Eight years ago, Kevin Kay and Spike TV took a gamble on a product that nobody on television would touch, the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Within a few years, the network was running dozens of hours of live and taped programming every week, to the point Spike was often referred to as the UFC station.
The two companies parted ways at the end of 2011 when UFC signed with FOX. But Spike has no intentions of giving up on a genre that in many ways it took from the verge of oblivion, and through exposure on their station, made it at one point the country's fastest growing sport.
Due to contractual issues related to the disillusion of the relationship, Spike wasn't allowed to air another competing promotion for one year. And after the long wait, it will attempt to copy almost the same strategy as eight years ago starting tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
In early 2005, Spike debuted The Ultimate Fighter reality show immediately after its most popular program, the pro wrestling franchise Monday Night Raw, produced by World Wrestling Entertainment. What happened was a huge number of viewers of Raw, particularly males between the ages of 18 and 34, stuck around for the drama in the house, got to know key characters like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, as well as learned to love and hate various upcoming fighters like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck.
They got hooked and UFC numbers in every department skyrocketed. The same shows that would do 50,000 buys on pay-per-view were suddenly doing 250,000, and a year later, 400,000, and things took off from there. UFC became the worldwide leader of MMA, the leading pay-per-view producer of any kind in the world, and the U.S. replaced Japan as the sport's epicenter.
Spike is trying to repeat the first half of the story, the one about growing a small brand into a major sports franchise, but not the second part, where the brand attracts so many outside suitors that they lose it.
So they made the decision to, in their words, become owners, not renters, buying a majority interest in Bellator, the closest thing to a true competitor that was out there. That also means they are in the game for the long haul. While ratings are always of the utmost importance in television, this isn't the typical TV business where something is tried out, and if it doesn't gain an audience quickly, the station moves on to try something new.
"As far as ratings expectations, I don't have one," said Spike TV President Kevin Kay. "We're in this business for the long haul. We're partners, we're owners, it's not going anywhere. We've got a huge marketing campaign planned. I'd like to see it do well from the start, but I'm not a fan of projecting ratings because every time you do that you end up being wrong. We want to see a great start and we want to see growth. But we're looking at having better numbers 12 weeks in. Some weeks we'll be up. Some weeks we'll be down, having to do with competition issues. What we're looking for is long-term growth, and I think we'll see it. People will see the quality of our fighters and tell their friends. Our expectation is long-term growth. It's not about this week. It's not about next week, or the week after."
While it will be impossible, for a number of reasons to open with the kind of audience UFC opened with nor is the sport or company going to change overnight the way The Ultimate Fighter took the UFC brand from the financial outhouse to the penthouse in rapid fashion eight years ago. Spike's second launch has some advantages over the first, particularly when it comes to sponsorships.
"It's way better than it was in 2005," Kay noted. "In 2005 and 2006, we were being tossed out of rooms when we showed the tapes. Obviously, many big advertisers don't want to be in a combat sport. They'll never buy it. It's about getting people who are amenable to it. What we learned is the best thing is to bring them to a fight. That's how we've gotten so many clients. Whether it was UFC, and now with Bellator, bring them to a fight, get them to witness it, get them to experience the excitement, meet the athletes, and see how disciplined they are. Usually they end up impressed and have a different view of the sport. That's why our sales department is so aggressive in bringing clients to fights. We've had success with fast food, beer, video games, movies, clothing retailers, the military, the National Guard in Bellator's case, a lot of people are into it."
Like in 2005, the MMA franchise is following the station's pro wrestling franchise, in this case, that business' secondary brand, TNA Impact Wrestling, which draws some of the station's highest ratings.
Spike has promoted both shows together all week. Spike's big night is based on opening with a special wrestling event featuring a mock wedding of onetime reality show star Brooke Hogan, daughter of Hulk Hogan, to one of TNA's wrestlers that will undoubtedly have some kind of a crazy ending at just before 10 p.m. Then, immediately they move to Irvine, Calif., to a Pat Curran battle with Patricio "Pitbull" Freire for Bellator's featherweight title. The latter is the strategic decision to put what is expected to be the highest percentage chance for a great action fight right out of the chute.
"We'll be driving the show all night through Impact," said Kay. "They'll be talking it up throughout the show. There will be live cutaways from the arena that will air during Impact. You may be seeing the champions arrive, or maybe some interviews. We're promoting a big night of Impact and Bellator. It's live action for four hours, both shows working together to give us as much promotion as possible."
Actually the block will be five hours long, since once Bellator ends, somewhere around midnight, Spike will be airing a special on "King" Mo Lawal, Spike's most heavily promoted fighter. Lawal is planned to be something of a human bridge between two very different worlds. The special will show Lawal learning pro wrestling - he's already appeared on TNA programming - while also show his training from everywhere from California to Kentucky to Holland, getting ready for his debut fight on the second Bellator show on Jan. 24.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney promises the 150,000 to 200,000 Bellator faithful viewers from the MTV2 days, that things will be bigger and better, starting with the show being in HD.
"That's the first thing that came into my mind, we'll be in HD in every household, and we're now available in 100 million homes," said Rebney. "We've had the pleasure of watching everything we did in HD. The difference between HD and Standard Definition is very substantial. In addition, and it's a very obvious difference you'll see great new additions to our graphics package. We're working with an incredible team in Spike, with some of the best people in the business."
A difference to expect between the Bellator broadcast and a UFC show is a greater emphasis on personality profiles, some of which have been worked on for months.
"You'll see who they are, why they compete, the features have taken a really big step up," said Rebney. "Now that we have the partnership, we will go to the fighters' homes, go to their countries, you're going to see that on the screen, and you're going to be seeing new camera angles.
"The new Bellator app is going to come out, and it's as good as any application I've seen in sports. It's a really great new addition to the show. We've got a new show open that looks spectacular."
But the heart of the show will be identical, what Spike and Bellator will be promoting as "The toughest tournament in sports." The goal is to have five different tournaments this season, and complete them all within 90 days, with the idea of jam packing the last three weeks of he season with the finals. Injuries may preclude that from always happening, as there are still a couple of tournament finals from the last season that will be airing this season, but that is the plan.
The major change is that the tournaments will be bracketed from the start. In the past, Bellator would have four first round bouts, and then choose the semifinals matchups from there. This way you can chart out how you think the tournament will go, similar to major sports championships.
"It was very important to us," said Kay. "The major point of differentiated Bellator from other MMA is the tournaments, so we're making the tournament as pure as possible. So making the bracketing and putting he bracketing out before the season was very important to us."
The plan for the year includes airing 12 live events over the next three months, three monthly events between seasons, and coming back with 12 more live events in the fall. In addition, a Bellator reality show goes into production in two weeks.
"We'll probably make an announcement in a couple of weeks after we are fully cast," said Kay. "There may be one or two slots we're still talking about, but we're pretty much cast. We'll be shooting soon. We don't have a premiere date yet."
The plan for tonight is to open with the fast-paced featherweight action, and then move to one of the bigger names on the roster, former UFC and Strikeforce star Renato "Babalu" Sobral in his Bellator debut against Mikhail Zayats in a first-round tournament fight. Then they'll conclude with lightweight champion Michael Chandler, the closest thing to a star that Bellator created on its own during the MTV2 period, defending his title against former U.S. judo Olympian Rick Hawn. Only three fights are scheduled live due to having two title fights. Like with UFC when it was on Spike, if the fights go quickly and time permits, they'll add a fight or two, but most weeks it will feature a minimum of four live fights.