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Exclusive Interview: Bellator CEO Talks Tournaments, Viral Video, and the Long Struggle to Get MMA on ESPN

(238,000 views and counting.  Not bad.)

We’ll admit it, when we first heard about Bellator, a tournament-oriented MMA organization airing to a Spanish-language audience on ESPN Deportes, we were skeptical.  But two straight weeks of viral video hits thanks to some exciting finishes piqued our curiosity, and we decided to talk with Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney to try and figure out what this thing is all about. You guys have had a couple good weeks on the internet with Toby Imada’s submission and then the spinning backfist KO.  That stuff makes for good viral video, but is it just a couple lucky outcomes or do you chalk it up to good planning and matchmaking?

I don’t think you can ever plan for what happened with Toby Imada and I don’t think you can ever plan for what happened with Yahir Reyes.  What I do think is this: the tournament structure, and the ability of our fighters to make their own way and determine what they make, with the overall amount being quite high, it generates a willingness on the fighters’ parts to take some risks that they might not otherwise take.  We may just be incredibly lucky to have found some amazing fighters who did amazing things the last couple of weeks, but it’s played out beautifully for us.  

I mean, Toby’s submission may be the best submission I’ve ever seen in MMA, and Yahir’s spinning backfist was probably the best knockout I’ve seen this year.  It’s been great for us because the brand recognition has gone through the roof.  We’re a couple hundred thousand hits in on YouTube with Toby’s submission and Yahir’s deal is at, I think 180 or 190,000.  So it’s been a great time for us recently.

You mention the benefits of the tournament structure, but there are also some drawbacks to that.  Say one of your finalists gets hurt in training or gets a medical suspension after his semi-final bout.  How do you balance the positives and the negatives with a tournament format?

Yeah, that’s a great question.  I’m kind of always worried about talking about that.  It’s like getting up in the morning and wanting to go play golf, and it’s a beautiful day outside, and as soon as you say out loud, ‘You know, I think I’ll play some golf, what a great day,’ then two hours later it starts raining.  

We’ve been very lucky to have had no injuries yet.  Everybody that’s won, and we have both our featherweight and lightweight finals completely set, and no one has gotten injured.  Everybody who’s won has been able to move forward.  I’m the first to admit that that’s an anomaly.  You can’t anticipate that.  But that’s part of the reason that we went with four different tournaments simultaneously.  We knew there were some incredible upsides to the tournament format – the objectivity, giving fighters for the first time in decades in U.S. MMA the opportunity to control their own destiny – but at the same time those injuries could derail a winner from moving forward.  

To date, we’ve been lucky.  But we’re going to stick with it regardless of the risks.  This is our format.  We’re going to spread it across a number of weight classes each time, so that if and when it happens, and it will happen, we can deal with it.  We’ll have fallbacks and alternate fighters competing, one every event, so they can step in there if they have to.  But definitely, we’ve been lucky so far.

Do you find that people are coming to your events after following the whole tournament from the beginning, or are they just going because you’re in places that don’t see a ton of live MMA and they want to see some fights?

I think it’s a combination of the two.  Last week we were in Corpus (Christi, TX), and the prior week we were in Dayton (Ohio), and we do interviews with fans as they’re walking in and walking out.  That means something to us, because we want to know who our fanbase is and why they’re coming.  There are some at each venue that say they’ve watched it before.  We got a lot of comments in Corpus about Toby Imada’s submission and how cool it was.  And then there are some just coming because they haven’t seen much MMA and we’re a big, national show that puts on a real, professional event with top guys.  And then there are some who are coming because they’re MMA purists, they’re fans, and they want to see Wilson Reis or Eddie Alvarez.  It’s been all across the board.  

Our primary broadcast is through ESPN Deportes, so it limits our audience a bit.  One of the good things that’s been happening is our “Wednesday Warriors” series on lets people see Jon Anik and Jason Chambers go through the fights in totality.  It’s a three-day delay, but still they get to watch it.  The thing is, the fights have been great, and not just the featured tournament bouts.  It’s not like a Rolling Stones album where there’s three good songs and a bunch of filler [ed. note: Ouch. Burn on the Stones].  Most of the fights have been very good, very competitive, pick-em fights.  And we did it on purpose not just to create close fights, but to test guys and see who should become part of the next tournament in the fall.

So how did Bellator come about and how did you manage to get it on ESPN Deportes?

Well, from 2001 to 2004 I produced and promoted one of the highest-rated fight programs on the ESPN family of networks, and that was a show called “Sugar Ray Leonard Presents Friday Night Fights.”  I was partners with “Sugar” Ray in a boxing promotion company.  Boxing was my business and something I did to make a living, but for fun I was watching MMA events and going to MMA events.  That was a sport I really loved watching just for enjoyment with my buddies.  

I knew the power of ESPN was such that you could build fighters up there and then transition them to a premium network like Showtime or HBO and then ultimately transition to pay-per-view.  When the Spike deal first hit and the UFC was able to get MMA on cable television, I was one of the hardcore believers.  People I knew said, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe they’re putting that on television,” and I said, just watch, it’s going to explode and become huge.  People in TV thought it was a fringe thing.  

Right when those first episodes hit, I started laying the groundwork at ESPN for getting MMA on there.  All of the organizations from the IFL to EliteXC to Strikeforce have tried to make that move, and we just kept making the case, presenting information to them on the safety studies, and the advertiser polls, and just presenting it over and over.  After literally years of that, they gave it the greenlight and put it on ESPN Deportes.  It was hard work getting a Disney-owned company to put MMA on TV, but it was worth it in the end.

Have they told you whether they’re happy with how it’s been going so far?

You know, networks, whether it’s cable or network or premium, they never really talk to you about how happy they are.  What we have heard is that the quality of the fights and the production and the response from the demographic, that they’ve been pleased with.  Ratings can always be better, and the Spanish-language audience is still really new to MMA.  We’ve done some very good numbers on the network.  The last two quarter (hours) of our most recent show rated a 1.2.  

So we’ve been happy with the numbers, and I think it speaks to the fact that when you transition to an English-language demographic the numbers will be really good.  I think that’s what people were wondering, can you achieve good numbers broadcasting to a market that’s never had MMA programming targeted at them?  If you can, that speaks volumes about what you’d be able to do with an English-language version.  That’s what I’m really looking forward to is expanding the breadth of this.

Does that mean you’re hoping for a move to an English-language ESPN channel soon, and if so, is there any fear that you might just be laying the groundwork for the UFC to get in good with ESPN once the network sees how good the response is?

Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in the world of television.  But I think we have an established position with them right now.  We’re meeting with them regularly and the response has been really positive.  The UFC, according to all the reports I’ve seen, has another two years, I think, on their deal with Spike.  Obviously they’re the 800-pound gorilla, the NFL of this sport.  But I’m happy with where we are.

If the UFC is the NFL, does that mean other organizations need some kind of gimmick, for lack of a better word, to make them the Arena Football of the MMA world?  Do you think that’s what you have with the tournament format?

You know, that’s a good question.  I believe that the tournament format and objectivity in combat sports is long, long overdue.  I’m a firm believer that the reason boxing has become such a peripheral sport in this country, but for the occasional Oscar De La Hoya fight or a monster mega-fight every now and then, is due to the complete subjectivity of it.  There’s no trackability to the game, there’s no system to determine who’s number one and there’s no road to a title.  It’s just pick and choose.  It’s this matchmaking concept where a guy in a shiny suit says, ‘Oh, this guy versus that guy, I can sell that.  That will be my title fight.’  

I think that the reasoning behind our format is based on objectivity.  If you look at college basketball, the most popular event of the season is March Madness, a tournament structure.  The NFL has it, the NBA, everything we watch has a similar playoff format.  For some reason, boxing and even MMA has nothing like that.  There are some tournaments in Japan that I’ve watched for years and enjoyed, but they’re over a long period of time.  It’s very difficult to keep the viewership over a matter of six months.  It’s not as difficult to keep the same viewership over a 12-16 episode run on television.  

It is a point of difference for us, but it’s not created out of silliness like the IFL’s was.  It’s not, you know, a different cage or a different fighting surface or different rules.  Guys like me have been watching the UFC for years now.  We like the rules.  We like the fighting surface.  If you’re going to differentiate yourself, do it with something that really means something and has a positive impact for the fighters, and that respects the fighters.

Fair enough.  Anything else you’d like to let our readers know about?  

Just some very exciting stuff coming up in the next few weeks.  We’ve got our semi-finals coming up this weekend, some good fights.  We’ve got the Lyman Good fight, the Dave Menne fight, and they’re both seminal for us.  And the matchup we’ve got at lightweight, it’s very interesting.  I think standing the edge goes to Eddie Alvarez, but on the ground Toby Imada probably has the edge.  

It’s compelling, and it speaks to what we’re about.  With Imada, here’s a guy with a kind of crappy record, who was never given a real chance.  Against Jake Shields he got pulled in on eight days’ notice and went the distance and lost a decision.  He’s a world-class competitor who never got a chance, and now he’s got it.  For me, it’s exciting and it’s what I hoped we would do.


Cagepotato Comments

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?CM- May 14, 2009 at 12:15 am
i know what Dana is gonna say:
"We worked hard for 15 fucking years to build this sport from nothing and now there is this fucking parasite Belator with their fucking tornament trying to give the sport a bad name. this is fucking bullshit"
GIO- May 13, 2009 at 10:42 pm
Reminds me of the good old Pride ! Gets the fighters and the fans that more in the fights.

Be nice to have the negative feedback of Dana on tournements and why its bad for the sport. I mean the UFC.
SlapjawAckrite- May 13, 2009 at 10:05 pm
Nice interview. High hopes for this org and the tourney structure
Zescape- May 13, 2009 at 7:28 pm
If you listen carefully, you can hear the ref say, "That's it! Let go! ... Oh shit"

Yeah, I've watched this too many times. Still amazing.
NECROPHYTE- May 13, 2009 at 6:02 pm
Fucking amazing upside down triangle!
x FenixKnight x- May 13, 2009 at 5:45 pm
Bellator is great. I'm glad its doing well on Deportes. My Latino peeps need to get into MMA and love it like they love boxing. I just wish they would air it Live on ESPN2.
WuTangClan- May 13, 2009 at 5:34 pm
#1 calling him "Fowlkes" like he knows him personally, get a fuckin life
831 Son- May 13, 2009 at 5:23 pm
Shits tight.
Osama- May 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm
I like this guy.
sarah- May 13, 2009 at 4:53 pm
Whoa, Bjorn seems like a real class act - and he seems to know the sport in a way that some of these other CEOs don't. Not to mention: not a single f-bomb in the whole interview! I hope Dana White is taking notes somewhere...

I totally want to see them do well.
Poo Flinger- May 13, 2009 at 4:53 pm
Their tournament format works pretty well. I think my favorite thing is the ring-shaped ring, it just makes more sense.
AliveMMA- May 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm
I agree Tourny style is the best.

Air the promotion on ESPN 2, not The Ocho. Bas Rutten knows spanish, at least let him commentate if it HAS to be on ESPN The Ocho.
Fucklord- May 13, 2009 at 4:05 pm
Super Hulk is gonna bring the tournament back, in a big way
Mdollas- May 13, 2009 at 3:57 pm
Tournament style rocks.
My Fight Wiffa Cheeto- May 13, 2009 at 3:53 pm
"Say one of your finalists gets hurt in training or gets a medical suspension after his semi-final bout. How do you balance the positives and the negatives with a tournament format?"

Waaaaay to Jinx them Fowlkes...