After two hearty swings, Bellator MMA will finally split the pay-per-view pinata on Saturday night, though most observers predict only sorrow and red ink will tumble out.
Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez is concussed and out of his third meeting with Michael Chandler, effectively stripping the show of its crown jewel. In its place, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Muhammed Lawal will serve as the makeshift main event, while Chandler will meet Will Brooks for an interim title and Tito Ortiz will fight up-jumped middleweight Alexander Shlemenko in bout that obviously shouldn’t exist but somehow does.
Even in an industry that is conditioned to expect absurd flame-outs, the crumbling of Bellator 120 has been notable, especially considering what happened last time the fight company tried to move its circus from Spike TV to PPV.
This time the organization will stay the course, likely because rolling the dice on a depleted for-pay event seems preferable to angering providers by again pulling out on them at the last minute. Or, as Spike TV President Kevin Kay told MMA Fighting.com's Luke Thomas back on May 6: "Look, I think there's a point that comes in any promotion where you want to play with the big boys, right? Pay-per-view is the big boys and you want to put on premium fights."
In the process of taking that step this weekend, the company may well answer the defining question of its life as a company: What (if any) is the demand for Bellator on PPV?
Before the Alvarez injury Bellator 120 was a great fightcard that was going to bust on PPV. Now it's just a fight card that will bust on PPV— Jonathan Snowden (@mmaencyclopedia) May 10, 2014
Say what you will about this fight card, but at least it will establish the baseline number of fans who are willing to shell out $34.99 (and more, if they opt for HD) to watch America’s second-best MMA promotion. The size of that number will no doubt be quite instructive for Bellator (and more importantly, its overlords at Viacom) and should be instrumental in plotting a course for its future.
On that front, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is holding his cards pretty close to his tailored black suit at the moment. He told MMA Junkie Radio on Tuesday that Bellator is planning to remain in the PPV arena, regardless of what happens on Saturday.
“We’re absolutely looking to do pay-per-views in the future,” Rebney said. “We’ll do big, significant pay-per-view events.”
Perhaps that confidence is well-earned. Perhaps not.
Rebney's company has found some moderate success on cable television lately. When it pulled Alvarez and Chandler off PPV and put them on Spike last November, the result was another Fight of the Year-caliber clash that garnered 1.1 million viewers (with a peak of 1.4 million) and set records for Bellator’s best-ever rating.
UFC castoffs like Jackson and Cheick Kongo have also popped the organization’s numbers in recent months, despite numerous jabs to the ribs from media and fans over their signings. Jackson averaged 880,000 viewers (1.1 million peak) when he fought Christian M'Pumbu at Bellator 110 in February, while Kongo netted 830,000 (1.1 million peak) against Vitaly Minakov at Bellator 116 last month.
Numbers fluctuated as the PPV drew nearer—Bellator 119 pulled just 511,000 last Friday—but Bellator’s 10 most recent events on Spike have averaged a bit more than 668,000 viewers apiece. That puts it near the same ballpark as UFC shows on Fox Sports 1, which have averaged 755,600 over the last 10 installments.
Comparing those two numbers should likely come with substantial caveats, but the fact is that Bellator has established a better television audience than we often give it credit for, while we’re busy ripping its personnel decisions and gloating over its bad luck.
Now we just have to see how many of those people it can convert into paying customers.
Historically, pay-per-view has been a wasteland for MMA promotions not named the UFC. Dan Plunkett of 411Mania.com recently detailed exactly how horrific it's been, recalling the failed efforts of Bodog Fight (13,000 buys in April of 2007), a joint venture between Strikeforce and EliteXC (35,000, June 2007) and Affliction Entertainment (100,000, July 2008).
Not a good sign, though as Plunkett noted, it doesn't necessarily spell disaster for Bellator.
"None of the promotions listed above had anything approaching Bellator's television presence," he wrote. "Its weekly events and various countdown shows go a long way in promoting the show and establishing the brand."
If 10 percent of the 1.1 million peak viewers who watched Jackson’s first-round KO of M’Pumbu show up for the PPV? Go ahead and cover everything in Rebney’s office with plastic; otherwise you’ll never get the champagne smell out of there.
If Bellator 120 does even 80,000 buys? That’s still not terrible.
Less than 50,000? Maybe then you take down the tent and move the whole shebang back to Spike TV on a permanent basis.
No matter the outcome—and despite what Rebney says—Bellator will have its answer. It will know if the demand is there for it to make “big, significant” contributions to the wild world of pay-per-view, or if it is merely a cable curiosity—a show with a dependable weekly time slot to help us wile away our Friday nights.
Either way, it's better for the fight company to know what kind of player it really is than to continue booking PPVs like a blindfolded man with a club who is continually stumbling around and swinging at air.