If nothing else, we MMA fans are certainly an excitable lot. Judging by reactions on message boards and news site comment sections in the wake of Tuesday's news that Chael Sonnen would face UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for the title in April one would think Dana White had just announced the impending sale of the UFC to Vince McMahon and the WWE.
"This is not just about money. You have to earn your title shots or this isn’t a f***** sport," went one representative comment in reaction to an article on the story by MMAFighting.com's Dave Doyle.
The second half of this statement touches on a common misconception about the UFC. It may be a hard fact to accept for some, but at the end of the day The Ultimate Fighting Championship isn't a sport - it's a business. Mixed Martial Arts, however, is a sport. The UFC is a fight promotion that puts on MMA contests. What happens in the UFC octagon may be, as the old tagline goes, "as real as it gets" but so is the UFC's devotion to the bottom line. They're in this to make as much money as possible, not to act as a non-profit governing body overseeing competition between the best mixed martial artists in the world. Not all fans might like it, but the UFC is fundamentally "just about the money."
Some have argued this approach is short sighted. According to this view it's in the UFC's best financial interest to only give title shots to contenders who have earned them by going on a winning streak over top fighters. The reasoning here is this will make fans take the sport more seriously and thus make them more inclined to support it in the long haul. For these people I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news: the UFC has always played fast and loose when it comes to determining title contenders and they always will whenever it suits their purposes. Here's the good news though: there is a promotion out there where title shots are determined strictly by merit. It's called Bellator Fighting Championships.
You aren't going to find a promotion in all of MMA more dedicated to the purity of athletic competion than Bellator. It's right there in their tagline, "Where title shots are earned, not given." From a sporting perspective what could be more fair than an eight man tournament determining the number one contender for a championship? If you're tired of the UFC treating title shots like popularity contests, then Bellator might just be the promotion for you.
However, thus far it hasn't been the promotion for very many people. Last week's Bellator 76 did just 176,000 viewers. In comparison, the abysmal TUF rating that likely led to the call to put Jones and Sonnen in as coaches next season came in at 624,000 viewers. While the disparity between the low penetration MTV2, which airs Bellator, and a cable juggernaut like FX is such that you can't draw many comparisons between the two, looking at these numbers does serve to reinforce just how wide the gap is between Bellator and the UFC in terms of public awareness.
That could change soon though. When Bellator moves to Spike TV this coming January it will expose their product to a much larger audience than has ever seen it before. Spike is behind Bellator in a big way and will be flexing all of its promotional muscle to help build their brand. They see this as a chance to get back into the MMA business after last year's messy split with the UFC.
For Bellator it's a make or break opportunity. If their tournament style format can't catch on with MMA fans despite airing on the former home of the UFC then, commercially speaking, it's probably a broken concept. However, if they can hit the ground running with decent ratings on Spike and gain traction from there it would make the MMA landscape very interesting going forward.
Let's not kid ourselves though. Even if Bellator is a ratings success they will remain a very distant number two. The UFC are so entrenched as the dominant brand in MMA that Bellator will face an uphill climb to establish an audience.
Bellator's fate rests almost entirely on the palatability of the tournament format with viewers. Bjorn Rebney's commitment to pure competition is admirable, but at times it can feel like Bellator is cutting off their financial nose to spite their purist face. When former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez lost his title in an upset to Michael Chandler last November there was money to be made in an immediate rematch. Rebney chose to leave that money on the table in order to maintain the integrity of the championship.
Will that dedication to abstract ideals like competition and integrity resonate with a large enough audience to make Bellator a financial success? There's no way to say for certain. Combat sports have traditionally been a star driven business but Bellator doesn't have many big names. Rebney is banking on the tournament format being able to help fighters get over as stars in front of a new audience on Spike, but the jury is out on how effective that strategy will be long term. If it isn't they're going to be in trouble.
Of course the irony here is obvious. The reason UFC execs spend their free time swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-like money bin and can afford to lure fighters away from Bellator is because they've consistently booked the biggest money fights available rather than remaining tethered to a meritocratic booking strategy. Bellator on the other hand is like an idealistic indie band who turns down big money offers from major labels because they don't want anyone to tamper with their art. UFC is all about the cash grab, whereas Bellator puts the sport first and hopes that's enough for them to succeed financially.
For fans, fighters, and the sport of MMA it would be best if Bellator remains profitable enough to stick around for the long haul. Competition is always a good thing. Whether or not a booking strategy based on competition alone is enough to guarantee success for a promotion is another question altogether.