There is no doubt that in professional Mixed Martial Arts, the gold standard in terms of a business model has been the UFC. While many promotions have tried to come along and copy the model that Dana White and Zuffa have built, none have succeeded to be even a close second. Those who have found some success…Strikeforce, WEC etc…often have ended up merging and then eventually being absorbed by the UFC in what had been a one brand business. A good deal of the UFC’s growth came about as a result of their partnership with Spike TV. The Viacom-owned TV outlet needed compelling programming and the UFC needed a home, so the two grew together.
That all changed when the UFC bolted for Fox, and left Spike with a large MMA audience but nothing at that point to fill the space. While the transition for the UFC was occurring, another promotion was growing at the regional level, with a different twist on professional MMA. The Bellator Fighting Championships, led by longtime boxing promoter Bjorn Rebney, was using a tournament-style format to find its champions. When the UFC moved, Spike and Bellator seized the opportunity, and a new partnership was formed.
The current offering on Spike is an interesting test to see how wide the MMA audience is for fans and brands, and whether or not the audience Spike built and new how to cultivate would continue to grow with a second, non-UFC property. Thus far it appears that Bellator and Spike as a business are doing well, with strong ratings and new brand partners coming into the sport.
We caught up with Rebney, a former college football player and serial entrepreneur, to ask about his venture and the future of MMA in his eyes.
You are now almost a month in to the new relationship with Spike, how are things going?
Things are going well. We had 18 months to prep with our partners at Spike while doing shows on MTV2. So, the transition was seamless. First and foremost our fighters have provided spectacular fights. It’s what these incredible athletes do inside the cage that really fuels the entire machine. The Production is getting stronger and each and every week, getting closer to the vision I have in my head and, our ratings have been strong. Working with Spike has been very solid, because they know the sport of MMA, its fighters and its fans better than anyone in the industry. So, overall things are going really well.
Randy Couture coming aboard was a shock to some UFC fans…how did that happen and what does he mean to Bellator?
As Kevin Kay and I started talking about the reality show, we wanted to assemble a collection of coaches for this first season of Fight Master – Bellator MMA who represented greatness in our sport. Randy is the best known fighter we’ve ever had in our game. In the MMA space, he’s won world titles, trained great fighters and been a tremendous ambassador for our sport. Combining Randy with one of combat sports greatest coaches (Greg Jackson), our former World Champion and the “baddest man on the planet” (Joe Warren) and with a man who knows every inch of the MMA landscape and a former champion himself, Frank Shamrock, is a dream team of coaches who we believe will help us create a really great, compelling and fun to watch television show.
What has been the response from UFC fans about Bellator on Spike, have you heard from many?
I hear from MMA fans every single day, be it on Twitter, at our live events, in airports, at gyms, etc. all over the US and abroad. And, I genuinely welcome and appreciate the input, ideas and thoughts. No one is better positioned to provide comment than fans. And, since our launch on Spike the comments I’ve been getting have been very positive. The level fighters stepping into the Bellator cage on Spike combined with the Real Sport tournament format seem to have struck a real cord with hard core MMA fans around the world. I really welcome the comments and ideas from fans, because it wasn’t that long ago that I was a fan watching MMA on Spike and at that time I had idea after idea. I just didn’t have anyone to share them with until I launched Bellator.
Why is the tournament format the best for the sport in your opinion?
I believe that an athlete’s ability to become Champion in his or her chosen sport, should be determined by winning or losing and nothing else. It shouldn’t be determined by how well you speak, or who you date or how many Pay Per View buys a promoter thinks he can generate with you. In every major sport (the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Olympics, The World Cup, Etc.) Champions are determined by winning tournaments and nothing else. In every other major sport on earth, the opportunity to challenge for a championship must be earned, it is not simply given. I wanted to create a Mixed Martial Arts organization that followed the universally accepted structure, that every other sport on earth follows. If you win, you move on and if you lose you go home. Unlike other MMA organizations who use a theatrical formula called “matchmaking” where a “matchmaker” sitting behind a desk decides who fights who for what and when, at Bellator, fighters control their own destiny in a very strait forward tournament format. At Bellator, winning the toughest tournament in sports guarantees you the opportunity to challenge for the World Title. My vision was to take the politics and theatrics out of fighting sports and allow fighters to control their own destiny and earn the world title by simply winning. Since the first day I began tracking sports competition many years ago, I’ve always believed that the purity of sports should be honored and that winning should be the factor that moves a competitor forward in his or her chosen sport.
As far as cities go, what are your favorite locations to hold events?
That’s a tough question. We’ve been privileged to partner with some spectacular venues over the last 4 years. We’ve done some amazing, sold out shows in Canada and we’ve done the same in our own backyard in Southern California. We’ve played to packed, excited venues in Florida and in Atlantic City. And, basically everywhere in between. Our old home turf in Chicago’s given us some of the greatest in venue noise and power I’ve ever experienced, so honestly, I don’t have a favorite, I just count myself as lucky that we’ve had so many great events at so many great locations over the last 4 years.
Concussions have been such an issue for all contact sports, how do you combat the negativity that still exists with MMA?
Concussions are an important issue in sports, whether you’re a player in the NFL a High School girls soccer player or a Mixed Martial Arts fighter at Bellator. The attention that concussions are receiving is warranted and overdue. The NFL has taken positive steps to address the issue and we need to do the same. At Bellator we are developing a collection of protocols to follow if and when a fighter suffers a concussion. We are also developing a series of post-concussion checks to ensure that when a fighter returns to the cage, he or she has been properly cleared by medical professionals so that his or her health and safety are being protected and cared for. I have not really seen or heard much negativity focused on our sport since the early years. Major general market sponsors have embraced Bellator on Spike, so I believe the vast majority of any negativity is now gone.
The UFC has seen a lot of its growth globally…when will Bellator make that jump for events?
Bellator currently airs in over 110 countries worldwide. We have been in discussions with a collection of key international markets about bringing Bellator events to those markets within the next year.
In terms of fighters, what is the biggest differentiator for Bellator vs. other MMA platforms?
Bellator is home to some of the greatest Mixed Martial Arts fighters on earth; Pat Curran, Michael Chandler, Ben Askren, Alexander Shlemenko and many others. And, with our tournament format, we’ve been able to create those top stars over a very short period of time. Bellator’s tournament format (the toughest tournament in sports) allows incredible, world class fighters to rise through the ranks in just 90 days and earn the right to fight for the world title. Our foundation has always been to develop our own homegrown talent (from every corner of the globe), and we continue to follow that formula as we grow on Spike and on countless networks around the world.