In a move that both shocked and delighted the MMA scene in British Columbia, the provincial government recently tabled Bill 50, which would set up a provincial athletic commission to oversee and regulate professional combat sports, taking the responsibility from the mish-mash of municipal athletic commissions currently operating.
The municipality system had been a hindrance to the growth of the sport, which each local governing body free to operate by their own set of rules and standards. The current system had led to situations like the one in North Vancouver, where city council avoided regulating MMA events by simply dissolving their athletic commission.
It also led to the years-long fiasco that has been the sport of mixed martial arts vs. the City of Vancouver. Despite approving a two-year “trial period” whereby the city could sanction MMA events, city council demanded indemnities so high that only the UFC could afford them, and even the UFC eventually decided they wouldn’t come back under the current structure.
The province currently has a regulatory body for amateur events, MMABC, which operates as a non-profit organization staffed by volunteers. The organization’s chairman, former MMA fighter and promoter Bill Mahood, was surprised but encouraged by the news:
It was a big surprise to all of us. I was at the [Vancouver Athletic Commission] having a meeting two weeks ago and we talked about the possibility of a provincial commission and our feeling was the province had no desire to pursue it; and then boom out of the blue came Bill 50. I think on a professional level it’s absolutely what the sport needs. The municipal commission structure is really difficult. There’s only six cities in the province that are regulating MMA and none of them are in the Lower Mainland area except for Vancouver which only [did] the UFC. I think it’s a big step in the right direction.
A single administration also ensures a single set of rules and guidelines, which has been sorely lacking. With a provincial commission in place, there would be no further questions as to what can be approved in Prince George vs. what can be approved in the city of Victoria, for example. This would only serve to enhance fighter safety while making it easier for promoters to hold more events, something Vancouver Athletic Commissioner Jonathan Tweedale emphasizes:
The move to a uniform province-wide regulatory framework will provide better and more consistent protection for fighters, and the consistency and predictability afforded by a uniform framework will enable promoters to promote more events across the province as compared to under today’s regulatory patchwork. A single set of referees and judges (all licensed by the Provincial Commissioner) will afford the opportunity for province-wide competency and training requirements, which is notably absent today (to the detriment of the fighters).
A provincial commission would also be responsible for any and all liability issues and indemnification thereof, which was one of the major issues the City of Vancouver had in allowing the sport. Taking that responsibility away from the City not only relieves the municipalities of the burden of liability, it also takes a major argument away from anti-MMA city councillors. Not only would UFC be able to come back to Vancouver, but the door would be open for smaller promotions such as Bellator, Maximum Fighting Championship, Aggression MMA and other smaller Canadian promotions who would no longer be frozen out by the staggering amount of insurance the City was demanding. UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner welcomed the news:
It’s something that’s absolutely we wanted. We think there should be one set of rules and regulations in BC. We’re very thrilled with that. We were hoping this was going to happen.
I don’t [see any further resistance]. Whenever we have a meeting with Vancouver City Council, in the next 3-4 weeks, we hope that they will give us the go-ahead to put a show there. The reason we’re not in Vancouver this year is because they haven’t met yet. So all the dates we could have come are gone, so instead this year we’re going to Toronto, Calgary and Montreal.
The question then becomes who would be the right person to lead a commission at the provincial level. MMA has run into problems with other provincial and state athletic commissions who have relied on people with a boxing background, possibly because of proponents of that sport’s concern of MMA usurping their spot among fans and athletes alike. The ideal candidate would not only have a background in multiple combat sports, but would also be savvy enough to deal with the regulatory and political hurdles the position would certainly entail.
The names from those “in the know” that are repeatedly suggested are Mahood and fellow MMABC director Paul Lazenby. Lazenby has an extensive background in both MMA and muay thai, as well as pro wrestling, which would presumably fall under the commission’s responsibility. Lazenby also has the advantage of being one of the more media-savvy candidates, having served as an MMA analyst on both radio and TV. When asked if he would accept such a position, Lazenby says he would listen to any offers, but defers to Mahood.
Mahood approaches the possibilities of such a position with great enthusiasm. His idea for the commission allies itself more with the structure currently in place at MMABC, with responsibility shared among a group of qualified individuals, rather than having an “athletics czar” solely responsible.
I see it as a real opportunity with the right people in place. I don’t think it’s a single person thing and that’s really important. I think to find one individual who has all of those skills would be pretty darn impossible. I think it should be a committee-type structure. Where you have a group of people that have varying skills. Where it’s administrative as well as technical from the sport end of it, as well as obviously medical and legal. I think a good group of people is probably the way to go as opposed to a single individual.
Skeptics of the idea point to the current provincial government’s sagging support among voters and question whether the idea is a quick way to convert political capital among the constituents. Others are concerned that the commission would adopt a similar posture to Vancouver City Council, which would effectively serve as a disincentive to promoters to hold events in BC. Another concern is that cities would require their own additional indemnity, effectively “double-dipping”, which is the practice in cities such as Seattle. But while the idea of a commission and its role is still taking shape, Lazenby is convinced this is a big step in the right direction.
With all the bureaucratic obstacles that MMA has already had to negotiate in this province, I can’t see where even a worst-case-scenario provincial commission could be any worse. And I’m optimistic that it would actually make our situation substantially better.
In the end, it comes down to two things: public support and revenue. The public support is clearly there, as evidenced by the thousands that paid top dollar to attend Vancouver’s two UFC offerings, as well as the groundswell of grassroots support that keeps the BC MMA scene thriving. And as Mahood astutely notes, governments at any level love nothing more than a new revenue stream.
I think they’d like the money. The big events, even the small events I ran in Vernon back in the day. We had 1100 people show up and half of those people got hotel rooms, people go out for dinner, people go for drinks afterwards. Any sort of event, a music concert or whatever, any sort of event that gets people out of the house at night is economically good for a municipality. In these tough times we can’t be turning aside this kind of revenue.