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Bellator’s Big Gamble on PPV Means Everything for the Company’s Future

Viacom did not purchase Bellator from Bjorn Rebney in order to draw 500,000 viewers every Friday night on Spike TV. Viacom purchased Bellator because they wanted to get into the MMA space on the cheap and make a lot of money by running an alternative to the UFC that would look & feel different than Zuffa Inc.

When I say run Bellator on the cheap, I mean offer a TV budget of around $50,000 to $60,000 per taping. Cheap as in having Bellator run a lot of sold shows rather than running bigger venues and depending on the live gate to carry the day. Viacom’s self-imposed financial limits on Bellator’s budget is all about maximizing profits while minimizing risk in a business that is notoriously risky to promote shows in. The failure rate is as bad as professional wrestling.

Proponents of Bellator will argue that Viacom must be generating some good cash flow from advertising and those claims may very well be true. The problem, however, is that a limited budget and a shallow talent pool of fighters to draw from means that the UFC can cherry pick Bellator’s top guys when they want to — as long as they’re willing to watch out for some of the contractual clauses built into Bellator’s fighter contracts. These fighter contracts supposedly make UFC’s deals look generous in comparison. Furthermore, a limited budget means that Bellator has to heavily rely on making new stars at a constant rate because there are so many fights to book. In an industry where so many fighters get injured and miss dates, it means you have to build that many more stars or have veterans who got the UFC rub in the past.

There is one lesson that most people in combat sports understand — even rich people hate losing money on a joy ride. Bellator is not a joy ride for Viacom but rather than a minor horse in the MMA space to compete with UFC on Fox Sports 1. Whatever success Bellator is financially achieving right now for Viacom, it will never be enough. It never is for the shareholders of Viacom and Wall Street. So, the one tried-and-true method of making money in combat sports in the United States is on PPV. PPV is the end-game.

If Bellator wants to survive and not see its budget get slashed further, they have to start making real money and PPV is the vehicle to do it. Viacom decided that rather than rely on Bellator’s stars, they would go for broke by bringing in two aging veterans who fans have an attraction to — Tito Ortiz and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The idea, on paper, was simple and logical. Since a heavy portion of MMA viewers are professional wrestling fans, Spike TV had a simple formula: hey, let’s promote the Bellator guys on TNA and have them promote their real fight in a pro-wrestling feud!

The match was signed in early August. Three months of build up time for the November 2nd PPV in Long Beach, California. So, TNA, a wrestling company that is reportedly in financial trouble, agreed to go along with Spike’s request to integrate Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson into storylines. Both guys like pro-wrestling, so a natural fit on paper. Rampage Jackson joined the babyface Main Event Mafia. Tito Ortiz turned on Rampage and joined the heel Aces & 8’s crew. Suddenly, when training camp time started, both men disappeared from TNA. So much for that marketing.

Then came the whispers about how the Viacom marketing campaign was working out for Long Beach. The initial whispers claimed 4,000 tickets sold and that the building would have 8,000 people in it for PPV night. According to MMA Junkie, it turns out that the 4,000 tickets sold number came with an interesting calculation — half the tickets were allegedly sold and the other half were supposedly given to fighters to sell. Yes, you’ve heard of independent fight shows giving tickets to fighters to sell as a form of compensation, but a Viacom-owned MMA property getting involved in that type of transaction? It’s kind of ugly PR to have this kind of news attached to the PPV happenings. Whatever the truth of the situation is, one thing is for sure: if fighters are getting tickets as a form of payment, the unsold tickets will probably be giving away at a large discount or for free at the last minute.

So, maybe the live gate campaign for the Bellator PPV in Long Beach isn’t doing so well. The most important barometer for Viacom is how the show will draw on PPV. That’s really all that matters here for the suits. With Rampage & Tito not on TNA television, the next step to promoting their November 2nd fight was to give Rampage his own mini-reality TV show series called “Rampage 4 Real.” These 30-minute shows will air for the next few weeks after TNA television on Thursday nights at 11 PM EST/PST.

If the first episode of Rampage 4 Real is any indication of the kind of promotional build-up to come for the November 2nd PPV, there is only word to describe the impact of the show in terms of increasing buy rates: disastrous.

The first episode of Rampage 4 Real was basically Rampage Jackson telling fans that whoever loses the November 2nd PPV fight will basically have to retire. OK, so he stated a marketing point… but that proved to basically be it.

The majority of Rampage 4 Real is about Rampage Jackson partying it up before heading into training camp. It reinforced every story you’ve ever heard about Rampage not having any discipline and always wanting to hang out with the ladies. From Mariah, his buxom ‘bodyguard’, to the scantily clad women at the local coffee shop in Orange County he calls his “office,” Rampage basically wants to do anything but train. His training partner is pissed at him and is labeled as a member of the “fun police” while his business manager is about to get into his face for not taking the Tito Ortiz fight seriously.

Really, you could not come up with a worse marketing idea to sell a PPV fight than by having one of the two competitors spend a half hour of television time speaking out about how they want to hang out at Heat Ultra Lounge or on the jet skis rather than do work in the gym and the cage.

From bottle service to making it rain, Rampage has no problem spending his money. He even questioned his training partner about whether or not he urinated on his bed sheets or if it was a result of walking from the pool to go sleep. Rampage’s training partner summed up his training methods in this manner.

“He trained like a bag of [expletive].”

The same training partner tried his best to discuss the gravity of the situation.

“We’re fighting a monster here (in Tito).”

Viacom only has a couple of weeks left before it’s PPV time for Bellator. Bellator’s future depends on the size of the buy rate. If the PPV tanks, Bellator’s future could very well be on shaky ground. If Viacom gives up on promoting MMA, other major network conglomerates will shy away from MMA as well. Just when Turner sold WCW’s assets to WWE and network executives washed their hands of backing a potential rival to WWE, the same trend could very well happen in the MMA space with the UFC if Viacom decides to put Bellator out to pasture.

A lot is on the line on November 2nd.