ontario Athletic Commission, which will oversee mixed martial arts in the province. “I don’t have a clear answer as to why we’re just now getting around to sanctioning it, but it’s always been on the radar and something we’ve been looking at for a while.

“People want to see it in Ontario,” she added. “People want the choice to be able to see it, and the government has listened. It’s our goal to keep competitors safe and give an economic boost to cities and venues that want to host events in the province.”

The sanctioning of mixed martial arts is expected to help Ontario’s struggling government, which is said to be running a $20 billion budget deficit. Aggelonitis said holding MMA events in Ontario will enable the residents to spend their money locally, resulting in more revenues for businesses and the provincial government.

“I don’t have the exact numbers, but it’s my understanding that a major UFC event can bring as many as 30,000 people to town, and they’ll make about $4-6 million of economic impact on the city,” said Aggelonitis. “[At UFC 113 in Montreal in May], 42 percent of the ticket sales were made to Ontario residents. It’s important for us to be able to have events here in Ontario. We already regulate boxing and kickboxing, and now, we’re going to be doing MMA, too.”

Now that mixed martial arts will be sanctioned in Ontario, the Ontario Athletic Commission will adopt a set of rules, expected to be the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Once the rules are approved, the commission will have to hire inspectors and hold seminars for judges, referees and inspectors. Ratner said only then will the UFC hold an event in the province.

Contrary to several published reports, the UFC has not reserved a March 2011 date at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, the 60,000-seat home to Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays.

“I can tell you that we haven’t reserved a date for the Rogers Centre in March and not reserved any dates at all right now,” said Tom Wright, the UFC’s Director of Canadian Operations. “We’ll do that when the time is right. I heard that report and chuckled when I heard it.”

Ratner said not to expect to see the UFC in Ontario until sometime in the first half of 2011.

“We’re making the schedule for next year right now, but we want to make sure the commission in Ontario is going to be ready for us,” he said. “With everything they need to do to get up and running, we’re looking for the first or second quarter of next year.”

Besides the Rogers Centre, the 20,000-seat Air Canada Centre and the 9,500-seat Ricoh Coliseum could potentially host events in the metropolitan Toronto area. Also, the UFC could run events in other Ontario cities, such as Hamilton, Ottawa and Windsor.

The UFC may still have one hurdle left to clear. The British Columbia Medical Association is reportedly considering calling for a nationwide ban of mixed martial arts in Canada. Wright and Ratner agreed the association’s basis for the ban is due to a lack of proper information.

“First of all, it’s speculation,” said Wright. “It’s hypothetical, and whenever there’s something hypothetical or there’s speculation, it’s not worth commenting on. We haven’t spoken with them yet, and I’m not sure why they’d want to make that kind of a recommendation. There’s actually less injuries in MMA than in boxing. We’d want them to work with us and look at the facts before making that kind of a decision.”

Ratner said he plans to talk to the medical association and help its members learn about the sport of mixed martial arts, something which benefits not just the UFC but the sport as a whole.

“We need to sit down with them and educate them,” said Ratner. “We need to have them talk to several doctors and show them the reports. The worst thing they can do to MMA is to drive it underground. If you have fights with no doctors, insurance or properly trained officials, that’s the worst thing that could happen. Even if we only go to a state once a year or every 18 months, there’s a lot of other people out there. When I talk to commissions, I talk about the sport as a whole. We want the sport regulated wherever there’s a commission.”

Mixed martial arts is sanctioned in 44 states in the U.S. New York, West Virginia and Vermont have commissions but have not approved MMA. Connecticut, Alaska and Wyoming do not have athletic commissions. Ratner confirmed New York is the next state for which the UFC is aiming.

“New York is still in the forefront, but we’re opening an office in China and we’re looking at Brazil, as well,” said Ratner. “Right now, we’re looking at expanding to foreign countries and Mexico, but New York is at the forefront of getting regulated here in the U.S.”

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