The question of the crossover of interest between pro wrestling and mixed martial arts has always been a hotly debated topic, usually with both sides claiming one has nothing to do with the other for obvious reasons.
Pro wrestling companies, the WWE in particular, don't want to invite any comparison with the UFC, for the fear it looks like they have competition, and in some venues like pay-per-view, are losing to their competition.
For obvious reasons, UFC wants no link with pro wrestling, because one is sport and the other is athletic theater.
Still, UFC's original audience in 2005 came from the pro wrestling audience that watched the WWE's flagship program, Raw, in particular the 18-34 male demographic that stuck around in huge numbers to watch The Ultimate Fighter reality show, and purchased the second Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell fight on pay-per-view.
Since then, the UFC has more than thrived on its own, but one of the UFC's biggest stars in history, many would argue its biggest drawing card, Brock Lesnar, walked into the UFC as a huge star based on his exposure as one of the WWE's biggest stars. And, after becoming the UFC heavyweight champion, Lesnar is a significantly bigger drawing card as a pro wrestler now as a former UFC star, than he was from 2002 to 2004 when WWE promoted him as one of its biggest stars.
Once it had its audience on Spike, UFC was able to draw on its own after WWE left Spike in the fall of 2005.
The latest bit of evidence comes in the form of Bellator ratings. Bellator in its first season on Spike TV averaged 809,000 viewers, airing directly after TNA Impact on Thursday nights at 10 p.m.
On Wednesday night, it had its first show on Spike TV that didn't have a pro wrestling lead-in. The show headlined by "King" Mo Lawal against Seth Petruzelli did a 0.4 rating and 480,000 viewers from 8-10 p.m.
The debut of Fightmaster, Bellator's new reality show starring coaches Frank Shamrock, Randy Couture, Joe Warren and Greg Jackson, did 432,000 viewers from 10-11 p.m. Neither show cracked the top 100 in the 18-49 demographic for Wednesday.
Spike officials were quick to put the blame on last night's Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins Stanley Cup playoff final, an exciting overtime gate that did 6.64 million viewers, a number that is exceptional for the NHL.
"A lot of hockey fans are MMA fans, and that's 6.5 million viewers, a few hundred thousand were guys that we were counting on, and that's what we attribute the low numbers to," said David Schwarz, Spike TV's Senior Vice President of Communications. "We took a big hit with the hockey game."
One of the reasons both shows were put on Wednesday was to avoid the possibility of going against the seventh game of the NBA championship series on Thursday, which would have likely done significantly more damage, given it would draw three to four times as many viewers.
Fightmaster, which got generally strong reviews, only did a 0.4 in the target Male 18-49 age group and 0.3 in Males 18-34. Ultimate Fighter on Spike routinely did 1.5 or better in the Male 18-34 demographic, which was usually its prime audience.
Next week, when Fightmaster airs its second episode at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, the question as to where it is going to stand in the long-term may not be answered. If the Stanley Cup playoffs go seven games, the deciding game will be Wednesday.
But if not, it will be more of an indication of where Bellator programming stands without the wrestling lead-in.
"For reality shows, it takes time for people to find it," said Schwarz. "We're optimistic we'll see the numbers go up. We went head-to-head with a monster game that did a huge number."
Bellator's next live event, July 31 in Albuquerque, N.M., which features two championship fights and three of the company's four biggest stars, is arguably the strongest lineup in company history.
The show has Michael Chandler, the company's lightweight champion, defending against David "Caveman" Rickels, and welterweight champion Ben Askren defending against Andrey Koreshkov. In addition, Lawal faces Jacob Noe in the summer light heavyweight tournament final, and Ryan Martinez faces Vitaly Minakov in the heavyweight tournament final.
"We're optimistic about July 31," said Schwarz. "We've got a big card. We think it'll do better."
Bellator programming will be moving to Friday nights in September.