(Photo via Sherdog)
Bellator’s planned November pay-per-view headlined by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz is what it is: two once-great names that are way past their “best before” date. Fans, media and pundits were faster to criticize the match than a Jewish mother criticizing her own kids.
There’s no mystery as to why Bellator is entering the fold — the pay-per-view marketplace is where the profits are for MMA promoters. Yet as Yahoo’s Kevin Iole is fond of noting in one of his latest columns, the only entity in the 20-year history of MMA that has successfully pulled off profitable pay-per-view shows has been the UFC. Merely attempting to break even with a Tito-Rampage main event might be over-reaching on Bellator’s part.
Part of what Iole writes is true, including how Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is contradicting his previous statements about Bellator aiming to build stars from scratch rather than relying on former UFC fighters. But it is myopic of Kevin Iole to rail off biased theories about how the Bellator PPV is just a ploy in the legal drama between Bellator and Eddie Alvarez, who are feuding over the matching clause in Bellator’s contract. As Iole argues:
“Bellator also looks petty by even putting on a pay-per-view show, because it is likely just a legal maneuver in its court case with top lightweight contender Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez attempted to sign a UFC contract, but Rebney contended Bellator matched the UFC offer and that Alvarez belongs to Bellator.
That’s for a court to decide, but it’s unconscionable for Bellator officials to tie up a young athlete in the prime of his career. But Bellator, which in the suit said it planned to feature Alvarez in a pay-per-view to compete against the UFC offer, now has to go forward.”
A talented fighter like Eddie Alvarez does deserve his chance in the UFC. Unfortunately, the cream does not rise to the top, especially in the fight game: Without the right management, political maneuverings and opportunities, it simply spoils unnoticed and unheralded on the sidelines. Where Iole misses the point over both the Alvarez situation, as well as the true significance of the Bellator PPV, has to do with the context that he explains these situations occurring within.
Bellator didn’t trip over itself to find Tito Ortiz and Quinton Jackson. They just happened to be the only available and marketable MMA fighters who fit into Viacom/Bellator’s plans. Interestingly, the Eddie Alvarez situation speaks directly to the reason why so few free agents exist in MMA, because of how Alvarez’s MMA contract essentially enslaved him to his promotion.
No promoter wants to invest in a fighter without assurances that they will be able to recoup what it cost to develop them down the line. An undercard fighter with a purse of $3,000 (plus expenses like airline tickets, hotel, etc.) has to bring in $3,000+ worth of net profit in ticket sales, pay-per-view buys, merchandise, marketing or sponsorship, otherwise the promoter is taking a loss every time said fighter has a match. It’s no wonder that a promoter would favor long-term contracts that allow them to hang on to the few prospects who do pan out as draws.
The situation between Bellator and Eddie Alvarez is similar to the situation between the UFC and Randy Couture that occurred in October 2007 when Couture tried to bail on a UFC contract with two fights remaining (By the way, did Kevin Iole lament the waste of Couture’s prime athletic years back in 2007-2008?). While Eddie Alvarez should have had a lawyer review his Bellator contract before he signed it, perhaps he felt he had no other options at that juncture of his career.
Without competition in the MMA marketplace, promoters are free to offer fighters the worst contracts possible — the kind that’s chock-full of legal jargon which emasculates them and diminishes their brand. These can include clauses that demand likeness rights, video game rights, a cut of sponsorship, matching clauses — you name it, a lawyer can put it in writing and have the fighter sign it in their own blood.
For all the flaws of the Rampage-Ortiz PPV, it has value for fighters everywhere. Suddenly there’s a second MMA promotion running pay-per-views, and in-demand fighters can use that as leverage in contract negotiations.
The UFC is well-aware of the dangers of competition. Their former competitor Strikeforce was swallowed up back in March 2011 before the San Jose-based outfit could even attempt to put on a PPV show. A free UFC card featuring Anderson Silva vs James Irvin was quickly slapped together to counter-program Affliction’s July 19 show in 2008 (Iole omits this fact from his criticism that Affliction’s PPV show drew an estimated 100,000 PPV buys).
Strategically, the UFC is making the correct move behind the scenes in anticipating Viacom/Bellator’s strategy. That’s why you see fighters like Roy Nelson being signed to a nine-fight contract, or Anderson Silva signing a 10-fight contract. Even if Bellator was able or willing to match UFC salaries, the promotion legally couldn’t even field an offer to fighters like Silva or Nelson — not unless Bellator is waiting to wait several more years.
The fight game has always been about opportunism, greed and hypocrisy, and no promotion should be exempt from judgment. There are numerous stories afloat about how Bellator has shortchanged its fighters, the Eddie Alvarez situation just being the visible tip of the iceberg. Simultaneously, the MMA media has to acknowledge what the underlying issues are with regards to fighter contracts, rather than attacking the symptoms of a corrupt universe as Kevin Iole has done.
The bottom line is that the success of the Rampage-Ortiz PPV shouldn’t be measured on the show’s PPV buys. Bellator’s strategic goals are to achieve a larger television audience on Spike TV and to acquire several more marketable pay-per-view stars. Perhaps if Anderson Silva puts on another performance as embarrassing as the one at UFC 112, or if Jon Jones refuses another last-minute opponent leading to the cancellation of an event, Bellator might finally be able to put on a PPV event worth buying.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.