Updated: Oct 14, 2020
The last time we saw a live MMA event take place in New England was on February 29th in Springfield, MA when Premier FC 30 took place. Since then every New England based promotion has canceled events, and being in limbo would be an understatement for all of these promotions. The lack of fights at the regional level is a massive hit for the younger guys who are looking to make their mark and achieve their goals of getting to the next level of fighting on the national stage. Not only are these younger fighters stunting their MMA growth with the lack of training and events, but our New England based MMA promotions are also taking a big hit with this stall in action. So what does the landscape look like right now, and what does the future hold for both fighters and promotions in New England? Is this the beginning of the end for some fighters and promotions? Possibly, but we'll peel back the onion and see what we can expect in the near future.
Karyn Wesch and the Premier FC crew were the last organization to hold a MMA event here in New England. Premier FC 30 was a big event for the promotion with 3 new champions being crowned. I was cage side with the rest of the NEMMA crew for the show, and it was a night filled with competitive, entertaining fights, but who would have seen what was coming at the time. A mere 3 weeks later the entire world shutdown due to Covid 19. 2 weeks before we were scheduled to launch our site on the backs of Cage Titans and their back to back shows on April 3rd and 4th. Obviously those plans were put to rest by the honorable Chuck Baker when mass gatherings were outlawed in late March.
Since Premier's last show on February 29th, Karyn Wesch has been hard at work, matching fights for a planned returned to live action in Springfield on October 3rd. She's released a handful of fights scheduled to be on the card, and has been promoting the event pretty heavily on social media. The card is scheduled to be headlined by New England MMA and UFC vet, Marcus "The Irish Hand Grenade" Davis, versus Team Link Hooksett fighter Nick Alley (6-3). An interesting matchup that would place Davis in the center of a MMA cage as a competitor for the first time since losing to "The" Ryan Sanders by cut 6.5 years ago at NEF 12.
I'm not going to lie. We here at NEMMA have been very skeptical of the possibility of Premier FC 31 taking place in Massachusetts on October 3rd, and that is the main reason that we haven't done much in the way of promoting the event. After speaking with Premier FC promoter and matchmaker, Karyn Wesch, at length over multiple phone calls, I have a clearer picture of how the event may be rolled out, but with the amount of uncertainty that surrounds all amateur and professional sports in the region, who knows what could happen between now and the beginning of October.
Premier has been releasing newly billed fights on the card over the last few weeks with the promise of having tickets up for sale "soon". The event is scheduled to take place at the MassMutual Center, but with the state of Massachusetts being the owner of the building, I find it hard to believe that there will be any wiggle room when it comes to fans being in attendance, and the protocols that must be followed. Wesch has made it clear that she has been given clearance by the management group at the MassMutual Center, which is operated by the folks at MGM Springfield, to have fans in attendance, but we all know that the buck really stops with the Mass State Athletic Commission (MSAC), Mass Convention Center Authority (MCCA), and Charlie Baker.
Under the Phase 3 of the reopening plan in Massachusetts, it outlines that professional sports can resume under the guise of their respective leagues taking the proper measures in order to assure safety, and these professional sports can only resume without fans in attendance. If that is truly the case, then it's unlikely we'll see amateur fighters competing within Massachusetts' borders during phase 3, and this would also most likely mean that Premier wouldn't be able to have fans in the stands at their show on October 3rd. This isn't stopping Wesch from moving forward though. She'd love to have fans in the stands, but when asked if she'd still put the show on if the state would not allow fans in attendance, she responded without hesitating, "Yes".
Premier is definitely putting themselves out there during this time of uncertainty, and I give Karyn credit for her stance and her passion to put this show on. She hasn't purchased flights, or booked hotel rooms for the fighters just yet, and she has about a month until she'll need to start pulling the trigger on those type of accommodations, so she has some time, but with the way the state of Massachusetts is reopening, I wouldn't hold my breath on having fans in attendance. Wesch has taken an aggressive stance on this topic, and really has been the only New England based promoter who has been willing to stick their neck out there and put a show on paper. For that she has to be commended, but this will either blow up in her face, or be a feather in her cap, and only time will tell. Regardless, we here at NEMMA truly hope that the event goes off one way or the other and we can cover it. We're pulling for Wesch and Premier FC, but the odds are stacked against them with how Charlie Baker and his Gestapo have ran the Bay State over the last 5 months during this difficult flu season.
As with every promotion in the region, New England Fights has also had to put their operations on hold. NEF has become a New England powerhouse over the last 10 years, and have really cornered the northern New England market. Holding all but one of their events in Maine over the last decade, they've been at the mercy of Maine's governor, Janet Mills, as she's put the limit of gatherings at 50 people until recently when she increased that to 100.
NEF held their last event back in the beginning of February, and had an event scheduled for June until the kibosh was put on large gatherings in the state of Maine. That June event has been rescheduled for September, but the likelihood of that one also getting postponed is very good based on the current state of affairs in Maine. I caught up with the owners of NEF, Nick DiSalvo and Matt Peterson, and asked them if they still thought that they could pull off the September card:
"We decided to reschedule to September 12th back in the spring with the hope that reopening would be further along by September. As we are getting closer to that date, we will need to re-evaluate based on current conditions and make a decision in the very near future on whether to move forward or reschedule. We expect to make an announcement in the coming days after we have spoken with the venue."
As much as all of these promotions would love to put on events to keep these fighters active, the crux of the issue lies in the finances. The fact of the matter is that regional MMA promotions rely heavily on ticket sales in order to fund their operations and to put shows on. If they aren't allowed to put mass amounts of people in a small space, then they can't sell an adequate number of tickets to make the numbers work. When asked about this topic and if it's possible to put on local shows without fans, here's what DiSalvo had to say:
"We have explored, and continue to explore, different options for running events without a crowd or with a limited audience. Ticket sales are obviously the major revenue source for most, if not all, regional promotions. Without having a broadcast/streaming rights deal in place like national promotions have as an alternative revenue source, financing these events becomes a challenge. At the end of the day, fighters need to fight and we as regional promoters need to find a way to keep moving the sport forward. We will continue to look for solutions to this issue."
NEF is willing to explore taking their show on the road, and will look into holding events in other states, but there is a lot of factors involved in doing that, and governments have placed numerous barriers in the way of putting on a show in your own back yard or on the road. NEF has always been an organization that looks out for the fighters and runs a very tight ship. At this point the goal isn't so much as to turn a profit, but to get these up and coming fighters active again, and throwing down in the cage in order to progress their careers.
"Those of us who truly love the sport will find a way to make things work when there is more reopening. Hopefully, at some point in the coming months, we will see governors allow venues to operate at partial capacity, so that some tickets can be sold to offset costs. Getting back in action, not the profit, is the important thing at this point. But how do you do that without losing tens of thousands of dollars on each event? That's the challenge I think we all face right now."
Plymouth, MA based promotion Cage Titans, headed up by Mike Polvere, has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to regional promotions, and with their current partnership with FloCombat, there is a possibility that they could financially make a fan-less show work. Polvere has been in touch with the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission (MSAC) recently, and is exploring the possibility of holding events in the state for professionals only, with no fans in attendance.
The legal verbiage that Governor Baker has passed down has allowed professional sports teams within the state to compete under the guise of their professional sports leagues. Polvere's argument is that Cage Titans is the sports league, and the professional fighters are the "team". It's a valid argument, and one that got attention from the MSAC with the promise of researching this angle with the governor's office. Knowing at which the pace that government moves, I wouldn't hold your breath on seeing Cage Titans put on an event in Massachusetts in the coming months, but maybe at some point later in the fall or early winter we possibly could see a professional card put on by Polvere and crew if the MSAC is willing to play ball. At this point it seems as though the MSAC is having a difficult time getting the governor's attention on their matters, but hopefully with a loud enough voice, they can get some clarity from the higher ups and give a thumbs up or down to Polvere & company.
Calvin and Jamison Kattar, the promoters of New Hampshire based promotion Combat Zone, have also been in talks with their commission about the possibility of putting on an event. But the issue still remains; if you can't put at least 1,000 people in a space, it makes it incredibly difficult to put on a local show and make the numbers work.
The margins are incredibly thin in the regional MMA business, and ticket sales make up 80-90% of the revenue that these promotions take in, and without the possibility of those tickets sales, or a streaming deal in place, it makes it incredibly difficult to put on multiple shows without going belly-up. These promotions aren't around to get rich, but they also aren't here to donate tens of thousands of dollars per event for the greater good.
One question that pops into my mind when I think of the current state of New England MMA is; will the current environment possibly open the door for co-promoted events to help spread the cost of putting on such an event? We inch closer to making the numbers work if we can have two promotions combine forces to absorb costs, and showcase our local fighters. But without a streaming deal in place, it's impossible to not take a 5 figure hit to the wallet. CES and Cage Titans have the inside track when it comes to streaming, as they have relationships with UFC FightPass and FloCombat respectively. This may not allow them to turn a profit, but with proper viewership, it gets them closer to breaking even than any of the remaining promotions in New England who do not currently have those relationships in place.
It's a precarious time for regional MMA, and I'm sure we'll see our fair share of promotions fold or take an extended hiatus until things return to normal. With all of these question marks floating around the regional MMA scene, one thing is for sure; the promotions that adapt and evolve will be the ones that stick around and most likely grow exponentially once things return to normal. Crisis often presents opportunity, and the promotions that adapt with this enormous change will be the ones that are holding events that we're still attending in 10 years. There isn't a magic bullet that can solve the problems facing regional MMA promotions right now, but with the combination of technology, innovative thinking, strategic partnerships, perseverance, and most importantly, support from the local MMA community, some of our New England based promotions will find their stride and survive long term.