There was a news item a few days ago that on first glance, had nothing to do with MMA, but upon further thought, has everything to do with it.
The news bit was that Spike's pro wrestling franchise, TNA Impact Wrestling, is moving from its current 8-10 p.m. start time on Thursday to 9-11 p.m., effective at the end of this month.
How that affects MMA? Well, in quite a few ways. The most obvious is that the musical chairs that has been Bellator's time slot will have yet another change. Bellator had been following Impact from 10 p.m. until midnight, or sometimes well past that, during its first season on Spike. The weekly show in the early part of 2013 garnered an average of more than 800,000 viewers, more than triple that of any other season in company history, due to the station upgrade.
The first thing is not only is Bellator's time slot changing, but it looks very likely its night will change as well. A 7-9 p.m. time slot would be difficult. For one, the company that was booking a lot of West Coast venues, and getting fans to an arena for live main card fights at 4 p.m. Pacific time, let alone prelim fights at 2 p.m., in a West Coast venue on a Thursday is going to be death at the box office. Plus, the unpredictability of MMA means that it will frequently run past two hours, which would delay the wrestling show, which runs live every other week.
Running from 11 p.m. to past 1 a.m. takes it out of prime time and in that time slot, there is very limited possibility of growing and creating new fans.
Clearly this is not something long planned out. Bellator had just recently booked dates of Sept. 12 and Nov. 2 for its fall season, both Thursdays, at the Pechunga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif., and confirmed them with the California State Athletic Commission.
Bellator has had a roller coaster television situation since opening its doors in April, 2009. The first year, Bellator aired on ESPN Deportes, taping on Friday nights on a station that had very limited accessibility, often airing on tape delay.
In 2010, the promotion upgraded to Fox Sports Net, airing on Thursdays. The problem there is that FSN was a series of regional networks, with the priority being the local market teams. Bellator was frequently preempted, often airing well past midnight in many markets. The only way to really follow it was to set your VCR and hope it aired at some point as scheduled in your market.
In 2011, the move was made to MTV 2, which at first aired the shows on Saturdays. But ratings suffered going head-to-head with so many Saturday night UFC major events, not to mention the big boxing fights. So in 2012, to avoid UFC, the move was made to Friday, only to wind up with its main events going head-to-head with Ultimate Fighter, when FX took that show over and put it on Friday. Friday ended up being almost a graveyard for MMA, as Bellator's ratings took a hit as compared to the Saturday numbers, and both UFC and Bellator moved when the 2012 ended.
This year, with the move to Spike, it was put on at 10 p.m. Thursdays, live every week. The positives is it was without MMA competition on television, and had a somewhat conducive lead-in with pro wrestling. Virtually every week, the ups and downs of both wrestling and Bellator were the same, which seemed to indicate some audience similarities. The negative is that the main events often ended past midnight. Over the last six weeks, the TNA audience was down 12 percent from the same period the prior year, when it aired from 9-11 p.m., and on May 2 hit its lowest mark in the time slot for a show that didn't go against an NFL game.
Another aspect is that in the fall, Bellator on Thursday would have head-to-head NFL games against most of their shows. Spike learned from UFC, that it can survive a lot of competition, but it doesn't fare well head-to-head with the NFL. That's the reason Ultimate Fighter was moved from Thursdays on Spike to Wednesdays, to get away from battling football every fall.
As far as what is the plan right now, that appears to be up in the air.
"No decision has been made yet for the fall," said David Schwarz, Senior Vice President of Communications at Spike TV.
Surveying the scene, every night except one, Tuesdays, has major television competition issues. But Tuesdays are difficult to draw fans to live events.
Sunday goes against the NFL's highest rated game of the week. Monday goes against the traditions of Monday Night Football, and WWE Raw, which would be almost suicidal to buck.
Wednesday looks like a favorite, given Spike moved Ultimate Fighter to that night and had success. In addition, Spike is clearly trying to get fans familiar with watching on that night with the Fight Master reality show, a Bellator product, airing at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. from June 19 to August 21.
Wednesday is also the most intriguing, because UFC is staking the claim to Wednesday night as its night, starting on Aug. 27. During the fall, it will air UFC Tonight and The Ultimate Fighter weekly on Wednesdays, as well as live fights, not weekly, but on a regular basis.
Bellator vs. UFC head-to-head at first glance seems to be the worst of all possible moves for the No. 2 promotion. But there are a few variables. First, Spike will be in roughly 10 million homes that won't have access to Fox Sports 1. Second, Spike is an established station that is regularly among the top 25 cable stations. Fox Sports 1 is starting from scratch, an unfamiliar channel to most sports fans unless they were motor sports aficionados. If Bellator can go head-to-head with UFC programming and appear competitive, whether they really are competitive financially, there is a certain positive perception that would come out of it. Bellator will also be running live shows every week, while UFC will not. But there is also the risk of getting creamed and not even being able to draw its base audience, the hardcore MMA fans, who will eventually gravitate toward Fox Sports 1.
Thursday seems out, Fridays drew weaker numbers for both UFC and Bellator when they were there before, and Saturday goes back against UFC's biggest events, its pay-per-view shows, as well as some televised events, the major boxing fights, as well as major college football.
No date has been announced for he beginning of the fall Bellator reason, other than the first booked date in California indicates it would start the second week of September at the latest.