Game Changer: UFC All-in on Legalized Sports Gambling

Game Changer: UFC All-in on Legalized Sports Gambling

The chief operating officer of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tells Breitbart Sports that gambling is “good for sport” and “good for the UFC,” making the mixed-martial arts (MMA) outfit the second major sports brand, behind the NBA, to endorse a legalized sports book in the United States.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that that increases fan enjoyment in what they are watching,” Lawrence Epstein maintains of wagering. “Gambling is good for sport.”

The support for betting from major sports organizations threatens to revolutionize the business of athletics and soften the calcified opposition to gambling from other professional sports leagues. The endgame legislatively for the invigorated gambling push appears to be the repeal or reform of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), a federal law which restricts most sports betting in every state save for Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon.

Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, owners of the Las Vegas-based promotion, also serve as the principal shareholders of the Station Casinos, raising concerns that the business interests represent a conflict—or perhaps a confluence—of interests on the question of a legalized sports book, which already exists in the Silver State. Epstein points out that Station Casinos, though accepting sports wagers, do not take bets on the UFC.  

Whether the promotion’s fighters lay wagers on bouts remains an altogether different matter. “We have a code of conduct that prevents our fighters from doing anything illegally,” Epstein points out. But no specific UFC rule forbids them from making a legal wager, unlike restrictions on direct employees of the outfit. “They’re not permitted to bet on any UFC event,” Epstein says of UFC employees. “But our athletes are independent contractors. Subject to our code of conduct, they can do anything they want to do” so long it’s as not in conflict with laws or rules governing the sport.

Given that lower-tier fighters on cards in recent months reportedly pocketed as little as $8,000 from the promotion, what’s to stop a cash- and ethically-strapped fighter from taking a larger payment from gamblers to take a dive? “The current landscape is arguably the worst of all scenarios,” Epstein insists. Gambling, on the internet or through the local barroom bookie, remains widespread in America, the UFC executive points out. In Asia and Europe where gambling has emerged from the underground, heavy money on a given competitor can alert law enforcement to impropriety.

“If there is an unusual pattern of betting on a sporting event,” Epstein says of legalized sports gambling abroad, “that information is provided to authorities. Properly regulated, gaming can be a catalyst to making all sporting events fairer and making sure the sports aren’t compromised.”

Does Epstein foresee a time when leagues grab a cut of the action? “The answer is yes and it’s already happening.” While he doubts the notion that companies such as the UFC or the NBA will directly take bets, partly because of “burdensome” and “onerous” regulations, he points to existing deals enjoyed by European soccer clubs in which they profit directly from the involvement of above-board bookies. “Two ways primarily right now,” Epstein says of how the UFC and other sports behemoths might benefit. “One way is through sponsorship…. The second is media rights. Companies like Bet365 and others are actually licensing content from the sports leagues,” which they provide directly to the gamblers passionately interested in the outcome.

The UFC’s endorsement of legalized sports betting follows legislation signed into law by Governor Chris Christie establishing a sports book in New Jersey and a shocking about-face by the NBA on gambling this summer. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote in the New York Times Thursday, “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”

At 20-years old, the UFC, Epstein notes, operates untethered to ancient traditions that frown upon mixing the action on the field with the action involving the bookmaker. “We’re sort of the new kids on the block,” he explains. “We have a fresh way of looking at sport.”

This fresh manner, which employs reality television to propel MMA’s personalities and a nine-figure deal with Fox that brings fighting back to free TV, embraces a radical approach to gambling that surely has Bart Giamatti and Kenesaw Mountain Landis banging on their coffins.

“At the end of the day,” Epstein reasons, “sports gaming is good for sport and it’s certainly good for the UFC.”