The New Bellator Fighting Championships

By Michael Lockhart

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"Bellator was a based on a tournament format, where if you win, you move on; if you lose, you go home.”


It doesn’t take long after getting into a conversation with Bellator Fighting Championships (BFC) Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney to begin to comprehend the deeper meaning of the company’s slogan, “Where title shots are earned, not given.”

The L.A. native recounted his 20 years in the sports industry, from his start as a practicing attorney with complementary degrees in Law and Sports Business to founding Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing—a lucrative franchise that at its peak hit 90 million homes in half a dozen countries—to ultimately developing Bellator, an international MMA promotion in the vein of UFC but with a goal of allowing fighters to “choose their own destiny” through a tournament format.

Rebney recalls first analyzing MMA for a possible franchise: “The overnight ratings that came out after the [MMA] show confirmed what I already knew. That it was the best sport in the world and that young male consumers were going to respond to it in droves and they were going to love it. And at this point, there was entry [for more players] in that space.”

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With its 84 tournaments on MTV2 over the past few years, Bellator has emerged as the MMA front-runner to challenge dominant Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), which largely holds a monopoly on the sport and the advertising dollars from the core male 18 to 35 demographic. In 2011 when UFC and broadcasting partner Spike TV divorced, Bellator saw its opportunity and offered Spike parent Viacom a majority controlling interest in the company. When UFC headed over to Fox in 2012—and Spike aired reruns during their yearlong noncompete clause—Rebney and the new Viacom management began to craft their plan to launch Bellator out of the bubble.

Even though Bellator counted millions of fans across 107 markets, including six-figure audiences in Russia and Brazil, the sport had failed to garner viewers over the half-million mark; the peak was about 325,000 back in May 2011 on MTV2. Now, with access to the considerable resources of Viacom and Spike’s wide reach—nearly 100 million homes nationwide—Rebney’s ambitious plan for 2013 included no fewer than 25 live events consisting of series in winter, summer and fall, as well as a reality show produced by double-digit Emmy-winning The Amazing Race producer Bertram van Munster.

The key to this smooth-rolling operation, however, lies in Viacom’s experience in the field. According to Rebney, “Having Viacom own a majority stake in the company has given us access to accomplished people on the production part, sponsorship, promotion and marketing. Viacom wrote the playbook for MMA fighting.” The benefits of this partnership have been immediately evident: Bellator 85 kicked off in its new home last Thursday and an average viewership of 938,000 tuned in. While a portion of the audience was enticed by the tournament’s lead-in of TNA Impact Wrestling, which had an average of about 1.82 million viewers, Spike was pleased with the outcome. Rebney and the Spike executives kept their fantasy ratings projections to themselves, but Spike TV president Kevin Kay proclaimed Friday that “we had a great night last night. [The ratings] are fantastic.”

Although Bellator lost roughly half of the audience share handed to it, the time slot may hold some of the blame. While previous MMA numbers, particularly on Spike, came primarily from UFC’s Saturday night matches, it was a gamble for Spike and Rebney whether or not to go head-to-head with Fox with the new channel debut. As Rebney explained last fall, “we’ve been working with Spike for months in terms of what is the best day—what is the best time—to reach the largest number of consumers with Bellator content.” The Thursday night placement was successful by BFC standards, and three tournaments running per year will allow for some experimentation to determine what works with audiences.

Ben Askren vs Jay Hieron

However, the most important factor by far to reach the success BFC and Viacom desire will be educating MMA fans about what sets Bellator apart from UFC. Rebney has been quite vocal when it comes to defining the two tournaments and their contrasting concepts, enough so that UFC and Bellator are regularly seen in corporate battles outside the ring, be it mentions in the media or court claims between fighters and promotion organizers over contract signings.

As Rebney states, “our point of difference from the UFC is very substantial: we are a real sports competition. We are a real sports competition, the likes of which we as sports fans watch every sport on earth. If you’re a soccer fan, you watch the World Cup; if you’re a fan of hockey, you watch the Stanley Cup; if you’re a fan of the NBA, or Major League Baseball, or the National Football League—any sport that we think of—we all work the same way.”

Rebney’s most compelling argument for his company is the identifiable path toward a championship title. This model, rooted in “real, legitimate empirical data,” advocates no begging or matchups, just the clear desire to win. “At the beginning of the competition there are a group of individuals or teams, and at the end of that competition there is one. The thing that determines that one is winning; not how good your hair looks or that you’re married to a supermodel or whether you can talk yourself into a championship. It’s about winning. Bellator was a based on a tournament format, an objective structure where if you win, you move on; if you lose, you go home.”

FIGHTER MINI-INTERVIEWS

Playboy.com: What originally inspired you to get involved with MMA?

Lawal: Pro wrestling, boxing, Heathcliff the cartoon and kung fu flicks really started my passion for combat sports. My love for combat got me into MMA, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Playboy.com: You’ll be competing in the upcoming season of Bellator when it moves to Spike TV this spring; what are you most looking forward to?

Lawal: I’m looking forward to just fighting and winning on Spike TV! Can’t focus on anything else.

Playboy.com: Why did you choose to compete in Bellator instead of another MMA property?

Lawal: I chose to roll with Bellator ’cause they keep MMA pure and treat it like a true sport! It’s not like other promotions out there with politics and everything else that is shady. Win and get a title shot. Love it.

Playboy.com: You compete in both MMA and pro wrestling events; do you have a preference for one over the other?

Lawal: I have no preference! I’m just glad they will both take place on Spike TV! Call me Mr. Spike TV!

Playboy.com: What’s been the most challenging aspect of your journey so far?

Lawal: My battle with staph infection was the toughest thing I ever dealt with. I coulda died! But I ain’t no quitta! I bounced back, and now I’m on Spike TV!

Playboy.com: What is your goal in this profession?

Lawal: My goal is to be champ and enjoy the ride from start to finish!

Playboy.com: What originally inspired you to get involved with MMA?

Curran: I really didn’t know anything about the sport. When I graduated high school I went to firefighter academy and it really wasn’t working out, so I figured I would give it a shot and moved up to Chicago.

Playboy.com: Why did you choose Bellator over UFC?

Curran: I was a replacement fighter going into Bellator. I had just won a fight over in the U.K. and my manager got a call from Bellator saying they were looking for a replacement fighter in the lightweight tournaments. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I put on a bit of weight and I ended up winning it.

Playboy.com: What was your reaction to winning Featherweight World Champion?

Curran: It really didn’t sink in at first. It happened so fast, but it was a dream come true. I was finally able to live by fighting; it was the first step to getting to where I am now.

Playboy.com: You compete in both MMA and pro wrestling events; do you have a preference for one over the other?

Curran: UFC has their way and Bellator has their way. I have to give a lot of credit to [Bellator] because of my success. Since the beginning of Bellator to where I am now, I have to credit the tournament format.

Playboy.com: What’s been the most challenging aspect of your journey so far?

Curran: When I first moved up to Chicago, I moved up here with $1000 and got a job bar backing and training at night. It was hard leaving my family and friends in Florida to an area I’m not familiar with. I was chasing after a dream and stuck it out for a couple of years.

Playboy.com: What is your goal in this profession?

Curran: I just want to put on a show for the fans. I just turned 25, and to me I feel that I’m just peaking in my career. I want to see where Bellator goes, especially now on Spike.

Playboy.com: What originally inspired you to get involved with MMA?

Askren: I wrestled my whole life, so MMA was a natural progression for me.

Playboy.com: What pushed you to switch over to Bellator from wrestling?

Askren: I did international wrestling for a while—I made the U.S. Olympic Team in 2008—so I figured I’d give this a try.

Playboy.com: Why did you choose Bellator over UFC?

Askren: Bellator was the first MMA to come to me, and they offered me a chance to make a name for myself. The tournament format of Bellator is nice because it’s clear and concise who is the next challenger to the champion. There’s no popularity question for it.

Playboy.com: What’s been your biggest brick wall on your journey so far?

Askren: For me the biggest challenge has been the transition from wrestling to full-fledged mixed martial arts fighting; the striking really didn’t come natural for me. I was 24 when I started, which was really old to get going.

Playboy.com: What’s your fight mentality like?

Askren: It’s fairly level-headed. With wrestling you compete more often, with MMA it’s only a couple times per year.

Playboy.com: What is your goal in this profession?

Askren: Just to keep winning and keep getting better at MMA.


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