Bellator Confident That Move to Friday Won't Suffer the Same Fate as TUF on FX
For the last two years, while Bellator MMA has quietly become the No. 2 promotion in mixed martial arts, it has also been searching for the right home on television and the best night to broadcast its shows.
Bellator has survived the volatile MMA marketplace by making smart business decisions and slowly building to where it is now as the featured MMA organization on Spike TV. Media giant Viacom owns the majority stake in the company.
It hasn't been an easy process, however, because Bellator has bounced around numerous networks over the last few years as it looked to grow its fanbase.
On top of that, it was always a battle to find the right night and time to showcase the live fight cards.
The promotion has bounced back and forth between shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays over the years and it appeared to have landed on a good night once it signed a new deal with Spike TV.
Bellator was showcased on Thursday nights starting in January and the ratings were a huge improvement from anything the company had experienced before. But with summer approaching, the executives at Spike TV decided to make a move once again.
Bellator's Summer Series, along with the debut of its new reality show, Fight Master: Bellator MMA, will shift to Wednesday nights, but that's only a temporary move until the fall.
At that time, Bellator will headline one show on Saturday, September 7 to feature the finale of Fight Master. Then, as reported by Sports Illustrated (h/t MMAJunkie.com), the promotion's regular time slot beginning on September 13 will be from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on Friday nights.
The move comes in large part because of the head-to-head battle Bellator would deal with on Thursday nights if it stayed in its previous time slot against a true powerhouse in American television sports programming.
"We've done Friday nights before. I don't think it's a surprise to anybody the demographic that watches the NFL and the demographic that watches Bellator on Spike are really similar and the NFL is a juggernaut," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told Bleacher Report on Tuesday.
"I think they've got 11 games in the fall. It just made sense to get off that Thursday night time slot.
"Thursday was good to us, we had over a million people watching the first and second run together in sequence on Spike together. It was good, it was a really solid start for us, but the NFL is a major player and the demos are so similar it made sense to move off of it."
The move to Friday nights was immediately met with some reservation because of the difficulties shows have with pulling in ratings on that particular night of the week.
It's hard to ignore that when the UFC showcased two seasons of its long-running reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, on Friday nights, the ratings were the worst in the program's 17 seasons.
Rebney admits that there's always going to be concern with a move in programming to Friday nights. However, he is confident that the promotion can not only carry an existing fanbase but add more numbers as the year moves forward.
"Fridays can be a tough slot, but combat sports from a live combat sports perspective have always had a pretty good strong hold on Friday nights," Rebney said.
"We're hopeful to continue that trend in terms of live fight events doing well. I mean, there were issues with a taped reality show (The Ultimate Fighter), but a live sports event that's happening right there in front of you, I'm hopeful we'll be able to maintain our current position and our current numbers and outgrow it."
ESPN has featured its Friday Night Fights series for more than 14 years with positive ratings growth while largely featuring up-and-coming pugilists in the sport.
The other positive that comes from the move to Friday nights is the changing schedule of UFC programming as it expands its current deal with Fox. The UFC will move some of its Saturday night live shows to Wednesday nights starting in late August as part of the launch of the new Fox Sports 1 network.
While the UFC will still feature major pay-per-view cards as well as featured shows on the Fox network on Saturday nights, the move to Wednesdays could open up some more weekend fight fans to tune into Bellator.
"The UFC is making a lot of different moves now and I'm not sure how that will all play itself out in terms of Wednesday nights and the new network and people having the opportunity or the ability to find it, but I do know there are going to be some gaps on the weekends from a MMA fan's perspective that have not occurred in the past," Rebney stated.
Like anything else, the new Friday night time slot is a work in progress, but Rebney and the executives at Spike TV are confident fight fans will tune in for what they are expecting to be their biggest season yet.
Damon Martin is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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