With Bellator's move from MTV2 to Spike TV, I made it a point to watch every Bellator event for season 8. I wanted to follow in real time the advent of the second largest mixed martial arts organization in the world as it matriculated to what is historically the most important MMA television platform.
In aggregate, the move is a big win for the players involved. Bellator's never been more popular, Spike TV has much stronger ratings on Thursday evenings and has an elite MMA organization in house to promote, leverage and maintain. Still, the entire operation wasn't flawless (how could it be?) and several issues remain that could be addressed.
In review of season 8, here's what worked, what didn't and an assessment of what's next.
1. The tournament: Bellator's tournament structure isn't perfect (more on that in a minute), but there is clear value to them. It differentiates them from UFC and virtually every other professional MMA organization. Most importantly, though, it gives talented fighters who aren't natural promotional darlings the chance to achieve on a big stage, develop a reputation and begin to build a fan base. As talented as 'Frodo' Khasbulaev is, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the speed of his rise in Bellator would be possible in an organization that doesn't employ the tournament format.
I'd also add when two tourney favorites or one tourney favorite and a cinderalla story meet in the finals, it makes the entire tournament seem worth it. There are tweaks to be made to the tournament format, but when it works, it really works.
2. The Spike TV treatment: The marriage of Bellator and Spike TV is a big win. Both compliment each other nicely. There's an argument to be made Bellator runs too many shows, but if nothing else, it's made their product efficient, sharp and at this point, ready for primetime. They've got their infrastructure in place, they're nimble with challenges and at leveraging their considerable resources. Bellator certainly has some growing to do, but they met Spike TV at perhaps the most opportune time in this stage of their development. They can run shows, put on world-class talent and deliver an overall high-quality experience for a television channel of this size week after week. That's no small feat.
To that end, most savvy MMA fans understand Bellator isn't UFC. I'm sure Spike does as well. How could it not? UFC is the unequivocal brand leader for any number of reasons one could mention. But Spike TV viewers aren't being treated to a product unworthy of their time.
Spike TV has elevated Bellator's appearance and stature. That much is not up for debate. But it's also true that Bellator, without being the UFC, filled a gap in Spike's coverage with live, professional MMA in a way in keeping with Spike's tradition of excellence from their UFC days.
3. The bigger, better venues: During the early stages of Bellator's development, they didn't always traffick venues of the highest caliber. That's understandable, but wouldn't be forgivable at this stage of the game. Open air venues and Indian reservation casinos are fine for an organization trying to figure itself out and build basic architecture, but not for a product on Spike TV.
Bellator did two things differently this season worthy of mention. First, they did visit many casinos, but generally speaking, those casinos were larger, more regal and famous venues. Second, they also began to visit more traditional sporting venues where other sports teams, concerts and other events take place. That's essential for Bellator's presentation on national television and for immersing themselves with the local communities where they visit. More of this, please.
4. The ratings: If Bellator can continue to hover between 750,000 (generally speaking) and 1 million viewers for shows large and small, that's a win. I saw many fans predicting prior to Bellator's run on Spike TV that they'd be lucky to score 500,000 per event. That they've doubled that figure shows just how potent the marriage is between this promoter and television partner.
Some fans are quick to note these aren't the ratings UFC pulled on the channel and that's true. It's also a completely unreasonable argument. Bellator doesn't have the UFC stars or the brand power. This is the initial phase of building an organization in their third or fourth stage of development. It'd be absurd to suggest or expect Bellator ratings should match UFC ratings on Spike, especially considering Spike hasn't rolled out their reality show or other shoulder, promotional programming for title fights.
5. The 'stars': In a season where there was no Eddie Alvarez, two other fighters truly stepped forward to stake their claims as some of the world's best fighters and MMA's fastest rising stars: Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran and Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler. Whenever they competed, they never disappointed, displaying elite-level skill against quality opposition in bouts of significance. As a result, the fans and media responded. Notably, they got to their positions the 'Bellator' way: they began in the organization, won tournaments, earned title shots, won titles and then defended them on Spike TV. Their story is the Bellator story and proof of the organization's viable model as much as the organization itself.
What Didn't Work
1. The over reliance on tournaments: This is their largest issue. I've previously noted the tournament works for them and it does. It gives a chance to fighters who wouldn't be promotional favorites and differentiates the Bellator show from everything else out there.
The problem is they run too many tournaments. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney notes, quite correctly, sports fans are accustomed to seeing championships decided by tournaments. Whether it's March Madness or the NFL playoffs, sports fans know who moves on is likely the most deserving when tournaments are in play.
The problem is March Madness happens one time during the year and only after a season of games decided by conference schedule and non-conferences one-offs, which themselves are often a function of match-ups created for no other purpose than fan appeal and financial windfall. In other words, sports fans do relate to tournaments, but they relate to them as special because they're infrequent and uniquely developmental.
The problem, therefore, is not the tournament itself, but Bellator's use of tournaments for virtually every instantiation of meaningful matchmaking. That should not be the case.
Bellator should continue to employ the tournament, but on a more limited basis. My proposal is the following: in a given year (not merely a season), run three or four tournaments total. Have a media event at the beginning of the year where weight classes are randomly drawn to see which will and won't be holding tournaments. For those that will be in tournament mode, proceed as usual. For those that aren't, let the games begin.
I'm sure this will sound anathema to Bellator brass. I understand why. They've got something here with the tournament. It's a fair process. It's one that's simple to understand. It creates order and hierarchy and it's something no one else is doing. But overuse of it also creates fatigue.
In a system where some of the weight classes have tournaments and some don't, that creates all kinds of possibilities. It allows for matchmaking in key and even championship bouts that are more fan friendly. Had there been no tournament, Mo Lawal would've been able to face Christian M'Pumbu or Attila Vegh rather than getting eliminated by Emanuel Newton. Promotionally speaking, it is far better to leverage expensive talent and acquisitions in ways that satisfy fan demand over tournament realities.
Yes, fan sentiment is wacky, unpredictable and stubborn. They like what they like even when it doesn't make sense. There needs to be a mechanism in Bellator matchmaking that more clearly satisfies what they're looking for. The tournament is not always going to be or has been the answer. In some cases, it's been precisely the opposite.
And the uneven playing field is just what Bellator needs to shake things up. In addition to the freedom of more open matchmaking, having some fighters who won tournaments and title shots versus those who were gifted them creates controversy. Controversy creates intrigue, rivalry and identity. That translates into media attention and fan intrigue. Overuse of tournaments often camouflages helpful promotional material that's already there, but can't be used. It is far better for fighters to have gravitational pull and back story between them than to be facing one another simply because of their tournament seeding.
I'm sure there are problems with the model I've proposed, not least of which is that mathematically the number of shows will have to be reduced. That's a problem for Bellator. It's also a problem for Spike given that they'd have to find something to fill the void Bellator currently fills in that role. But there's a strong case to be made the number of shows is not necessarily to their long-term benefit.
2. The pace of shows: Stated plainly, it can be difficult for fans to keep up with Bellator generally, who is fighting and why fans should care when shows run week after week after week. I certainly can't speak for any Bellator employees, but I suspect some might wonder why they don't get more press when they should.
Unequivocally, Bellator doesn't have a quality deficit. It's a quantity problem. While it's true ratings have largely been good or great every week, it's also true the pace of their season subverts a central tenet of fight promotion, namely, that anticipation and peaking matters.
World Series of Fighting, organizationally speaking, isn't even close to Bellator. They have many good fighters and have run good shows, but if asked to produce the kind of schedule Bellator does, they'd immediately fall flat on their face. Yet, they receive just as much if not more press and fan attention. Why? Partly it's their roster of fighters, but the other component is their absence. It makes the heart grow fonder. It gives fans time to prepare, get excited, explore possibilities in their mind and gear up for a big night of fights. For media, it gives them time to interview talent, discuss the implications of the match-ups and talk generally of the whole affair.
Fight promotion is a slow burn. While Bellator is able to deliver the kind of ratings for Spike that make it a viable television product, one wonders if they're getting as much out of each show that they could be if there were just a bit more space squeezed in between shows.
3. The 'face': This isn't a particularly big issue, but something for the promotion to consider. Rebney has successfully raised the profile and stature of his company, but he's also laden with innumerable tasks. He has some ability to do media and I'm certain does what he can, but there's a case to be made it's not enough. There's room for someone out there in Bellator or Spike to beat the drum for them. There's space for someone out there to make the MMA community care more about Bellator and each Bellator show. Again, not that these shows are failures. They're not. But if we're asking whether fans are getting everything out of these shows that they could be, I'd candidly have to answer no. Having a Bellator Majority Whip to bring more attention and make the case for the organization would be a key addition to their arsenal.
4. The use of familiar names: I'm not as wedded to this criticism as others, but I'll make quick mention of it. I prefer Bellator's model of creating their own stars rather than feeding off the retreads from everyone else. It's also true Bellator has signed other talent from other organizations when let go, Ben Saunders and Mo Lawal chief among them. Lawal had his issues in this season's tournament, but I argue signing him was the right call.
However, they missed an opportunity in Jon Fitch. While he isn't going to make or break the welterweight division in Bellator, organizational brass' almost categorical refusal to even consider signing him seemed like the promotional equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
The practice of signing those cut from other organizations is not a strategy you can build a promotion on long-term. On balance, Bellator does talent development the right way. Yet, castoffs can be very helpful stopgaps for promotional purposes. The fact is WSOF gets more attention than it ordinarily would simply because there is real fan attachment to many of the fighters on their roster. I'd like to see a slightly more open attitude from Bellator when it comes to MMA free agents.
What's next? The reality show: This is the big X factor for Bellator and Spike. What will it do for Bellator's fan appeal? Can they really create stars from this show? How will Randy Couture and the other coaches on the show impact the ratings? I can think of a scenario where the show does wonders for Bellator and Spike, but that's by no means a foregone conclusion. It'll be worth noting how this show impacts the landscape when it debuts this summer.
What's missing? The promotional programming: I'd like to see promotional programming on Spike like the Mo Lawal documentary that promotes fighters, upcoming fights or events. Michael Chandler's next title defense against Dave Jansen should get a little extra shine. If anyone knows how to produce these sorts of specials that speak to MMA fans, it's Spike.