Bellator, Spike Look to Re-Engage the MMA Playbook

Jerry MilaniContributor IDecember 27, 2012

This coming weekend in Las Vegas is one of the UFC's annual big events—its year-ending pay per view event from MGM Grand, featuring a 12-bout mega-card with some of its more popular fighters present and future. In addition to helping fill the gaming tables, the weekend serves notice for the brand that Vegas is home despite the continued push to all corners of the world with merchandise, video, games, and the ever-present Octagon.

The year-end card was always preceded by a mega-promotional push on Spike TV, which for years helped the UFC build its brand through the co-creation of "The Ultimate Fighter" and all the promotional muscle Viacom could bring to the table. Both companies thrived off the other.

But all that ended when the UFC took its broadcast TV partnership to Fox in 2011, bringing MMA consistently, albeit with mixed ratings results, to broadcast TV while making FUEL and FX the new cable homes of the UFC.

The departure of the UFC left Spike with a programming hole, but with years of lessons learned on how to properly and effectively grow an MMA brand. With other promotions like WEC and Strikeforce purchased and then mothballed by the UFC, could a brand come along to fill the broadcast slot, the marketing potential and the demographic hole that Spike now had?

The answer appears to be yes.

The promotion that was growing, albeit with its own unique format, was the Bellator Fighting Championships. Developed by longtime fight sport promoter Bjorn Rebney, Bellator launched in 2008 looking to find a smart, cost-efficient way to quench the thirst of a growing audience of MMA fans who enjoyed the UFC but were looking for more engagement in other markets. Rebney, who had grown up on boxing, also saw an opportunity to give casual fans a chance to better understand the sport by creating a tournament format by weight class that rewarded the best fighters, not the matchmakers.

"It creates great transparency; there are no questions as to who is the champion.  He fought his way there," Rebney said recently in New York. "The result is that the one guy left standing is the champion, and everyone understands how he got there."

With casino and venue partners looking for quality programming and a large talent pool of emerging fighters to choose from who were not under contract to the UFC, Rebney built a growing and sustainable business model. Broadcasts were high quality and filled the hours of regional sports cable looking to draw viewers through MMA. The business proved itself and started to establish itself as the number two promotion, at least in the US, after the UFC.

It was similar but not "UFC-light."

"We said from day one we had to have a clear format and great fights, and that the business would grow if we ran it right," Rebney added. "There is no taking away of anything from the UFC, they are a strong brand and have been at it for the longest time.  We felt that we had created something distinctive, and the market and our business partners are proving that what we have built is strong."

The biggest step for Bellator came with the departure of the UFC from Spike. Viacom officials had been watching Rebney's growth and saw the opportunity to avoid having to "reinvent the wheel" to get deep into the MMA Business again. In 2011 they purchased Bellator, and with Rebney still running the company, began a ramp up, first with MTV2, to re-engage the loyal MMA fans who had become accustomed to watching the sport on Spike.

The next big step in the relationship will take place starting January 17, when Bellator and its programming moves fully to Spike on a weekly basis.

"It is a true partnership, one where we can learn from everything Spike knows about engaging the male demo and promoting the sport they helped build," Rebney added. "We can now take our great fighters with amazing stories and bring them to the consumer on a channel that they know for quality fights and production. That brings us great credibility and lets us take Bellator to a new level."

Viacom has spent months researching and developing the right time frame, venues and promotional and marketing vehicles to work with Rebney and his Bellator team. Bellator in turn has been hard at work continuing to refine its matchups and support staff to make sure they can deliver with the best possible matchups for their business partner.

"We know it all has to fit together well, and when I say 'we' I mean Spike and Bellator together," Rebney added. "If something isn't working and the fans aren't getting their value or the venues are unhappy or the fighters aren't matched properly we will find a way to fix it. We are in a consumer business with fans who know what quality is, and quality is what we will deliver."

Officials insist that the marketplace for MMA can and will support at least two high level promotions in the United States, and globally the market for television and digital content is endless. Bellator is concentrating right now on just the U.S. market but will look elsewhere as the opportunities arise.

Is the UFC in for a fight?

There have been arguments over the years about the MMA Version of the chicken or the egg—did the UFC build Spike or did Spike save the UFC?

The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, which is a good thing for Bellator. They have a full-time, engaged partner that, starting in January, will look to re-invent a very successful wheel, one that happens to also be in a cage.

Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.