By Zach Arnold | October 28, 2011
USA Today broke the story earlier in the week about Viacom (Spike) buying out Bellator and the promotion making its Spike debut in 2013. Hours after that announcement, Bjorn Rebney talked with Mauro Ranallo about how the deal came about and what it means for the landscape of the sport.
“It speaks volume to the strength of what I believe is the greatest sport on the face of the Earth. And, you know, we’re going to be transitioning to Spike in 2013. In the interim, we’ll be building out the brand and increasing and improving every element of what we do on MTV2 and EPIX & Spike.com. It just gives us an incredible opportunity to work with really smart people who understand our sport backward and forward to build this out and to continue to build traction around our tournament format, our objectivity and some of the greatest fighters on the face of the Earth. So, it gives us every tool to build this out for many, many, many years to come.”
One of the initial critiques of this news breaking is that it will Dana White & UFC time to conjure up a Vince McMahon-style hardball strategy to destroy the competition. Zuffa is ruthlessly aggressive and celebrates the fact that they are as efficient as we see them to be in the business. Mr. Rebney believes that the year off of Spike will give the promotion the proper time to make the right changes to be ready for the bigger television stage.
“From a planning perspective, planning in television happens six, nine months in advance. So, with this getting finalized and with us announcing it now, all the planning starts now for what we launch in 2013 or conceptually sooner. But at the very latest in 2013… and all the bricks being laid right now in terms of everything we’ll do and where we’ll be and how it will be promoted and all the shoulder programming and all the Best Ofs and all the highlights and conceivable other programming vehicles. So, it’s all in place and it’s all getting constructed and built out right now. But it’s exciting. It’s very exciting.”
Dave Meltzer has an old adage about Vince McMahon which is that you may not consider him your enemy or your competition but he considers you to be his enemy and you can either be prepared to defend your turf or else get vanquished. Mr. Rebney gave the smart and appropriate here in response to this scenario, even if it’s not totally a realistic one.
“I think the strongest place to kind of focus every piece of your energy and every piece of your team’s energy is doing what you can do with your brand in building out the fighters, finding the best talent, creating the best feature pieces and stories behind those fighters, improving every element of production for the TV audience, improving every element for the live in-house audience. I respect what the UFC does, I respect what they’ve accomplished. I’ve watched a lot of their shows and if you’re an MMA fan, and this is what’s always shocked me, and if you’re not a fan of the UFC then you’re not an MMA fan. The reality is that regardless of whether you started watching when Royce (Gracie) was fighting in a gi or whether you’ve been watching of late, they’ve got some great fighters and some great talent. We do things differently. We have an objective format. We have what I refer to as a true, real-sport format much like basketball & baseball & hockey & soccer & golf. Athletes complete and the best of the best makes it to the championship and if you win that fight, you’re crowned champion. They have a different format, neither of which are right or wrong, it’s just we’ve chosen one and they’ve chosen another. So, it is what it is. There’s two players in the (MMA) space. They do great shows, they got a great alliance with a great media conglomerate and we’ve got a great alliance with the people who kind of created this position in the sports entertainment arena. It will be what it will be relative to competition and the like.”
Dana White has gone on record about ‘awful MMA contracts’ in regards to boxing-style deals where there are ‘options.’ This is something people railed against when Roy Nelson had his squabbles with Roy Jones Jr. Will Bellator have some ‘poison pill’ clauses in their contracts to make it harder for UFC to raid their fighters? The company better be prepared for UFC to declare war on them and be ready for UFC to getting into some bidding wars.
“We’ve been kind of hyperfocused on developing our own talent. I mean, developing the Ben Askrens and the Joe Warrens and the Eddie Alvarezs and the Hector Lombards and the Pitbull Brothers and all these different fighters who have been kind of homegrown Bellator talent. So, I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean, the space has gotten much smaller. There’re very few of us in the (MMA) space at this point. There’s UFC and there’s Bellator, so I don’t know if that will mean that bidding wars will occur but, you know, we’re hyperfocused on recruiting the best talent out there from every conceivable corner of the globe. So, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see how it works. I think we’re going to continue our format of really trying to build out stars from within, develop them under the Bellator banner, and let them blossom and become stars.”
The one concept that Bjorn Rebney has been willing to fight tooth-and-nail to defend is the tournament concept. He truly believes that the tournament format is the best & fastest way to create new stars. I think there’s some doubt as to how long Spike TV will tolerate a tournament format as opposed to more subjective matchmaking focusing on stars rather than being a feeder system. Mr. Rebney says that you should expect to see the tournament format on all Bellator programming.
“It’s what we will see throughout the entirety of 2012 and it’s what will continue in 2013 on Spike. It just will have the enormous benefit on Spike of being able to complement it with highlight shows and Best Of’s and behind-the-scenes and unique takes on the athletes, real features, real focus put on the fighters who step in to the cage that make everything that I’ve been able to do possible and everything that Bellator’s been able to do possible. A big focus on them and their stories, who they are, where they’re from, and why they compete. And some other programming that will complement it as well. So, we’re going to have a real opportunity with Spike to expand the breadth of the Bellator brand and that’s what they did so brilliantly with the UFC and we’re very, very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to work with the people that were there from the beginning in ‘05 when very few really understood what the sport was or what it was about. So, you know, that’s where we’ll find ourselves and that process begins today. I mean, we’re working on it literally as we speak.”
One of the difficult business issues Bellator has faced is being on MTV2, an audience mostly made of pre-teens and teenagers, who are sporadic in their viewer patterns of Saturday nights. One week, you have 130,000 viewers. The next week, it’s 275,000. There’s never any consistency. Saturday nights provide a lot of obstacles for Bellator in terms of television competition. So, will the network ditch Saturday nights once they head to Spike?
“I’m hardcore when it comes to objectivity,” exclaimed Mr. Rebney to Mr. Ranallo. “So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to review the numbers, I’m going to look at what household numbers look like. I’m going to look when people are around, I’m going to look at what the competition is vis-à-vis basketball, baseball, football, UFC, etc. We’re a year-round operation, we don’t have a season per se like football does in the Fall, etc. So, I’m going to look at all the numbers and then that’s going to ultimately, sitting down with our partners at Spike and at MTV networks, determine what night we’re on. I want to be on the night where we’ve got the opportunity to reach the largest number of fans and have the opportunity for them to see Bellator and some of the really exciting content, the really exciting events, and incredible Bellator moments that we’re putting on week after week after week. So, I don’t know. There are advantages to Saturday nights relative to audiences. … A lot of fans coming out to the fans but there are disadvantages to Saturday nights, obviously, as well because you’re going head-to-head with PPVs the UFC is doing. So, we’re going to weigh and balance. I don’t really have a favorite night because we haven’t sat down and looked at all the numbers but we will and then we’ll make a determination and those numbers will bare it out.”
As for what kind of programming Bellator will produce on Spike, it will not be 52 consecutive weeks of fighting. In other words, not a prototype of ESPN2’s Friday Nights.
“(We’ll have) two full seasons plus a Summer series and then it will be complement with the Best Of’s and the highlight shows and the behind-the-scenes and the features and conceivably even some form of reality programming that comes behind the brand. Doing a live event literally every week for 12 weeks is a very tough road to hoe and we’ll do it and we’re going to continue to do it and follow the format that we’ve followed. But there will be alterations and changes to that. We’re going to look to try to add more tournaments to each season so that we can get more title defenses in for our champions more frequently. We’re going to continue to adjust and tweak. And you just got keep tweaking it, you got to keep turning the dial a little bit here and a little bit there and making those adjustments to be able to create the best programming and the best events you possibly can.”
The news of Viacom owning Bellator brings up a lot of memories of when Turner owned WCW. It created quite a firestorm and led to some remarkable history being made. If Bellator is WCW and UFC is WWE, we could definitely see some big surprises developing over the coming years. Whether or not ‘corporate’ MMA is good or bad for the sport… time will tell. There’s no question, however, that Mr. Rebney found the appropriate golden parachute for Bellator by selling to Viacom. Without Viacom buying a stake in the company, it’s hard to see how long the company would have continued to survive. Now? Game on.
“(Viacom) purchased a majority stake in the company, over a 50% stake on the company and I am with the company as its chairman and as its CEO and I’ll be making the decisions at the company. But, you know, the wonderful part of this equation is that when I’m making those decisions, you know I always used to sit back years ago when I was conceptualizing this and putting the business plan together and I used to dream about a day where I would not be the smartest guy in the room. I used to dream about a day when I would be able to turn to people who knew far more about elements of this business than I did and say, ‘What do you think? What should we do with this? How would you construct this? What would you change with this?’ And now, you know, I’m a great spot. I’m in that position. I can turn to people who’ve really written the book ijn this space in many, many areas and say, ‘What do you think? Let’s chalkboard this thing. Let’s construct what we want to do. Let’s figure out what the best move is.’ And that’s just an ideal, ideal position for somebody like me to bei n because you’ve got access to people who just know it backward and forward.”
Look at how fast the landscape of the sport has changed in a year. Ari Emanuel brokers a huge 7-year, $700 million USD deal between Fox and UFC. Viacom, looking to replace UFC content on Spike TV, ends up buying a majority stake in Bellator. Whether or not you think Bellator can succeed on Spike TV, the truth is that Viacom is making a hell of a statement in regards to where they see MMA programming as an effective cable property play.
Just ask the man who cashed out big this week.
“It’s an endorsement by one of the largest, most powerful, most innovative entertainment companies on the face of the Earth. They reach 600 million people with their entertainment content. They are available in virtually every country on the face of the Earth. These guys… this team of people at Viacom are as smart as there is in the entertainment business and they have made a real investment in the future of Mixed Martial Arts. It happens to be Bellator and that’s great for me and for the people who work at Bellator and the fighters who fight here. But it’s a bigger statement. It’s a statement that a huge media giant that’s very powerful and has every conceivable piece of information at their disposal says that Mixed Martial Arts is here to stay, it’s going to grow exponentially, and we are behind it to make it grow exponentially and that’s a very, very loud statement for our sport. It’s a very loud statement for our sport. I’m thrilled that it’s our brand that they’ve committed to but it’s a big statement for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. it’s a good day for MMA and at the same time a good day for Bellator.”