There was a time when everyone just assumed Bjorn Rebney was crazy. This was back during the days when mixed martial arts leagues were popping up throughout the country, hoping to become the No. 2 promotion behind the UFC. At the time, there was stiff competition for the spot. Strikeforce had just started to break out following a deal with NBC. The IFL had just become the first fight league to gain network exposure, though it was on little-seen MyNetwork TV, while other organizations like Affliction and EliteXC were making big splashes by signing fighters to lucrative deals.
In Chicago, Rebney decided upon a slow build for his new promotion, Bellator. There would be no record-shattering contracts handed out, and no title shots simply given away due to name value. Everything would be earned. So it was for the fighters, so it was for the promotion, which began life on Spanish-language cable TV on ESPN Deportes, but by 2013, will move to its new major cable home, Spike, replacing UFC.
That Rebney has outlasted most of his deep-pocketed competition is a testament to his own drive as well as the model he's built and the athletes he's showcased through a tournament format that's created all of the promotion's champions. It's the same formula he'll take to Spike, with a few slight alterations. Before then, he still has time to tinker with things, with season six beginning with Bellator 60 on MTV2 this Friday. But because business is about growth, it's impossible not to look ahead to a move to the cable network that is, as he puts it, "where MMA fans live."
"The announcement of the transition to Spike, it felt a long time away, but now you look around the corner and it's like nine months until the premiere," he said during an interview with MMA Fighting. "It's an exciting time. There's a lot going on, but it's exciting."
Rebney has Spike's full support behind him because of the recent deal with the cable channel's parent company, Viacom, which bought a majority stake in the promotion last October. While he remains in charge of the company's day-to-day business, the new ownership group provided him with a deep and experienced support system that's fully invested in Bellator's success.
As a result, there are plans to launch Bellator into its new home right at the start of 2013 in a kind of grand re-opening that will trumpet its move. But it's not simply about the live fights. According to Rebney, in the works are a potential reality series, a "best of" show and other ancillary programming that will make Bellator a major presence on Spike. When that channel first launched UFC programming back in 2005, it was something of a happy accident that had to be built upon. This time around, the foundation has already been poured and the house will be ready when the new tenant moves in.
"It will probably premiere and kickoff on January 1," he said. "The specificity of when things hit hasn't been set up, but I know we'll get a great push from our partners at Spike coming out of the box. My assumption is that it will start super-quickly, and all the talk is about starting it super-quickly as well."
In some ways, they've already begun. Recently, Viacom paid to fly 70 fighters to Orlando, Florida for photo and video shoots that will allow Bellator to tell their individual stories and invest viewers in their success. There have been changes made to graphics packages, new music has been licensed, and the lighting setup has been altered in a move that will help both the in-arena and television viewing experiences.
Some of those changes may sound minor, but it's all part of tightening up the show. What goes unsaid but is obvious is that once Bellator moves to Spike, comparisons to the product it replaced will be inevitable.
That said, Rebney doesn't view the remaining year on MTV2 as a test run, but as a transitionary time in the move.
"I think we’re at a level now where would be prepared to make the move at any given moment," he said. "I think it's just continuing to evolve the level of fighters so once we get to Spike, when we make that next jump, it's as elevated as its become."
Season six also marks a schedule shift, as Bellator moves to Fridays, where instead of going head-to-head with UFC pay-per-views and fight nights, it's now head-to-head with The Ultimate Fighter on FX.
Rebney though, says he does not see the overlapping time slots as competition, viewing Bellator's live events and the UFC's reality show as fodder for two different audiences.
"It's just a much different dynamic in terms of what they’re providing and what we're providing," he said. "It doesn't mean one's good and one's bad, one's better and one's worse. They're such different formats. One's a pre-taped reality show with a small part at the end with a live fight, and ours is live-fight entertainment. I think people have good options with the two."
He does have a few outstanding issues that will need to be addressed within the next few months. He'd like to re-sign Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard, who are both nearing the end of their deals and could be headed to free agency. He'd like to continue the organization's commitment to women's MMA by putting together a 125-pound tournament, too.
He's also hoping to rid Bellator of "superfights" which pit divisional champions against competition in non-title bouts. His hope is that he can increase the number of tournaments to the point that there's always a challenger lined up to face the champion. Beyond that, there's just excitement for what is to come, both with the move to Spike as well as what happens in the cage.
Last year saw the quick rise of Michael Chandler, who went from unknown to beating Alvarez in one of the best fights of 2011. In another promotion, Chandler likely would still be working his way towards the top, building his name and his resume before getting the break he earned in Bellator within months. That's why Rebney believes in his product, and that philosophy will follow him to his new home.
"This is what gives fighters here an opportunity to be like Bulter in the NCAA's March Madness," he said. "This can be the most amazing catapult to establishing a career. I have no idea who the next Mike Chandler is, but the barrels are full."
By the time Bellator moves to Spike, the promotion will be celebrating its fifth anniversary. Most of the other big-spending startups that began alongside him are gone. The guy who started on Spanish-speaking TV is still moving forward, expanding, improving, looking to begin a new life on the channel that gave life to MMA.