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How I Became a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Attorney

Tracey Lesetar-Smith

How I Became a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Attorney
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“M-M-A.” If my enunciation of the acronym seems overly deliberate, it is the product of years of practice at loud bar association events. When asked about my practice industry, many often mistake “MMA” as an acronym for mergers and acquisitions (M&A). M&A seems to have far less blood, in my opinion, but I am certain that depends on whom you ask.

A Unique Legal Animal

The combat sports industry is indeed a unique legal animal. My practice centers on all legal aspects of running the second-largest MMA promotion company in the world, televising 25 live-fighting events each year in more than 100 countries.

As a relatively young sport, MMA is difficult to break into. Given the limited landscape, you are customarily in one of four categories as a businessperson in MMA: fight promoter (the role of my employer, Bellator MMA), manager or sports agent, sponsor (brands gaining market exposure by sponsoring fighters or events), or regulator (state athletic commissions).

Breaking Into the Industry

The first question people often ask me is how I broke into MMA, especially as an attorney for a fight promoter. I started as a labor and employment litigation associate with a large firm. Having practiced martial arts for years, I began training at a well-known MMA gym in Sacramento, California, as a way to keep my teeth sharp. At the time, despite several high-profile ongoing legal battles in the sport of MMA, there was a noticeable absence of readable, accurate news articles and content in the MMA media dedicated to reporting on these issues. In collaboration with a seasoned colleague of mine, who also happened to train at the MMA gym, we began moonlighting as writers for one of the leading MMA news outlets.

Taking It to the Next Level

As our writing gained exposure, so did the firm, and we happily began bringing in MMA industry clients. We developed the MMA industry niche practice area of the firm. At the time, I was relatively junior at the firm. And yet, all of the business development training and convocations were laser-focused on mid- and senior-level associates. A critical factor in our success was that I began to understand a misconception prevalently held by young lawyers: The “rules” we are conditioned to follow in the law firm framework are as certain and inescapable as the laws of gravity. Not so. Taking a legal career to the next level may require combining a healthy and humble respect for those rules with an understanding of the places where they might not apply so rigidly.

I cultivated relationships with some fantastic partners who believed in me and encouraged the development of my unique expertise and the MMA industry relationships developing in its wake. Eventually, my internal and external relationships yielded an opportunity to move into Bellator MMA as their first general counsel, which I did with my partners’ full support.

Every Day Is Different

The second subject people most often ask me about is the nature of my work as an attorney for an MMA promoter. With a grueling event schedule and more than 180 elite athletes hailing from the farthest reaches of the world, every day is different. The practice presents unique areas of work such as fighter agreements and negotiations, leasing agreements, immigration, television production, regulatory and athletic commissions, licensing, intellectual property, labor and employment, litigation, arbitration, settlements, and insurance. Depending on where we are in our season schedule, any one of these could take up endless days of my time or, conversely, disappear entirely from view for weeks.

The third question I am invariably asked: “Wow—so you could definitely kick my #$$ right now if you wanted to, right?!” To a woman, that’s, of course, a wisecrack question customarily dished out by a man. I usually laugh it off and don’t answer that one. But the answer is yes.