Good news for Bellator fans: the PPV-that-wasn’t-meant-to-be last Saturday night that aired on Spike drew 1.1 million viewers. The Rampage Jackson/Tito Ortiz PPV event fell apart like Humpty Dumpty which in turn gave us Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler II as a main event. The Long Beach fans may not have treated that fight as a main event until the very end, but clearly there was some interest nationally.
The question is whether or not Bellator & Viacom will be able to build upon what happened on Saturday night and translate it into success on PPV in 2014.
The biggest challenge right now for Bellator is a similar problem to what UFC is facing — there’s too many damn “free” shows right now on cable. It’s contributed to the cooling off of the MMA business cycle. People will watch a fight if they think it’s a big deal but they will definitely skip over events they don’t feel is important enough to their lives. Quality, not quantity.
When UFC helped launch Fox Sports 1 with Chael Sonnen’s fight from Boston, they drew 1.8 million viewers. After the August fight, I penned a column for Fightline stating that this ratings number would help accelerate UFC’s road to hosting weekly fight shows on Fox platforms. This is the goal Dana White & Lorenzo Fertitta have always wanted to execute. Even if the ratings of UFC shows on FS1 are lower than their pre-Fox event ratings, at least they would have some leverage with Fox because no other FS1 programming is really drawing solid numbers.
Two months after the Boston event, the Fox Sports 1 platform is absolutely dragging down UFC cable ratings and is clearly impacting their numbers on PPV. The buy rate figures for the Jon Jones/Alexander Gustafsson and Cain Velasquez/Junior dos Santos fights have come in markedly under expectations. Anderson Silva’s fight with Chris Weidman drew approximately 525,000 PPV buys.
The Fox Sports deal with UFC is turning out to be both a blessing (cash infusion) and a curse (wrecking cable & PPV numbers because there’s way too much content). Further complicating matters is that a large portion of UFC’s audience is made up of pro-wrestling fans, not hardcore sports fans. And right now, the hardcore sports fans are not buying into FS1 which means there isn’t much of a rub Fox can give UFC at the moment other than name visibility in advertising.
Bellator is facing a similar dilemma. They are a weekly television property on Spike, owned by Viacom. Viacom is running Bellator on the cheap, with a TV budget of $50-60k per Friday show. The margins are really tight. It’s very easy to pick and choose which shows to watch and which shows to skip.
Which leads us to the next challenge Bellator is facing: what creative direction do they choose for matchmaking? Do they go for the hot, young prospects or do they go for the older veteran names? This dilemma was highlighted when Viacom went all-in with Tito Ortiz vs. Rampage Jackson only for the fight to fall apart at the last minute. In addition, names like Doug Marshall and Joe Riggs have won Bellator tournaments in 2013. It makes it easier for UFC to label & criticize Bellator as the home of washed up fighters when you have guys like this winning tournaments. In addition, many ex-UFC fighters lose fights in Bellator. That’s fine as long as the guys defeating those ex-UFC fighters become household names and so far that hasn’t happened.
Part of the problem with Bellator attracting young prospects is that there is a reputation problem regarding the kind of contracts Bjorn Rebney & Viacom want fighters to sign. Some contracts reportedly require tickets to be sold in order to get paid. Some contracts allegedly deal with options upon options for future fights. Exacerbating this image problem is the fact that Bellator is engaged in two high-stakes contractual tangos with Eddie Alvarez & Ben Askren. Askren wants to go to the UFC but UFC is having to wait out the signing period because of the legal mess that Alvarez got into when he tried to leave Bellator.
The final challenge for Bellator becoming a successful PPV entity deals with their ability to draw a healthy live gate. They just don’t draw big live crowds, as in 5,000 or more people in an arena. They tend to do sold show deals at casinos. The problem they have is that they aren’t plugged into the casino world like UFC is so it’s significant harder to sell a fight to a major casino for a PPV attraction. They would love to do so, perhaps with the rubber match between Chandler & Alvarez but I’m not sure if they can pull it off. UFC can get a deal with MGM Grand or Mandalay Bay any time they want to. Bellator cannot. Casino money is what powered the UFC to prominence. This isn’t Japan where you could rely on the yakuza to strong-arm people into buying tickets and television networks into coughing up significant cash.
Saturday’s Bellator event in Long Beach did give us some answers as to where Bellator is headed in 2014. The question is who will be the company’s show ponies and whether or not they want to build around Eddie Alvarez, a fighter who has made it very clear that he wants out. Who will Viacom decide to build Bellator around in the coming year?