John Morgan: Bellator ready to shine bright

February 23, 2012

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When Bellator Fighting Championships CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney launched his tournament-based MMA promotion in 2008, many MMA pundits saw the start-up company as just another organisation destined for failure. And yet, three-and-a-half years and 59 events later, the promotion appears firmly entrenched in the sport’s landscape. Where can the organisation go from here? Far, says the Chicago-based promoter.

“Just based on what’s occurred in the game over the last five or six months, I think we’re the number-two promotion in the space,” Rebney told Fighters Only. “The UFC still holds a dominant position as the number-one, but I think we’ve got an amazing television alliance with Spike TV. The future looks extremely bright.”

Yes, that’s Spike TV – the same cable channel that has been the UFC’s television partner since 2005. With the UFC bolting for the Fox family of networks, Spike made a firm commitment to remaining relevant in MMA, and the channel’s parent company, Viacom, recently purchased a controlling interest in Bellator. Needless to say, Rebney is delighted with the surprising turn of events.

“We have the greatest television partner you could hope to have in the MMA space, and I think there’s a lot of unbelievable potential for the brand in the coming year and the coming three years,” Rebney adds. “We have the best partners you could hope to have. They wrote the book on TV and MMA, promotion in MMA, marketing and publicising MMA, advertising MMA, reaching the hardcore consumer and reaching the general-market consumer.

“It’s very exciting. The future looks good, and we’ve got the best partners you could hope to have moving into it.” Bellator, which currently airs in the US on MTV2, won’t make the transition to Spike TV until 2013, unless a few existing contractual hurdles are cleared. While Rebney is notoriously tight-lipped when discussing deals in progress, he’s unquestionably hopeful an agreement can be reached.

“You never know,” Rebney said. “Things could potentially happen earlier, I hope.”

There are opportunities, to be sure, but in stark contrast to some past failed promotions, Bellator and its brass seem to be listening to their fans’ suggestions. Don’t like non-title superfights? Good, we’ll get rid of them. Want a way to see the prelim fights? Fine, we’ll stream them online. And, perhaps even more revealing are the company’s ambitious goals, Rebney and his team are looking at growth on a global scale.

“We’ve been talking with three different networks in Brazil,” he revealed. “We’re working very hard to get a deal with the right Brazilian television partner so we can start bringing the entire four-hour show – the two-hour preliminaries on Spike.com and the televised event – to the Brazilian audience.”

Bellator’s sixth season is expected to feature tournaments in five weight classes, rather than the four featured in past seasons, in order to provide more challengers for the promotion’s champions and eliminating the need for non-title ‘superfights.’

Additionally, matchmaker and talent scout Sam Caplan will continue his commendable efforts of scouring the globe to find the world’s top unsigned talent. The Spike TV transition will unquestionably help the brand grow, especially among the common fan. US viewers currently forced to watch the events in standard definition will be relieved to finally have a widely distributed high-definition option. But there are other minor tweaks that could vastly help the promotion. And moving off of Saturday nights seems the first priority.

With The Ultimate Fighter moving to Fridays on FX in 2012, the mid-week will be barren of MMA, and Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday nights would all seem prime real estate. By not going head-to-head with the UFC on Saturdays, Bellator can avoid having their great moments – such as the thrilling fight of the year contender between Mike Chandler vs Eddie Alvarez – being quickly overshadowed by the UFC’s (Dan Henderson vs ‘Shogun’ Rua). Bellator has already announced they will move to a Friday slot when their new season begins this year.

“I don’t think we’ll see any dramatic changes for season six,” Rebney said. “The level of the fighters that are fighting for the organisation will continue to improve. I think we saw an amazing leap forward in the qualitative level of the fighters fighting for us this season, and I think it will continue.

It will just be slight variations, slight improvements on the production, slight improvements in terms of the fighters, unique new venue alliances, more distribution internationally, including – I hope – Brazil for season six. But we’ll just keep trying to make it better, really. That’s what we do every single day is just try and make it better.”

Bellator’s MTV2 ratings have proven a virtual rollercoaster in recent months, but they certainly surpass Strikeforce’s slumping viewership numbers on Showtime. Rebney has no ill-conceived notions of taking down the sport’s premier organisation, the UFC, but he’s also not comfortable remaining stagnant.

“We’re just very excited about season six,” Rebney finished. “We’re very excited about what’s coming up next. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of planning, but this should be an unbelievable season. Before you know it, we’re going to blink and be on Spike TV. Things are going in the right direction.”

John Morgan is the lead staff reporter for MMA Junkie

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