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Spike's Kevin Kay lays out vision for Bellator's future growth

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

According to a press release from Spike TV and Bellator, MMA's second-most important organization averaged approximately 861,000 viewers for their eighth season, the first on Spike. While not matching the numbers UFC earned on the same channel, Spike and Bellator framed the numbers as a 'knockout'.

While their star power was on the rise prior to Bellator's move from MTV2 to Spike, Bellator champions Michael Chandler, Pat Curran and Ben Askren saw their popularity grow in conjunction with the platform change. In the business of television ratings and star creation, Bellator's first season on Spike has delivered commendable returns.

Yet, challenges remain. Expensive and key acquisitions like 'King' Mo Lawal failed to move through the tournament. Ratings were good, but inconsistent. There's also still an open question about fan enthusiasm around the tournament structure.

In this interview with MMA Fighting, Spike TV President Kevin Kay looks back on what went right for both the television channel and Bellator, remain challenges that must be addressed to grow and develop the partnership and new strategies or content both Spike and Bellator plan to deploy to further move the needle.

Partial transcript and full audio below:

Season eight of Bellator, the first on Spike TV. It's wrapped. How would you characterize the success, or failure, or generally how would you characterize this season for you on Spike TV?

It was a great season. We did amazing ratings, you know, very pleased with the ratings. Every week was terrific fights, and that's the key because great fights are what ultimately makes a great promotion and a great TV show, and it brings people back from week to week. I think, generally, if you look at the Emanuel Newton fight where he knocks out King Mo (Muhammed Lawal) very unexpectedly, and that was fantastic. But starting with Pat Curran's demolition of Pitbull (Patricio Friere) on the very first fight that was on Spike, right to Pat Curran's unbelievable surprising submission on the last fight, and everything in between.

Whether it was Ben Saunders' head kick KO of (Raul) Amaya, or the (Ben) Askren, giving a fight like you've never seen from Askren with terrific ground and pound. Every week there was something else that was great, surprising, and it brought the fans back. So I feel like we set out to tell people two things - one, it's on Spike. Which was a goal of mine, because, even though you are on MTV 2 for a couple of years, nobody knew that, the Spike audience needed to know it was coming to Spike. I think that coming home campaign, and the marketing campaign we put behind it helped tremendously, set the table.

And, you know, explain that it's a tournament. The tournament is a point of differentiation between what Bellator does and what all the rest of the world does in the world of mixed martial arts promotion, and I think we're very successful doing that. So, I feel pretty good overall about the season.

The average ratings as I saw them were about 860,000 per episode. Then cumulatively, which means the original broadcast plus the replay, close to about 1.2 million. Headed into the season, was that roughly your expectation that those were the benchmarks you were going to reach?

No. I never predict ratings. I think it's sort of a fool's game, because you're never right. But just in my head, I thought we're probably going to be in the 600,000-700,000 range. Maybe we'll start a little higher, but that's kind of where I expected it to net out. To be at 861(k) and to have started, like the first fight did, over 900,000 viewers, and the last fight did over 900,000 viewers...and you mentioned the replays, so over a million on every broadcast. Easily over a million. It's surprising. It speaks to the quality of the fights. A lot of people wrote that 'they'll start fine, but will people come back week after week after week'. And they did. That's because they were seeing good fights. That's the only reason fight fans show up, is good fights and people they want to watch. They don't show up for me, Luke.

Did they show up throughout the tournament, though? It's true that Pat Curran had good ratings when he started on the first event and he had great ratings on the last event when he fought. But it wasn't obvious to me that they (the viewers) were following every single stage of the tournament through, for all the different tournaments. Was some of it lost in all the glut of all the different quarters and semis and bantams and welters? Was there a bit too much going on there?

Yeah. I would say, and there's plenty of reasons for that. But I think one of the things that, if I look back on the season and think about what we need to work on going forward. We did a good job of explaining that there are tournaments and that it's tournament-based. But I think we can do a much better job of explaining to the fans, keeping them alert and aware of what's going on each week, and how the tournaments are building, and telling the stories of the tournaments. That's something we need to work on.

Even syncing up what Jimmy (Smith) and Sean (Wheelock), our commentators, are saying with the graphics packages and spending some more time explaining what's happening each week and how these tournaments are progressing. I think it's going to be key in helping people to follow them. There are a lot of tournaments going on.

The reason that there's a lot of tournaments going on is that Bjorn (Rebney) feels very strongly, and I agree, that we need to keep our champions busy and tournaments are what create contenders and what creates title fights. One of the big criticisms of Bellator in the past was, and by the way, something that Bjorn was hearing from the fighters was 'we're not getting enough fights'. The criticism from fans was 'the champions aren't fighting enough'. You have to run more tournaments to make more fights for the champions. But it does get a little complicated, and I think we just have to work harder to sort that out.

For someone like Askren, we know he's going to face (Andrey) Koreshkov, and for someone like Chandler we know he's got (Dave) Jansen and (David) Rickels coming up.


There is time to make some kind of promotional shoulder programming. Spike, when they were with the UFC, they were able to produce all kinds of shoulder programming and content and promotional this and promotional that. To what extent are we going to see any of that for Bellator?

You'll see it ramp up, and those are two good examples. So we're in the middle of doing the Michael Chandler Unrivaled. We did the King Mo Unrivaled, which I loved and thought was really well done. We're with the same guys who you know well, and we're going to produce a Michael Chandler Unrivaled. And they're also producing a 'The Russians are Coming' Unrivaled because of the wide berth of Bellator Russian fighters. That will end and lead up to the Koreshkov/Askren fight.

We've kind of gone a little slowly on the shoulder programming, only because we thought our mission was to be really clear about promoting week-to-week, the tournament. And now we need to promote the reality show. But as we lead up to these other fights, you're going to see more shoulder programming. And by the way, I don't know that you want to do a lot of fighter profile, 24/7 kind of things, about fighters that the audience doesn't know yet.

I want to let the audience get to know these guys, like Pat and Michael. Even though they might have a much wider fanbase among MMA fans, it's great for fans to see the fight first, get to know a little bit about them, and then to see something that lets them learn more about these guys' careers. And dig a little deeper once they're actually fans of the fighters, (rather than try to push that stuff out in the beginning before they really get to see the fight. So that's the thinking, and I think you'll see more shoulder programming.

The ratings were good this season, sometimes really good. If I could just play devil's advocate, I would like to say some people have brought to me the idea that 'Bellator ratings are good, but they often come after a strong lead-in, which is TNA.' To what extent can Bellator stand on its own, or is it dependent on this incredibly strong lead-in programming from professional wrestling?

The answer is really hard to know. Honestly, I think that we know a few things about the Impact audience, the TNA audience. Some wrestling fans watch mixed martial arts, some don't at all. I think what you're seeing, and this is true of all wrestling promotions, is that there are a lot of wrestling fans that, literally, this is the only thing they watch. They watch wrestling and then they go turn off the TV. So it's a little hard to know for sure.

The key for us was, 1) TNA and Dixie (Carter) have been incredibly willing partners in helping promote Bellator, and do everything they can to drive their audience to Bellator. For Spike, with Impact being one of the highest-rated things on the channel, whether all wrestling fans or not will move to Mixed Martial Arts or not, that gives you the greatest possibility of that. But I believe that over the course of the season, more and more people are coming to Bellator on their own. Not necessarily just because of the lead-in. I think the lead-in helped in the beginning, but I think Bellator is building its own fanbase. Obviously, the goal is to create a franchise that can stand on its own. And give it all the help you can give it in the beginning. And I think we're going to get to a point not too far in the future where Bellator will stand on its own.

Bellator's a really streamlined, efficient product that can go week after week after week and do shows in a way that literally no one else does, certainly not at this level of the game. But I'm curious how you take that kind of product with MTV 2's treatment and go to Spike TV. What were you trying to do? In your mind, what did it have to look like? For example, I like to bring up you guys went to much bigger venues this year. The Santa Ana Star Center, The Bojangles' Arena. There were new graphics package. But is it just that? How did you want to make Bellator look different on Spike TV than MTV2?

The biggest and simplest answer to that is HD, right? Because MTV2 has very limited HD distribution. I'm not even sure what the number is. It's minor and they're trying to build that. Moving to Spike puts you almost universally in HD which for sports fans, for MMA fans, is what they expect to see the sport in. Even the graphics packages that we did introduce on MTV2, we refined them a little bit more for Spike. They just looked better. They looked different just by virtue of HD distribution. I think we improved the audio, we brought in a new lighting director for Spike.

I had a very frank discussion with Bjorn that there's no ballrooms on Spike. We can't go back to those kind of casino rooms with low ceilings that don't look good on television. But we were, with no disrespect to MTV2, saving it for Spike. The bigger venues, there was no real reason to do them on MTV2 because we didn't have the same kind of expectations for ratings and delivery that we were going to have to have when we got to Spike. So we need to make it look bigger, sound better, and improve on every level. And the graphics were a big part of that. Promotion was a big part of that. We spent a good deal of money launching the tournament in January. I think if you package it up all together, we made a lot of changes.

To what extent is Bellator still new on Spike? What I mean is, do you continue to iterate it for the summer series and the fall series?

What do you mean, iterate it?

Obviously there's going to be some changes in terms of the Summer Series. For example they're going to go from eight to four-man, so that's one thing on the Bellator end. But on the Spike end, to what extent in terms of the live Thursday night broadcast, do you say to yourself 'we need to make more changes, we need to update this, this could this could be better, I prefer that'?

One thing I already touched on was the need to clearly explain the tournaments more effectively. That will be one thing we sit back and do. I think, storytelling. Now that we have a good deal of fighters who are either amazing athletes or great personalities or a combination of the two. Dig deeper and tell their stories in a little more extended way.

I've pushed really hard this season to, I want to see a fight in three minutes. I watch the show, and if the audience noticed as much as I noticed, but, the first couple of weeks into the broadcast it'd be seven or eight minutes into the broadcast before we got to a fight and I was like 'I want to see fighters in the cage when the broadcast comes up, ready to fight, and I want to be fighting in three minutes'. That doesn't leave a lot of time to do packages and tell stories about the guys.

But I think that now we've established that, and we have guys that the audience are starting to know, now we can spend a little bit more time telling their stories and building their stories, and building their storylines, frankly, through the tournament. Because there are a lot of great stories that went untold this season just because of time.

Does the tournament lend itself to storytelling? There's an argument to be made that there's not a lack of talent in Bellator, or even rivalry. That was able to be told between (Eduardo) Dantas and (Marcos) Galvao this year, in the title fight. But that's at the finals. It's the very very end, once there's already this history built. Is it hard to do that in the quarter-final and semi-final stage?

It's hard only because you don't want to spend a lot of time talking about a guy that might not be there four weeks from now. You going to have to pick your bets, and count on Bellator to pick right and they won't always pick right, witness King Mo. I think you can do that, and I think some guys are going to have better stories that you want to tell. Like the Doug Marshall story. I wish we could have spent more time telling his story and building him up, whether it's a good or bad story, whether you love him or hate him. That turns out to be a really kind of interesting story. We didn't have the time to do it this time. As this guy progresses and continues, hopefully, to win, I think you can do that. So I think we'll have to pick and choose. You know, you might tell a guy's story and he gets eliminated. But that's just part of sports.

You've got Fight Master coming up this summer and the season is already shot and completed if I'm not mistaken. In the editing stage now. I'm sure you believe in the product, but to what extent do you believe you have to either rewrite The Ultimate Fighter or rewrite fans' brains to get them used to something else because all they know is The Ultimate Fighter?

I don't know. What I didn't want to do and what we asked our development folks and Bertram van Munster and the people at Profiles with us, we didn't want to repeat, and just do what they do. And it's very challenging because, let's be honest, it's ultimately guys in a cage fighting, and that part is not going to be any different. It's an elimination show. So then it was like, how do you surround that with something that feels different and gives the fans more value on a new opportunity for a new show.

I really like the format, I think the format is really going to be appealing to fans. Because you've got four of the most fantastic coaches and fighters in history - you've got Randy Couture, who is dignity and class and great champion. Then you've got Frank Shamrock who's an unbelievable champion but he's outspoken, and you actually need to be reminded a little bit of how competitive Frank is, and on the series you just see why he was a champion because he's so competitive and so headstrong. Then you've got Greg Jackson, who in my opinion is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, and brings all the other elements to play. How he's psychologically works with fighters, how diet comes into play, how weight-cutting, his theories on that.

Then you've got Joe Warren, a Bellator champion, who's the only guy of all those guys who has fought in this tournament and can bring that experience to bear about what you have to do in order to survive fighting every four weeks. And he's a great character, Joe's just an exciting guy to be around and again, they're all so competitive. So there's a lot of strategy, I think there's a lot of meat for the fans.

And then you've got on the other side of it, you've got these fighters. Luke, you will know them all because you know this space so well, but for the casual fans, I think there's a lot of names that they will know and there's going to be names that they don't know at all that they're going to be exposed to and surprised by. Fighting guys that they know of and they've seen fight before, and I think you get a some surprising results in this series. So I think it's got a lot of layers that are really interesting. The coaches have to actually convince the fighters to come on their team and I think that kind of competition between the couches is kind of spectacular to watch. It's almost as if they're fighting mentally as opposed to fighting in a case. As you can tell, I'm very excited about it.

So, here's the thing about the reality show - reality fans are different than fight fans. There's going to be a lot of crossover because it's Mixed Martial Arts. But reality fans tend to be a little bit of a different breed, and I think that's going to make it a little bit of a wider audience. Hopefully we're going to do well with the show and bring in even more viewers to Bellator, and the influence of those ratings will be felt as we move into the fall tournament.

Randy Couture is on the show, all those guys. Greg Jackson's on the show, Frank Shamrock's on the show. Randy Couture has a deal with Spike, because he has a development deal for another reality show about rehabilitating gyms and whatever else is going on. Obviously the new ads are out and he's featured prominently. To what extent, I know Jimmy Smith is the host of the show, but how much does it revolve around Randy? Because it seems to be the centerpiece of this.

Randy is arguably, and Frank would probably disagree (laughing)...Randy's arguably, because he has a movie career as well, probably the biggest star on the show in terms of broad, wide appeal and reach. So we started the campaign with Randy. Next week we'll start running the Frank promo, and the week after that it'll be the Greg promo and then the Joe promo. As you'll see on the show as it evolves, it's very much an ensemble show. These guys get just as much time. But Randy is Randy. He's a huge star and one of the most respected people in the sport. Starting with him, for me, makes a lot of sense. As you'll see as the show and the promotion evolves, it's really about all four of these guys.

When Jon Fitch was cut, he was still ranked in the top ten by most insiders perspectives and it was sort of assumed that this would be a great pickup for Bellator. Not because he was a UFC castoff and that people still liked him per se, but this was still a very viable guy. And Bellator right away through Bjorn Rebney said 'probably not the right fit for us'. Now I understand the model, building guys the Bellator way, finding them early and nurturing them and turning them into stars. Okay, fair enough. But is there any connection between what happened with Mo and passing up on Jon Fitch? Yes Mo is a popular guy and probably nine times out of ten would be Emanuel Newton, but he didn't and they had invested some money in him, and now they're sort of left holding the bag.

No, there's no connection. I think it's a different, it's completely different. I think that Mo, I know we believe strongly, I certainly do, that Mo's going to come back big and he's going to be knocking guys out and be a challenger for the championship and we're all behind that. Mo has an unbelievable personality in addition to great skills in the cage, and he's a great character. He's a devoted spokesperson for Bellator, he's on the team.

Jon Fitch, I leave it to Bjorn to talk about why, I mean that was his call. We actually didn't even really talk about it. I think that decision is based on - partly about money, partly about style, and partly about personality. And not feeling like adding him in this moment in time was going to be the right fit for him. That doesn't mean that it wouldn't happen someday, just that it wasn't the right time for him. Maybe it wouldn't be, I don't know, but I'd leave that to Bjorn.

Nobody is suggesting anything other than Bellator being the number two promotion, but there was the growth of the World Series of Fighting, that has a very different model and who is doing something very different. But I can tell you anecdotally that there seems to be a strong sense of fan enthusiasm. I'll also tell you something interesting. If you study web metrics, not just on MMA Fighting but across the board if you talk to editors, the traffic for World Series of Fighting, despite being on a much lower rated network on NBC Sports, the web traffic is extraordinarily high and much higher than that of Bellator with the exception of Bellator's live stream posts. Bellator does much better ratings, it can do week-in, week-out shows, it has a huge network behind it - why does there seem to be a fan enthusiasm gap?

I don't know, it's a good question. I don't necessarily agree with that. Web traffic, I sometimes I'd compare to people that call into radio shows. They do it over and over again and they have their own agenda. It's always hard for me to believe that that's exactly the right metric that I want to look at. I just look at ratings and tell you from an enthusiasm point of view, 861,000 people on average per week are watching Bellator. And it's hard to do fights every week and draw those numbers and promote in the way that you need to promote week to week because you've only got six days from the end of the fight on Thursday night to the next fight. Whereas something like World Series of Fighting has, you know, how long was it between their first fight and their second fight?

Several months.

Yeah. They have a long time to build up and promote. And they're also signing some guys that have some name recognition. They're more in the business of signing up guys that have left the UFC, and those guys have their fanbase and their fanbase is probably pretty vocal, but I'm not sure how big their fanbase is at this point in their career. Which might be indicative of what the ratings turned out to be, which was something like two-hundred-and-something thousand viewers.

Bjorn's position, and I support it, is we really, truly want to build our own stars. The Chandlers and Pat Curran's of the world. The King Mo's. Mo's an exception because he did come from Strikeforce, but I generally want to build up guys that start with the promotion and build them up and then I think the passion follows. I think that's ultimately what's going to drive passion, is guys that you've become fans of and you stick with, and you get involved in their careers. It's just a different model.

Two of the guys that have been the biggest successes with that model, in fact, because they both came through the tournament when they were newer in their careers, were Pat Curran and Michael Chandler. How would you describe their ascendancy this season? If they can keep winning, what can Bellator do for them? Will you put them on the reality show? I know you must have big plans for them, so give me some sense of how you think you can continue to leverage their surging popularity.

I think those guys make their own popularity in a way. We put them on the very first fight card that we put on Spike and that was a heavily promoted fight card. We did have time to ramp up for that and we spent, like I said, a good deal of money to do it. And those guys delivered hugely on that card. So they're making their own fanbase. I think Chandler, at this point, he didn't have another fight during this season. We had a little bit more time with him. We got him involved with Dave & Busters, one of our sponsors, and he's in this fantastic spot. He's great in it. They've been to the Guys Choice Awards, the movie awards, they've walked the red carpets. Chandler is actually on the reality show, he makes a guest appearance on the reality show. I'm not sure what episode, but about halfway through the season he shows up.

So we're going to do everything we can to use all the resources that we have to build these guys up and make sure that the fans know them. These franchises are built on fighters. Great fighters is how you build a great promotion, and these guys are clearly very devoted to Bellator. Everyone wants to get paid of course, and they should be, but they're very devoted to Bellator. They like being a part of this family, they succeeded in it. And we're going to do out best to make them happy and to build them up into stars and get them fights. At the end of the day, this is what Michael Chandler said to me. He's like 'I just want to fight. I love doing all this stuff, I love doing commercials, I love coming to the Barclay Center and giving out the ball to the Brooklyn Nets for the referee and having 18,000 fans go crazy. But nothing compares to the experience of getting the cage and fighting'. So he wants to fight as much as he can fight, and I think that's the obligation of the promotion to make sure that happens for him. Because that's how he built his career, that's how he gets more sponsors, that's how he makes more money.

For as good as the ratings were and as many new faces that fans became familiar with, and as popular as Chandler and Curran may have been, there's still the question looming out there about pay-per-view. Can you update us as to what extent there's any interest or movement on the front of taking Bellator onto that format?

I think it's going to happen. I don't want to give any dates or make any predictions about when just because right now I think we're at a very delicate time. If you're going to ask fans to pay for fights, if it become a premium purchase for fans, you've got to be able to put great fights on a jam-packed card. And I think that's Bjorn's obligation to the fans and he's very serious about fulfilling it, and I don't think it's right it's right to do a pay-per-view until you have a card that's filled with, whether it's championship fights or fights that people want to see, or just fights that people want to pay for. I think he's well on the way to getting there, I think he's building really well. It is in the future, but we've not settled on the time frame yet.

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