Friday, May 13, 2011

UFC and Station Casinos Facing New Battles

By: Rich Bergeron

The UFC and Station Casinos have both been making headline news over the past few weeks. The two entities typically keep their operations wholly unique without any major overlap. Yet, in many ways these two companies with brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III at the helm have been suffering from some of the same woes. While the brass at Station Casinos grapple with local Culinary Union workers and a massive National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Complaint against the casino chain, the UFC recently held a fighter summit at Red Rock Casino (A Station Casino property) and announced measures that appear designed to make sure a fighter's union never materializes. The unspoken message to the MMA practitioners in attendance seemed to say to all of them that the one thing UFC definitely doesn't stand for is Union Friendly Company.

As far as Station Casinos and their union troubles, it seems that they literally have no defense in the NLRB case. Casino brass recently brought back two employees fired for union organization efforts in what looks like a clear surrender, potentially opening the door to further appeasement efforts. Culinary Workers Union President Geoconda Arguello-Kline pointed out recently that the "We love Locals" motto of Station Casinos comes across as slick and disingenuous due to how the company's been treating their union-friendly staff over the years. Arguello-Kline explained, “It is truly alarming that a company which claims to love locals has had the federal government step in to ensure that workers are not retaliated against for exercising their rights under federal labor laws.”

Culinary Local 226 has been anything but quiet about their concerns, and their president seems to have a point about the casino chain's company slogan hiding the real issues related to attempts to unionize. After all, the most recent union protest on March 24, 2011 inspired a response from the company that included rolling out a chain of three "We Love Locals" billboard trucks to mask a 1,000-member, two-mile march from union headquarters to Palace Station. 100 of those 1,000 "Locals" were arrested for trying to block the entrance of the casino during the protest.

Whatever happens with the NLRB complaint, it seems highly unlikely that any company executives responsible for the anti-labor climate at Stations will leave their offices in handcuffs. Like the fat cats on Wall Street who saw their companies pay fines their personal, irresponsible behavior inspired, the most culpable company employees at Station Casinos will probably get off with no real punishment at all. Ths is despite the fact that the original 166-count complaint featured charges of threats, intimidation, interrogation, surveillance, bribery, discouragement, discrimination, discipline and even physical assault to thwart workers efforts to form a union. Yet, any resolution of these disturbing issues is most likely to involve the company being forced to pay fines and institute changes that will make it easier for workers to organize without repurcussions and retaliation.

Station Casinos was once labeled as one of the 100 best companies to work for by Fortune Magazine. Yet, despite the union issues and a highly contentious bankruptcy process, the Fertitta brothers remain high on another important list. Both Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III had no trouble making the Forbes list again this year with both said to be worth around a cool billion. Though they slipped a few spots in the heirarchy of that rich list, the favorable outcome to the bankruptcy put nearly all of their financially-stressed properties back under their control. They even went on a hiring spree and launched a huge giveaway of cars and cash before instituting reorganization plans revealing they might not even end up paying for most of what they gave away to generate business.

It's hard to believe this is the same company that at one point planned to build a $10 billion development featuring three hotels and casinos at the site of the Wild Wild West motel and casino on Tropicana Avenue and Interstate 15. (concept photo at left)

The project also reportedly included a possible plan to place an arena on site. The concept was even championed by a Deutsche Bank official, which is ironic considering that's one of the same institutions now left holding the bag for a great deal of the casino chain's massive debt load. That huge amount of Station Casinos debt that led to the company's bankruptcy was racked up and steadily growing out of control long before the "Viva" resort plans hit the presses. Just acquiring the target land area for the proposed--and now likely doomed--development cost the Fertittas $335 million over a ten-year span.

Considering the completely irresponsible handling of the company's business by the Fertitta Brothers, it's no surprise that their lenders are now challenging the family's buyback of Green Valley Ranch for $500 million, which would eliminate $378 million in debt. It seems to be perfect timing considering the UFC, owned by the same Fertitta brothers, is flying high enough to help out with some of the big ticket buybacks of these highly-distressed properties. The UFC's success has been so pronounced that there was even enough cash flow to buy the next best fight league on the market. To keep the UFC gravy train flowing, though, it's going to take more than the acquisition of a major competitor like Strikeforce.

To really take heed of the lessons learned by Station Casinos' union struggles and bankruptcy, the Fertittas will have to focus more on saving money than spending it when it comes to operating the UFC. Though there is no current fighter union taking shape at this point, some recent decisions made by UFC brass indicate that it's something the organization seems concerned about. It can't help that one of their Strikeforce stars, Nick Diaz, is working on scheduling a boxing match with Jeff Lacy this fall. So, fighter payment is sure to take center stage as a contentious issue that must be dealt with soon if the Fertittas and Dana White intend to avoid the formation of any union.

The UFC took the first step in the union-prevention direction by announcing a new accident insurance offering designed to assist fighters who suffer injuries during training. The news came at a time when the injury bug hit the league square in the face after two marquee fighters (Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard) wound up having to pull out of their main event fight scheduled for UFC 130. Frankie Edgar's broken ribs and Gray Maynard's busted knee will be taken care of under the new plan. Prior to the additional coverage being offered, fighters were only insured by the league for actual fight injuries. Outside of training injuries, fighters will also enjoy benefits if they are involved in non-training accidents that require medical treatment.

Still, other developments in the sport recently seem to point to a potential need for even more coverage for unforseen health circumstances fighters may face. Bryan Baker's proposal to his girlfriend at a Bellator event recently paled in comparison to the news of what he had to fight through to get to that point. A Dave Meltzer report in the wake of the engagement story sweeping the Internet also revealed Baker's battle with Leukemia and how he concealed the cancer diagnosis through three competitive fights. Brock Lesnar's bouts with Diverticulitis are also making waves lately, and the condition led Lesnar to back out of a planned match-up with Junior Dos Santos. Though many reports since the latest TUF coach fight was called off speculate on whether this could lead to Brock's retirement, nobody seems to be asking whether or not the UFC should be helping him with his medical bills. If they expect him to toe the company line in his post-fight speeches and keep him from making any return appearances with the WWE, what's so outrageous about expecting the league to step up and take care of his health woes? Of course, Lesnar might not be the best example since he is such a huge draw and one of the most well-paid fighters in the UFC. He's not likely struggling to pay his outside health insurance premiums, and it's not as if he's forced to turn to Obamacare to get by. Still, if it can happen to a guy like him who's been an athlete nearly all his life and is the picture of fitness, it can really happen to anyone. If the new plan doesn't cover these types of unforseen circumstances, it is probably only a matter of time before that type of insurance will prove essential.

Providing all fighters comprehensive health and dental benefits is just one way to stave off the formultion of any fighter's union. Another method utilized recently by Dana White involves demonizing union efforts and painting the Culinary Union's parent company (UNITE HERE) as the enemy to furthering the acceptance of the sport in a key state. White made headlines recently after calling attention to "union idiots" in New York spending money to oppose MMA's regulation there. UNITE HERE is lobbying against the sport in New York state due to multiple issues unions typically work to address on behalf of their members. A memo, put out by UNITE HERE members and mentioned in the above-linked story, points to problems specifically caused by the "near monopoly" the UFC created by purchasing Strikeforce.

Fighter pay and contract issues do seem to be legitimate reasons for UNITE HERE's opposition to MMA, though the Station Casinos case against the Culinary Union is also clearly an indirect contributor. The UFC and Station Casinos often neglect to keep their businesses from overlapping, so it's no coincidence Red Rock Casino hosted the most recent fighter summit that sought to quell many of the issues calling attention to the potential need for a fighters' union. It's also no coincidence that the same Fertitta brothers who don't seem to want their casinos to become union shops are also concerned enough to make moves that give the impression that they care about their UFC fighters as much as any fighters' union would.

The official UFC response to UNITE HERE's opposition (see above-linked article) cites the many union-friendly companies who are both employed by and benefit from UFC events and business practices. This is the "ultimate" height of hypocrisy that seems to be saying on one hand it's OK to support unions under certain circumstances while on the other hand the UFC brass makes every effort to avoid a fighters' union penetrating the organization and the UFC's majority owners don't even mount a defense to a sweeping civil indictment of their union-busting tactics at Station Casinos.

New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly was already a staunch opponent of MMA's regulation in New York state before hearing Dana White's "union idiots" chatter after UFC 129. Since Reilly admittedly received many donations over the years from various unions, he was obviously offended by White's union bashing and attempts to link the Culinary Union issue to the regulation debate. The fact is, since White's tirade against the Culinary Union the UFC brass seem much more concerned than they ever were before about unions, their power to negotiate, and the concept of losing the battle against union related issues plaguing their organization to the point where a fighters' union becomes inevitable.

One issue also plaguing the UFC of late has nothing to do with unions, but it could prove to be more damaging to the league than contract or insurance issues could ever be. Chael Sonnen's recent indefinite suspension by the California State Athletic Commission calls attention once again to the Steroids issue that cast a pall over other sports like Baseball in recent years. The prosecution of Barry Bonds illustrated that the government takes the issue of lying about steroid use seriously enough to spend more on that case than it has in pursuing many perpetrators of massive fraud on Wall Street. A recent report citing the United States Anti-Doping Agency's criticism of the UFC's drug testing policies raises some serious questions. Situations like Chael Sonnen's pathetic "hyper Gonadism" excuse for injecting 4 times the legal limit of Testosterone before his fight with Anderson Silva would have and should have encouraged a more involved investigation by the UFC itself if they indeed were intent on keeping Steroids out of the league. Instead, it appears that the UFC's casual attitude toward Sonnen's attempt to find a loophole to break the rules forced the CSAC to attempt to right that wrong for them.

Tyler Tygart, chief of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, advocates more stringent testing for steroids, and he points out that the UFC brass is engaging high-powered lawyers to argue against blood testing. The different regulatory bodies in the many locales the UFC travels to often have exclusive rules when it comes to testing for performance enhancing drugs. Some venues allow the UFC to do their own testing, which could create a look-the-other way climate for certain cards. Essentially, the UFC brass could decide to accept or act indifferently to PED use in the name of getting more exciting performances out of their fighters. There are already accusations that cards in Nevada (Where the UFC's parent company Zuffa and Station Casinos are both based) offer far less stringent testing than states like California. It seems that far more fighters who are caught in positive drug tests after fights are nabbed outside of Nevada even though the UFC has gone to great lengths to promote a high number of cards in their home state. Former Nevada State Athletic Commission officials are entrenched in the UFC, including Lorenzo Fertitta, who is one of the company's majority owners and also a former commissioner.

If any major government investigation on PEDs infiltrates UFC fighter circles and takes aim at Nevada in particular, the results could be extremely damaging. Union concerns and fighters like Nick Diaz turning to boxing for a better payday could wind up being small potatoes if that happens. The sad fact is the UFC brass, particularly the Fertittas, are used to both getting their way in their home state and throwing money around to get their way when they need to solve problems away from home. Once a major investigatory agency decides to dig deeper and refuses to allow money to trump justice, all the corrupt and subversive tactics the league's bigwigs have been getting away with could all come crashing down on their heads.

Don't forget the recent busts involving online casino giants like PokerStars.Com, which the UFC's majority owners just made a huge deal with not long after taking over Strikeforce. Strikeforce once counted PokerStars as a major sponsor, and that relationship opened the door for Station Casinos to negotiate an agreement to work together with PokerStars in lobbying efforts to legalize online gambling in Nevada. When government agencies stepped in and took over the online gambling entities, the Fertittas backed off their deal. The fact that the Fertittas didn't get deeply involved enough to be embroiled in the money-laundering and other accusations facing the online casinos was perhaps their first close call in what could be more major legal issues in the future if the next time they don't happen to be so lucky.

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