Vancouver has been a tough sell for the UFC.
Even as the rest of the fight-frenzied Canadian market warms to the boiling point for mixed martial arts, the country’s third largest city remains weirdly standoffish. You could argue that leading up to UFC 115 in June '10 and Saturday’s UFC 131 that Vancouver has put on a tour de force performance of how not to be an attractive and accommodating host for live MMA shows.
If the city isn’t openly hostile toward the sport, it certainly seems skittish. After first appearing to try to price the UFC out of town with steep insurance fees prior to UFC 115, it asked the company to pay for extra police patrols outside Rogers Arena during this weekend’s pay-per-view card. Clearly, it expects trouble.
Last year, the UFC gritted its teeth and ponied up the dough for the insurance -- a sum that was described as “astronomical” in local news reports -- though rumors percolated that it briefly considered moving UFC 115 to Cincinnati. This year perhaps it’d had enough, saying “thanks, but no thanks” to paying for more police.
“In terms of getting [UFC 115] to occur it was one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult events that we’ve ever held …” UFC Director of Canadian Operations Tom Wright told ESPN.com. “But we got it done and frankly it was easier to do it this year.”
Despite the political wrangling it took to make UFC 131 go off, Wright said the company’s relationship with Vancouver is getting better and the promotion remains committed to staging future shows in British Columbia. At least for now.
“The challenge that we’ve had haven’t left us in a position where we’re not interested in coming back to Vancouver,” he said. “It’s quite the contrary.”
This week Wright will sit down with representatives from the British Columbian government to “start the conversation” about the need for a provincial athletic commission similar to the ones in places like Ontario and Quebec. Much of the current problem, he said, is that BC didn’t establish an athletic commission to oversee MMA when it voted to legalize the sport on a trial basis in December 2009. Instead, it handed much of the power to local governments. In Vancouver, said local government has been a royal pain.
Wright’s message to local politicians will be partly regulatory -- the need for consistent standards in health and safety, referee training and judging -- and partly economic. He’s quick to point out the positive responses to UFC events in other Canadian cities, citing as much as a $40-50 million injection into the local economy during last April’s blockbuster UFC 129 in Toronto. The implication is clear: If Vancouver wants a shot at similar big bucks, it can’t continue to treat the fight promoters differently than organizers of other events.
“If the province of BC in general and the city of Vancouver statistically is a tough place to do business then, guess what,” Wright said, “we’re going to take the business elsewhere.”
So why is Vancouver so concerned about MMA -- or at least keeping it out? Well, from the view of the good people of British Columbia (at least the ones in public office), some of what the rest of us might see as paranoia is just cautiousness. Maybe it’s also understandable. As progressive and cosmopolitan as it is, the city has been burned by sports in the past.
There were riots in the streets back in 1994 when its beloved Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup final to the New York Rangers. Injuries numbered in triple digits and it took more than 500 police to calm things down. Lawsuits raged in Canadian courts for years. With Vancouver back in the Cup final this year and a possible Game 5 scheduled for Rogers Arena the night before UFC 131, you can’t blame them for taking precautions.
In addition, whatever fear the city might have about MMA was stoked last summer when a gay couple was assaulted outside their apartment in the hours after UFC 115. The men told police and media they thought their attackers came from the fighting event and police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, but have yet to provide evidence substantiating that it had anything to do with UFC 115. Even if it’s true, it would be wrong to condemn an entire fan base on the actions of one or two goons, but one of the victims was quoted saying the town needed to “have a hard think” before inviting the UFC back. City fathers seem to have at least partially heeded that call.
Still, Wright said he doesn’t think it’s fair for the UFC to be treated differently than other similarly-sized live events. He cites statistics from Vancouver’s own police department that there were actually fewer incidents of violence at UFC 115 than at a Rhianna concert in town later that year and says during his short tenure with the company he can’t recall any other city requesting the UFC pay for security in neighborhoods outside the arena.
In fact, many of the stipulations made by the local government in Vancouver have been “over the top,” he said.
“It’s a pretty slippery slope for all sports organizations and all entertainment organizations,” Wright said. “If you go that route [of paying for extra police], then every sport, every concert, every event that is held in every venue is going to be asked for the same thing … we didn’t feel that we should be painted with a different kind of brush.”
Like it or not, Vancouver has thus far been intent on composing its own picture of MMA. Whether or not the sport has a future there may well depend on how things go during the next few days.