Everywhere Bellator President Bjorn Rebney turns, there they are. The same for Spike TV Senior Vice President Jon Slusser. Three little letters that carry a lot of weight in their chosen industry—UFC.
Bellator makes its live debut on Spike tonight at 10 PM, the first of 15 consecutive weekly fight shows that will feature title bouts and five eight-man tournaments to select top contenders. It's a show 19 months in the making and for Rebney a huge moment, the culmination of a building period that has spanned nearly four years.
But, though excitement for the show is palpable in Rebney's office, a shadow hangs over the entire enterprise—the enormous weight, power, and influence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship omnipresent, both in pre-fight interviews and online any time fans discuss a promotion that is now clearly a competitor for MMA's Kleenex.
The setup is right out of a storybook. In 2005, Spike took a chance on the UFC, allowing the struggling sport time on the network for what would eventually become an iconic reality show, The Ultimate Fighter.
From there, a partnership blossomed. Live fights followed and, soon enough, a fight promotion that was in the red was rumored to be a billion dollar enterprise. And a network that had struggled through several names and an identity crisis found that identity at last. Spike had a hit, an audience, and a new voice.
"The experience was unbelievably valuable for both of us," Slusser, Spike TV senior vice president for sports, told Bleacher Report. "We helped each other and we built it and both brands are better off as a result. We had a great relationship and it was fun. It was exciting."
And yet, when the UFC's broadcast contract expired in 2011, they moved on to a new home on the Fox platform. Spike, left empty-handed, fired the few bullets left in its arsenal, reruns of UFC programming strategically placed to compete with first run shows on the Fox family of networks, prompting FX executive Chuck Saftler to tell the media "Spike should watch their *ss."
Waiting in the wings during these early forays was Bellator, purchased by Spike's parent company Viacom just months after the UFC announced their deal with Fox. Spike was prohibited from showing Bellator on the network until their contract to air reruns of their shows with the UFC expired at the end of 2012. The promotion, instead, was relegated to MTV2, a network ill-suited for live sports programming, limiting Bellator's audience to around 200,000 fans a show.
That is expected to change.
Slusser and Spike are pleased with the initial ratings success of Bellator 360, a show designed to introduce fans to Bellator's cast of fighters, and are more convinced than ever that their new promotion is a better fit for the network than the UFC ever could have been. Though some consider eschewing the proven commodity for an unproven commodity risky, Slusser has a different view.
"What's risky is continuing to spend money on a franchise like the UFC where you don't own it and the rights continue to escalate until you're spending so much money on this stuff and you're not getting anything back. You're building somebody else's brand," Slusser said. "Once we made the investment in Bellator, then the cost of programming (went down). We don't pay a rights fee. There's no more millions going out the door....the financial exposure is not as great.
"I think it's risky being in business with somebody who you continue to invest in with your marketing, promotions, effort, time, energy and money and who can walk at any minute. And that's what we saw was going to happen. That's why being invested in Bellator, long term, is a lower risk situation. I think it's lower risk than being in business with somebody like UFC."
When fans tune in to Bellator for the first time, they won't be getting "UFC-Lite." This is anything but a copycat promotion. Rather than pro wrestling-style antics or entertainment-driven matchmaking, Bellator sticks closely to a traditional sports format.
"It's the cornerstone of what makes us different," Rebney told Bleacher Report. "We follow a real sport format like what we're watching right now in the NFL playoffs. You've got to earn it. You have to go through the toughest tournament in sports and if you can win three fights in sequence, you can earn your shot at the world title. It's about real sports sequencing. It's about tournament brackets. It's about going from the quarterfinals to the semifinals to the finals.
"There's never been a disconnect in my mind than when watching combat sports and seeing guys able to talk themselves into title fights. Or putting a guy in a world title fight because you think you have a greater ability to sell him to consumers. I've always felt the best fighter should earn his way to a title shot. It should be about winning, not how good your hair looks or how well you talk. It should be about the competition. And at the core that's who we are."
If that sounds like trash talk directed at the UFC for its recent decisions to push Chael Sonnen and Frankie Edgar into title fights despite both men coming off losses and venturing into new weight classes, that's because it is. But Rebney is quick to soften the blow.
"It's a completely different way of looking at it. I don't fault them for the system that they utilize," he said. "I just think that from a real sports perspective I'm a big fan of what our system gives fighters an opportunity to do."
While Rebney sees the tournament as pure sport, Slusser sees something more. To the television executive, it's also a chance to create heroes, following the classic Joseph Campbell model, or to those not interested in literary theory, copy a template we see quite often every March.
"We love the tournament structure. It's a differentiating factor that people can really gravitate to and that they can understand," Slusser said. "And it builds stars naturally. You've seen the NCAA tournament. You're watching March Madness and you can get invested in a team you've never heard of before because they are the underdog and they're making such progress. So you get invested in the people and their stories...and that lends itself to exactly what we do at Spike really well, which is storytelling."
Some of that storytelling magic will come later this year as Spike delivers, of course, a Bellator-themed reality show. Other features that will bring the fighters to life will debut right away. Bellator, according to Rebney, was finally able to follow the fighters to their homes and gyms to really help tell their stories, just one of the many advantages, he says, of working with the experienced producers at Spike.
"There's really not an area of our show you'll see up on the screen that hasn't been touched by Viacom and Spike," Rebney said. "Everything from production elements to the huge traveling production trucks, monster tractor trailers that are just edit bays....we've got a new graphics package premiering that is just state of the art. It gives great clarity to everything we are doing.
"...And you see all the promotion we are getting across the Viacom platforms of Spike, MTV and Comedy Central. But you also see the advertisements running in NBA games and NFL games all over the country...it's a magical partnership in terms of us being able to leverage the expertise, access and knowledge that the team at Spike has about our area of the sports entertainment industry."
It's this official relationship that might be the deciding factor between success and failure for Bellator, a metric both Slussler and Rebney say can only be judged over time based on growth and profitability, not by a single television rating.
"The key is that we own Bellator. They are part of the family and we are invested heavily in the long term success," Slusser said. "We are owners and not renters and that makes a big difference when it comes to how much we are going to put into the long-term success of this franchise.
"We have all that fight experience, all that promotion experience building brands and understanding this world," he continued. "...We became the best in the world at putting this stuff on free cable TV. We're taking everything we learned, all our mistakes, all our successes, and we're putting them into Bellator."
This close working arrangement has prompted another move, not geographically on the television dial but geographically on the map. Bellator, based in its formative years in Chicago, made the move about 40 minutes south of Los Angeles to be closer to Spike and the burgeoning California MMA scene.
"As we started this next evolution of Bellator, it just made sense to have our corporate headquarters be right in the middle of the Mecca of MMA. We wanted to build out our business here. Create our studio setting here. Do all our editing and all our production here," Rebney said. "And our partners at Spike are literally right down the freeway. Everything we are working through we can work through on a face to face moment."
The fighters, too, are pumped for the chance to shine on the larger stage, especially some of the higher-profile stars who were put on ice for much of 2012 waiting for the chance to compete on Spike.
"It's exciting to go out there and fight for the fans who have been with me since the start, the fans I've picked up along the way, and the new ones who haven't really watched a ton of Bellator because it has been on ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports, and MTV2," lightweight champion Michael Chandler, who main events the first show against Rick Hawn, told Bleacher Report's Duane Finley.
"Now it is on Spike. When you talk about being able to reach a ton of people, Spike TV makes that possible. I'm pretty excited about the situation," Chandler continued.
Bellator expects a packed house in Irvine, California for their debut, a welcome change from some less-than-stellar gates that plagued the promotion throughout its history.
The new broadcasting bells and whistles that have been carefully crafted for a calendar year will, likewise, be a major upgrade on the television side of the business. The team at Viacom is ready, confident not just that they can eventually compete with the UFC, but that they should.
"I think it's best for this sport," Slusser said. "I know it is. Fighters having choices and people having choices out there for more MMA is a good thing for the sport. There will be times we're competitive (with UFC) and we'll talk all this stuff, but having Bellator there is good for the sport and the fans of MMA."