It'd be all too easy to simply berate and insult Bjorn Rebney, wouldn't it?
What a guilty pleasure and sigh of relief it'd be to verbally assault him in this space while gratuitously and purposefully poring over the minutiae of his failures. We could weaponize hindsight shamelessly. We'd discuss what an inept salesman he turned out to be, how poorly he understood the average mixed martial arts consumer's actual interests and preferences, why he was reportedly a nightmare to work alongside among innumerable other offenses that ultimately led to his largely celebrated dismissal on Wednesday.
The problem with doing so, and what essentially defines Rebney's career to date, is that his misdeeds and errors make singing his legitimately praiseworthy acts a difficult, lonely sojourn. His shortcomings, however, don't erase his accomplishments.
Scott Coker is the right man for the job today as assuredly he is for Bellator's tomorrow. Rebney's departure is no accident or frustrated decision of haste. I can recall hearing rumblings of discontent as early as 2012 about Rebney. They were as suggestive as eye rolls from those who had shared closed doors meetings with him to outright explanations of how flawed and non-implementable his tournament structure actually was in the real world from those charged with executing it.
For all of the interwoven identity between Bellator and Rebney, he had to go, but it's worth taking a moment to inventory the contours of his achievements as well as his inability to adapt. After all, it's both of them that caused Viacom brass to seek out Coker's services.
The Bellator Rebney created was essentially built to survive. The timelines somewhat overlap, but Bellator was a repudiation of the IFL-EliteXC-Affilction era of mixed martial arts, roughly 2006 to 2009. Those organizations were constructed on the idea of using huge sums of investment money upfront to, ostensibly, establish organizational infrastructure, talent acquisition and production glamor to make immediate impacts.
Rebney's Bellator was the opposite. Where Affliction saw opportunity in huge money fights with Oscar De La Hoya and Donald Trump ringside, Bellator retreated to Indian casinos where they received a site fee and never had to worry about selling tickets at the gate. Where EliteXC (and all of Pro Elite, really) got entangled in a bureaucratic mess that caused tens of millions of dollars to seemingly disappear, Rebney ran a largely efficient operation that used investment money more strategically.
If nothing else, longevity was proof of Bellator's concept. EliteXC lasted from February of 2007 to October of 2008. The IFL ran longer, holding 22 events from April 2006 to May 2008. Affliction lasted a mere two events, although they attempted an ill-fated third.
Bellator, by contrast, is now in the fifth year of its existence. It held 121 events under Rebney's reign. If the former boxing promoter proved anything, it's that his vision of the tortoise was much better suited at finding opportunities in a quickly-changing MMA landscape than the hare of his predecessors.
Rebney also excelled at operations. To date, no organization other than Bellator has consistently demonstrated they can stage events for a national television audience for twelve consecutive weeks in various parts of the North American continent. If someone needs to make sure the trains are running on time and everything is going according to schedule, Rebney is your man.
His tournament format was particularly useful for a burgeoning organization trying to establish hierarchy among its talent. In its nascent stages, the tournament worked for Bellator because it naturally sorted the wheat from the chaff at a time when the roster was inundated with unknowns and many unprovens. As time passed, the leaders of the various packs began to distance themselves and catch attention for their relative prowess.
The play was always simple from the start: create a lean product, make it noticeably different in concept and execution, get on television and sell to a real bidder who can do everything the promotion is doing now, only at scale.
That, unfortunately, is why Rebney ultimately fell short. It's true Rebney's Bellator was a repudiation of what the IFL, EliteXC and Affliction did wrong. The problem is it also ended up being a rejection of what the UFC got right.
In basic terms, Rebney lacked vision. The tournament structure and its accompanying seasons were nothing more than a gimmick whose value was only useful at the organization's outset. It had value add in the ability to differentiate itself from the UFC or other competitors, but was never a true insight into MMA matchmaking. Rebney was always right the UFC's model of putting fights together had issues, but no one ever clamored for a solution that called for removing the matchmaker altogether.
As Bellator's profile grew, Rebney became tethered to the idea the tournament format was real evolution. He was enamored with it, almost as a source of pride for its ruthless efficiency and cleanliness. He probably also admired it because it was his idea. Yet, even when the structure was clearly a hindrance to effective matchmaking or event staging, Rebney soldiered on. The tournament model had gotten him this far, no? Why abandon it now? Where others saw abject failure, Rebney's glasses of self-satisfaction refracted reality into various demonstrations of his achievements.
Moreover, Bellator's design was survival, which has enormous value, isn't conducive to audience gathering or retention. Yes, Bellator could go from one state to the next, holding tournament after tournament, finding a few promising talents along the way. But who was there to watch live? For that matter, who was there to watch on television? Bellator has turned in promising numbers on Spike TV from time to time, but never consistently at a threshold where those programs could or should be.
Rebney was always gifted at making sure the lights were on, the production trucks were at the ready, the commission was in place and fighters were (mostly) legitimate. His central failing, however, was he simply couldn't convince anyone else to care when it mattered. When Bellator was trying to find footing on the Fox Sports Net regionals and acquire enough talent to hold a tournament in the first place, falling short as a salesman is a mostly forgivable offense. By the time the promotion matures into actual national prominence, however, it needs an effective carnival barker. That's true both in public to rally onlookers into the tent. It's also true as a creative force driving organizational direction in private. Instead, Rebney espoused a model of fight promotion that caps fan enthusiasm, all the while touting it as a novel twist on the doldrums of the ordinary.
The purchase by Viacom is what forced all of these limitations to eventually play themselves out. Rebney wanted Bellator to be what it was to him, only bigger. Viacom wanted Bellator to be more than what it is, but considered Rebney's plan to get there as untenable. When his vision was clearly problematic, Rebney refused to back off from the essence of the product he created, leaving Viacom little alternative but to replace him. They, with the majority ownership stake and with the most financial skin in the game, had to creatively pivot. They moved towards a proven commodity in Coker, a man who has a demonstrated record of running high-level professional mixed martial arts towards the direction of popularity, paying customers and fan intrigue.
Yet, we should also pay close attention to what Coker told the media on a call Wednesday about the Bellator he inherited. Coker noted the roster was deep, especially relative to what Strikeforce had when first starting on Showtime. They'd just done well in their first attempt at pay-per-view. Spike TV is significantly more homes than Showtimes is today. For all the ways to start as the president of a mixed martial arts company, the circumstances don't come much more favorable than this.
By all accounts, Rebney lacks the strategic know-how to push Bellator into a financially solvent, needle-moving direction, but he did grasp a key insight that can drive success in MMA (coincidentally, it's the same one Coker demonstrated with his most recent move). In modern MMA, patience is perseverance. The ability to withstand in an endlessly transforming industry means having the opportunity to take advantage of short-lived, yet critical openings.
We now find Rebney's dogmatism is being replaced by Coker's pragmatism. Still, Coker's very appearance on a conference call with Spike TV executives is as much proof of Rebney's failures as it is his success. Rebney built something and for that deserves recognition. He simply couldn't repair it when it was broken.