After a surprisingly successful first season that made great use of viral video and a time slot on ESPN Deportes, Bellator now seems poised to break through to the English-speaking MMA audience thanks to recently announced deals with Fox Sports Net and NBC. A third deal with Telemundo also promises them a larger share of the Spanish-language demographic, but the question that remains is how will these new deals affect Bellator’s existing strategy, particularly on YouTube, as well as its long-term viability? To answer those questions and more, we spoke with veteran boxing producer and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
CagePotato.com: You recently announced a slew of new TV deals. It seems like a big breakthrough all at once for you guys. How long did it take to set that all up?
BR: In terms of timing, it took a long time. I’ve got a really clear vision of what I want to accomplish, so everything seems to take more time than I’d want, but there were two drivers that I had in the back of my mind with regards to this deal. One was to dramatically expand our universe, bring it into English language broadcasts with a live, prime time two-hour show, and to have it available on a consistent basis. At the same time I was trying to create a business dynamic that would allow us to become cash flow positive and balance our books.
Judging by the carcasses along the side of the road in MMA, that isn’t always the focus that other groups have paid attention to. I knew we had a good product and I knew we had something from a content perspective that people wanted to see. It was just finding the right deal that would allow us to do this not just next year, but five and six years down the road. Thank goodness we were able to do it.
When you were trying to work out these TV deals, what’s the biggest obstacle you came up against? What were the networks saying when you asked them to get involved with a small MMA organization?
Well, when I was pitching the first season, that was when it was really difficult. I had the credibility of having the track record of producing shows and working with ESPN for a number of years, but without a show in the can, without being able to hand someone a DVD, that was the really difficult period. You’re asking people, at a time when the sport is still relatively new, to take a chance. ESPN took that chance a year ago. Moving forward, the great thing we had going for us was that I had high-quality, twelve-camera shoot, HD discs to give out, and I had twelve of them. The shows were great. The tournament format played itself out well.
I dealt with a lot of negatives over the last three years trying to get this thing started, but when our season ended we had a Friday night show at the Hard Rock in Florida, and I got on plane the next morning for a breakfast meeting with TV executives in New York. It was a total anomaly in the TV business, because we actually had options. That’s highly unusual unless you’re the NFL or the UFC or Seinfeld.
You mentioned the carcasses on the side of the road. One of those carcasses that also had an FSN deal in addition to a network deal was the IFL, and they still went under. How are your deals different from that?
The IFL/FSN deal is very substantially different than ours. Most of the shows they did were on long tape delay. You would see shows and, from an editing and production perspective – I don’t want to bash people when they’re not around to defend themselves – but they were not at a particularly high level. The big thing was, they were not a national show with a national start time. Basically it was content provided to FSN, and whenever they wanted to air it, it would air. If you were in L.A. it might be on at one time, and if you were in Connecticut it might be on at a completely different time.
Ours is an 8-10 pm spot on Thursday nights for 24 weeks, basically half the year. The only thing that would preempt our programming would be a big local event. For example, if there’s a Laker game that runs late on Fox Sports West, then we’ll be bumped to the back of the game. But we have a national time slot, our show is live, and we’re not showing any edited content.
And Strikeforce had the same late-night show on NBC that we do, but theirs relied on a lot of edited content, sometimes a year old. Ours will be a recap, for the lack of a better description, kind of like “The NFL Today,” where it’s a condensed recap of what just happened that week on our Thursday night show. The goal with our NBC show is to allow people who want to see what they might have missed if they were working or training or out with their wife or girlfriend on Thursday. And the other thing is, even while Strikeforce used content that was sometimes a month and sometimes a year old, it did great numbers. It captured the time slot for NBC. Our content is going to be literally two days old, edited down frantically in New York once the show is over.
So will you have the exact same time slot that Strikeforce had on NBC?
Yeah, it will be right after “Poker After Dark,” so it will be 2-2:30 am.
You’ve said that you got a great reaction from the Spanish-language audience in your first season. Why do you think that is? I mean, the UFC has Spanish-language shows. Is the difference simply that you have more Spanish-speaking fighters?
I think that, just like in any situation in television, people want to see people they identify with. If you’re from Chicago and you’re watching sports, you root for the Bulls. If you’re from Spain and you’re watching the World Cup, you want to see the Spanish national team. It gave us a unique connection with the Spanish-language audience here in the U.S., because we had a large number of fighters who were of Hispanic heritage. I think it was either 58 or 62% of our fighters actually spoke Spanish, so they could really communicate with that audience.
The UFC has great footage, but they basically take their normal footage and then edit it to play in a Spanish-language platform. We went on ESPN Deportes because that was the door that was open to us, and we created a show specifically for that audience. I think that created a very cool and positive connection with that audience.
With the fairly long layoff between seasons, do you think Bellator might have lost some of the momentum it built up initially?
I don’t think so. I just saw the awards nominations for the show, the big award show on Versus, and we were nominated for promotion of the year and I think for submission of the year. I think the endemic market of MMA fans, they’re pretty fanatical about this sport. They watch fights on Spike, they watch Versus, they watch HDNet, they watch ESPN Deportes and now they’ll watch Fox and NBC and Telemundo. What I had to do was create a business structure that would ensure we wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of the IFL and Bodog. We didn’t want to burn bright and fade away. We wanted to burn bright and still be here for a decade or more. In the long term, my plan is to be here many years from now.
So, yeah, we’re four months later than when we initially planned to get these deals done, but that’s fine. The content is going to speak for itself. When you put good television out there, with good fighters in a tournament-based format, people are going to find it. Don’t forget, most of our following the first season was the hardcore endemic market. We were literally only available on a relatively small Spanish-language network and online on our site. So unless you were a hardcore English-speaking MMA fans, you might have heard of Bellator, but you weren’t really engaged, watching every week. That’s what we’re going to create.
Now that you have this multitude of TV deals, will that change the way you use YouTube and the internet in general?
I’ve been asked that a lot and the answer is, absolutely not. Some people say that’s silly, but YouTube and viral marketing campaign that we created was really valuable for our brand. I have no intent of pulling back from it. I think it was a great campaign. I think if you have good content and you get it out there so as many people as possible can see it, I think it only builds the brand. I don’t think it steals viewership. I don’t think you lose ratings. I think that on Thursday night at 9 pm when there’s some spectacular knockout, by 11:30 or 12 it’s going to be up on YouTube.
We travel with an additional avid, and the sole purpose of that avid is to cut down content to feed it to the internet and news sources. We hope that people will see that, see stuff like Yahir Reyes’ spinning backfist, and they say, ‘Whoa, where can I see more of that?’ I think different promotions take kind of a proprietary, controlling aim at their content and their greatest moments, but we’re going to keep feeding them out there. People forget, we’re still a very new brand. The key is allowing as many people as possible to experience it.
Last question, you guys introduced several new fighters to the MMA world as a whole, guys like Toby Imada, who you mentioned. Who are the new guys we should be paying attention to in Bellator?
We haven’t made any fighter announcements yet. We’re going to be over the next month or so. As I said, this last season we had our primary focus on the Hispanic market, so that’s where we spent a lot of time looking during our recruitment process. This season, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak, if you’re a good fighter we want you. I think the qualitative levels of fighters for season two and three will go up, but you’ll also see some of the same faces back.
Guys like Toby Imada, who we’ve said many times, is the best fighter with the worst record in mixed martial arts. He’s a guy who took Jake Shields on five days’ notice and took him to decision. Now he’s finally getting a chance to show that and prepare like he wants to. He lost to Eddie Alvarez, but Alvarez is the number three-ranked lightweight on most people’s list. You’ll see Toby Imade back. You’ll see Jared Hess back. You’ll see Wilson Reis back. You’ll see, obviously, our champions, Joe Soto, Hector Lombard, Eddie Alvarez, Lyman Good.
You’ll also see heavyweights as we start to groom that division. You’ll see Eddie Sanchez, who’s got everything together in his life and is training like a maniac, looking like a million bucks. He just had a spectacular knockout in Mexico City. A lot of those guys will be back, but ¾ of every tournament will be populated by new fighters, some of whom you know, and some of whom people are just learning about, like Joe Soto was. This time last year, no one in the MMA world except for guys in northern California knew who Joe Soto was. Now he’s ranked in most people’s top ten. Those are the kinds of guys you’re going to see, plus guys you already know. That’s part of what makes it very exciting for us.