Bellator betting big on Spike TV's MMA reputation as it tries to ratchet up competition with UFC (Yahoo! Sports)


More than a dozen times during a nearly hour-long interview, Bellator Fighting Championships CEO Bjorn Rebney referred to the cable network Spike TV as "the home of MMA" on television.

Bellator and Spike are both owned by Viacom, and Rebney is gambling that Spike's reach and influence can take his burgeoning mixed martial arts company to the top of the industry.

It will be a long and difficult road, to be certain. The UFC is almost universally regarded as the major league of MMA and, indeed, it was UFC programming that helped build Spike's brand.

Spike officials, of course, point out that they also helped spur the UFC's phenomenal growth from 2005 through 2011, when it went from near-bankruptcy to a global powerhouse worth in excess of $1 billion while broadcasting its programming on Spike.

"It's fair to say that we did great things for each other," Spike president Kevin Kay said.

For the last year, Bellator's shows were broadcast on Spike's website and on MTV2 as Spike TV's non-compete clause with the UFC prevented Spike from broadcasting any other promotion's fights. The UFC left Spike at the end of 2011 to sign a deal with Fox Networks, which includes live fights and programming on Fox, FX and Fuel.

On Thursday at 10 p.m. ET, Bellator returns to the big-time, so to speak, as it debuts its newest season on Spike to its nearly 100 million television homes. Later this year, it will air a reality series as Bellator attempts to establish and Spike looks to retain its position as a destination for the highly coveted male 18-to-34-year-old demographic that makes up the majority of the MMA fan base.

Neither Rebney nor Kay are willing to say the long-term play is to overtake the UFC as MMA's dominant promoter. But those viewers, whom they say came to Spike repeatedly during 2012 looking for MMA programming, have the potential to make Bellator a major player in the marketplace.

"I've said this many times and I feel very strongly about it, but Spike has established itself since 2005 as the home of MMA," Rebney said. "Whether it's been informal studies or more formal studies and research, younger male consumers who identify themselves as MMA fans identify Spike as the home of televised MMA."

Spike was able to broadcast UFC reruns during 2012 and did so regularly in order to take advantage of the library and to keep itself associated with the sport while it was unable to broadcast live fights.

The question, though, that has yet to be answered is whether those viewers who identify Spike as the home of televised MMA are looking for UFC content specifically or simply MMA from any promoter.

It's a critical difference that could mean success or failure for Bellator as well as millions of dollars won or lost.

The U.S. sports marketplace has long tended to recognize one major league and paid little attention to its competitors. It's been 50 years since there was a legitimate challenger to the NFL and even longer for Major League Baseball.

Bellator's challenge is to gain the interest of the casual fans, who view UFC as MMA. The relatively even numbers drawn by a slickly produced Bellator highlight show and UFC president Dana White's handheld camera-shot video blog indicate the enormity of the challenge Bellator faces in overtaking the UFC brand.

The Bellator 360 shows on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10 averaged 419,000 viewers. White frequently does video blogs that attract those kinds of viewership numbers to the UFC's YouTube channel. Day One of his UFC 155 video blog attracted 331,038 to YouTube and countless more to various MMA websites that posted it.

That is proof of the UFC's solid position atop the MMA food chain. Rebney, though, is undaunted. He's not after the UFC, so to speak, but he's confident in his product.

Rebney and Kay are counting upon the consistency of having live Bellator fights every Thursday at 10 as a way to build an audience. It's what Rebney calls the "same time, same place, same channel" concept.

"If you look at the landscape of televised MMA right now, that's an important, important facet of this game," Rebney said. "There's an awful lot of reasons the NFL does really well. But one of them is, for the vast majority of their season, you know exactly where to find them and when.

"With 700 entertainment options, everything from cooking to documentaries to reality to sitcoms to dramas to films, it's important that [consumers] know where your show is. To be able to say, 'Thursday at 10 o'clock, I'm going to watch some MMA,' that's key. That's really key."

Kay agreed that will be a big element in Bellator's success. He said that Spike once was essentially "a barker channel for the UFC" and noted that now it will "be a barker channel for Bellator."

A television viewer who turns on Spike will be hard-pressed not to hear some mention of Bellator within a 15-minute span.

Since its founding in 2008, when it appeared on the Spanish-language ESPN Desportes, Bellator has used a tournament format. It puts contenders into an eight-person bracket and has them fight, with the person winning three times earning a shot at the championship.

Bellator is counting on that format catching on once it debuts with Spike's large audience. The idea is that, much like the NCAA basketball tournament, where fans can check out the brackets to see which teams their favorites must be to get to the Final Four and win the national title, MMA fans will be excited to watch the fighters win their way to a title shot.

There will not be, Rebney insists resolutely, any favoritism in matchmaking to take advantage of a fighter's popularity.

That, as well as the eyeballs that Spike should bring, has Rebney optimistic that Bellator will establish itself as a major-league of MMA.

Whether that is in place of the UFC or alongside of it, he's not saying, but Rebney is bullish about his chances now that the company is largely owned by Viacom.

"Long-term, I am hopeful with anticipation that we are poised for tremendous long-term growth," Rebney said. "How that plays out, whether consumers are going to embrace two leagues or whether ultimately, they're going to embrace just one, a la the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball, really remains to be seen."

The bottom line will come down to Bellator capturing the fan base that the UFC had on Spike and not only retaining it over the long haul, but growing it.

The UFC is the only MMA promotion in the U.S. in the last 10 years to be able to consistently grow.

Elite XC got a network television deal with CBS and that at the time was hailed as a game change. But its parent company, Pro Elite, was hemorrhaging money and ultimately went bankrupt.

Strikeforce had been a regional promotion until Elite XC died, then become more of a national show when it landed a Showtime television contract. But it couldn't make it head-to-head against the UFC and was ultimately purchased by the UFC and then shut down.

Kay said he's not worried too much about fans looking for UFC content on Spike and leaving when they don't find it.

"All I'm concerned about is putting on great fights," he said. "Fans watch great fights. Look, when the UFC first came on Spike, nobody knew who any of the fighters were, but the fans sat down and they watched. That's just a reality. ... I'm hopeful the public can accept two [major promotional leagues]. I don't think it's an us or them situation. I'm not cocky enough or naive enough to believe that.

"They've been in the business for a long time and they've got a good running head start. But it's not about taking them on. I've seen other people try to do that and fail miserably. I firmly believe there is an opportunity for both of us to [succeed]."

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