FightLine.com: Your organization has only been around since April, when season one debuted, and you already have a major TV deal in place with NBC, Telemundo and FSN. How did all of this come about?
Bjorn Rebney: I started representing Oscar De La Hoya out of the Olympic games from late 1993 through 1997, doing marketing and consulting for him relative to his fight deals with the major networks and his pay-per-view deals and the structure of his alliances with his promoter at the time, Bob Arum.
I transitioned into partnering with Sugar Ray Leonard and at first acted as his marketing rep, and then ultimately partnered with him in a boxing promotion company called Sugar Ray Leonard boxing, which we co-owned.
For four years we promoted and produced the highest rated fight programming on the ESPN family of networks. During all that time, I was an MMA fan, MMA was what I did for fun. I would buy tickets and watch the shows, and order the pay-per-views that the UFC did. I finally got the opportunity to do this, but it took years to build out. It took all the expertise in terms of securing sites and sponsorships, signing fighters, marketing and developing and publicizing fighters, cutting TV deals, international licensing deals, marketing and building brands in the fight industry, and just built it out. I built out the business model and the plan of action over a number of years and started pitching it many, many years ago.
I started presenting it to ESPN and then finally was fortunate enough to become the first promoter in the history of MMA to get any member of the ESPN family of networks to execute an exclusive alliance with us. We launched on ESPN Deportes last April and did 12 very successful episodes that did good numbers and generated a lot of buzz. We found ourselves in a great position after the season had completed where we had some options and we had some alternatives, which in the fighting world, is an extremely unique position to be in.
FightLine.com: There is a strong Hispanic influence with your brand, the name and your fighters, tell us about that.
Bjorn Rebney: The Bellator name comes for the Latin derivation of the word “Warrior.” Our tie to the Hispanic community and our tie to the Hispanic demographic was a combination of two things. One, we launched on ESPN Deportes, so that became a focal point to drive viewership to that program and at the same time, the Hispanic population has shown to be tremendous fight fans and loyal to the fight game, and have proved to be disproportionately loyal pay-per-view subscribers and supporters of the fight industry. So it was a magical place for us to start. Last year’s reach with ESPN Deportes was 5 million homes, but now with the distribution deal with Telemundo every Saturday night, we’re reaching 62 million homes. It’s just the next stage in the development of our brand with the Hispanic consumer. We intend to continue to develop and build on that connection we’ve got with the Hispanic market.
FightLine.com: You have four champions crowned right now, are you looking to add any others?
Bjorn Rebney: We have four champions right now, by the time our next two seasons end, seasons 2 and 3, we will have crowned champs in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions. We’ll probably have at least one woman’s champion in a yet to be determined weight class, so we’re going to be rounding out the other weight classes as we move forward. Conceptually, during season 3, doing a bantamweight world championship tournament as well.
FightLine.com: Season 2 debuts in the spring, correct?
Bjorn Rebney: Season 2 starts Thursday, April 8 and airs for 2 hours from 8-10 LIVE on FOX Sports Network, reaching their 82 million home universe. The following Saturday night for the full 12 weeks of the series we have a half hour highlight show on NBC, and we have a one-hour “Best of” show on Telemundo Saturday nights. That season starts April 8 and runs for three straight months and 12 episodes. Season 3 kicks off Thursday, August 12th, and that runs 12 successive weeks as well.
FightLine.com: Will you be continuing the tournament format, or was that just to crown your champions?
Bjorn Rebney: We will continue the tournament format, if there’s anything that I believe strongly about what is Bellator, it’s that fighters should control their own destiny and that objectivity should rule MMA the same way objectivity rules basketball, football, baseball, soccer… you name it, they all do it that way.
Season 2 will have four tournaments running simultaneously: One in featherweight, one in lightweight, one in welterweight and one in middleweight. Each of those tournaments of eight men will be to determine the number one challenger in those four weight classes and earn the right to face the champion. Once those tournaments are finished, you will see the winners face [featherweight champion] Joe Soto, [lightweight champion] Eddie Alvarez, [welterweight champion] Lyman Good and [middleweight champion] Hector Lombard in Season 3. In addition to those world championship bouts, they will have heavyweight, light-heavyweight, bantamweight and possibly a woman’s tournament to round out all the requisite weight classes. It’s a continuous cycle of tournaments to determine the number one challenger and to determine champions, as well as a lot of great special feature fights.
FightLine.com: You had talked about going on pay-per-view, is that still something you see happening sooner than later?
Bjorn Rebney: That’s an interesting dynamic, pay-per-view is something that you can only do when you’re ready to do it. I know that sounds kinda back asswards, but you have to make stars. . . big enough stars that people are willing to make premium purchases to watch. You can’t jump into that space until the time is right. You need to develop a business dynamic whereby your television licensing deals, your sponsorships, venue deals and international licensing deals can support your brand economically and keep you functioning in this business, and keep your focus into creating stars. When those stars are created, and the match-ups are compelling, then you can move into the genre of pay-per-view.
That’s obviously a genre that you need to move into if you want your success dramatically impacted to the positive in this industry, but it takes some time to get there and you have to get all the drivers working in synergy (PR, marketing, advertising, exposure), and you’ve got to have magical fights. Fights that are compelling, great match-ups that people go, “I can’t miss that.” When you start to create those moments, then the opportunity for pay-per-view is there. We’ll grasp that ring when it’s apparent that it’s ready.
FightLine.com: You are the only major organization that doesn’t allow elbows to the head, why did you employ that rule?
Bjorn Rebney: We do allow them, but only in the final round of competition. The reason we did it is because disproportionately elbows to the head cause cuts, and in the short time frame that our tournaments take place in – three fights in ninety days – we’re doing as many fights with world class fighters in three months as many organizations do in a year. So what were trying to do there is alter the rules of the game as little as humanly possible, basically try to prevent a guy from winning and then not being able to continue because of a cut that would otherwise knock him out of the tournament. We felt that that was a reasonable rule to alter, we haven’t altered anything else. That was a tactical decision that we made to keep the tournament format rolling and fortunately last year – knock on wood – for our first season it worked perfectly, every single guy who won proceeded to the next round. So it worked, and we’re going to stick with it.
FightLine.com: Strikeforce was a regional organization, and has recently burst out on the national stage. What are your thoughts on Strikeforce and their expansion?
Bjorn Rebney: I think they put on good shows, I think they put on compelling events with good match-ups. [Strikeforce CEO] Scott Coker obviously knows the business, and knows it well. He survived in the business a lot of years when a lot of people have come and gone, and I watch their events. I’m legitimately rooting for them because if they are doing the job that they are quite capable of doing, it will improve and enhance everybody else’s ratings in the space.
FightLine.com: The UFC has a history of not being too fond of competitors. What’s your relationship like with the UFC?
Bjorn Rebney: I haven’t worked or spoken with them, but I’ve bought almost every one of their events (laughs). I have a long Tivo record of those events and I’ve paid money to go watch those events live. I’ve been a pretty loyal viewer of The Ultimate Fighter, so I’m a fan.
I’m also a fan of Bellator, I love our poignant difference. I’m a fervent absolute believer in the tournament format and what it does and what it means for our sport. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a fan of watching world class athletes fight under another banner. I love watching GSP fight, I think [Anderson] Silva’s hugely entertaining, you know. Obviously they do a lot of things very well, and some of those things I anticipate our organization will do pretty well as well.
FightLine.com: You have have any final comments for the readers of FightLine?
Bjorn Rebney: One of the things you’ll see in this next series of 12 events is a really prolific increase in the qualitative level of fighters. Our recruiting team and our fighter development team is out there world-wide right now working with managers and fighters literally all over the world. Because of the enormous distribution network – 82 million homes on FSN and 112 million homes on NBC and 62 million on Telemundo, the level of fighter that wants very badly to participate in this tournament – and kind of have their own destiny right in their own hands – has been spectacular. As a fan, I’m excited to see what transpires with these fighters over these next two seasons, it should be very exciting. If you’re one of those people who marks their calendars five months in advance, Thursday, April 8, it will kick off from 8-10 pm on FSN and then you’ll be able to see highlights two days later on both NBC and Telemundo. So, tune in!