Bellator opens with strong numbers against Kobe, LeBron and Armstrong

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Even against what will be its toughest sports competition for several months, an average of 938,000 viewers watched the two-plus hour broadcast on Spike TV. It was nearly six times what the show averaged on MTV2 and not all that far off when UFC events on FX average.

It may be early to celebrate too much, but the first news is good news when it comes to Bellator ratings on Spike TV.

The debut Thursday night did a 0.7 rating and 938,000 viewers, nearly six times as many viewers as the show averaged in its Friday night time slot on MTV2. The show also did a 0.7 in the target Males 18-34 demo.

The show easily beat most projections of 650,000 to 700,000 viewers for the debut, and was not all that far off the 1.2 million viewers that UFC averaged for eight live cards on higher rated FX during 2012.

But the real key comes four weeks in, and even more 12 weeks in, when the story will be told if they will be able to maintain numbers near this level or even increase them. Bellator loaded up the first show with two championship matches with Michael Chandler vs. Rick Hawn for the lightweight title and Pat Curran vs. Patricio "Pitbull" Freire for the featherweight title. It also featured the Bellator debut of Renato "Babalu" Sobral, a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion who once headlined a successful UFC pay-per-view show against Chuck Liddell.

It will be unusual to have two title matches, and someone with the name value of Sobral on the same show, and they are not going to have the kind of media publicity every week as they had for the debut.

In addition, they were provided with a strong lead-in by Impact Wrestling, which featured a wedding of Hulk Hogan's daughter, one-time reality show star Brooke Hogan, who shockingly didn't end up married when it was over. That show did 1.6 million viewers, about 23 percent higher than the show has been doing. The Bellator show was also heavily promoted during the wrestling show, included numerous specific plugs by the announcers, commercials, and cut-ins of headliners arriving to the building. Even if that continues in future weeks, and it likely will, they won't be handed off the same size audience most weeks.

On the flip side, Bellator was also going against a marquee NBA game with the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Miami Heat, which did 3.55 million viewers. In addition, The Oprah Network had the Lance Armstrong interview which live did 3.2 million viewers against the Bellator featherweight title match, and a replay, which went against the rest of the Bellator telecast, did 1.1 million viewers. Going forward, it will be very rare, at least until the NBA playoffs or until NFL Thursday night broadcasts in the fall, to have competition even close to that level.

Historically, weekly MMA broadcasts have not maintained first week ratings. Previous seasons of Bellator on MTV2 saw numbers go up and down, but usually the first week was usually well up from what ended up being the season average. The IFL years back, with a weekly broadcast on MyNetwork TV, started out strong and plummeted. Even The Ultimate Fighter in most seasons opens strong and drops as the season goes on.

If the numbers stay anywhere near this level throughout the season, that would be a big success, particularly for a secondary brand in the market. Even if numbers drop a little, it would be a success. Where things stand in weeks three and four will be a better gauge.

What was a good sign is that questions regarding whether viewers will stay up late on Thursdays were answered largely affirmatively, at least when it comes to main events. The Curran vs. Freire match, which lasted until about 10:45 p.m., averaged 1.1 million viewers. But the drop-off was fairly minimal, as Sobral vs. Mikhail Zayats did 956,000 viewers and Chandler vs. Hawn, which didn't end until 11:45 p.m., still averaged 936,000 viewers. The audience fell off greatly after the main event as Seth Petruzelli's loss to Jacob Noe was down to 739,000 viewers.
For a comparison, UFC broadcasts almost always grow throughout the show, although they were also mostly not preceding traditional work days.

It's probably the best strategy to open with a strong match when viewership will be the highest, and keep the main event last, even though the audience won't be the highest, there will be a significant drop-off after the main event ends.

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