In many ways, Saturday night's Bellator show is the beginning of a new era for the company.
While Scott Coker took over the promotion months ago, he came into a company with many things in place, most notably a weekly schedule. Coker also had his own learning curve regarding working with a new staff and working within a new organization.
Coker's guarded optimism of a few months ago has been replaced by unabashed enthusiasm about next year. In his three decades of promoting, even though he's produced content for ESPN and Showtime, he's got a level of resources he's never had at his disposal with a Viacom-owned property. And while Bellator shows this fall haven't looked to a television viewer all that different from previous seasons, past the elimination of tournaments, Coker said that Saturday's show from the Valley View Casino Arena in San Diego, will be an example of what to expect from the new Bellator in 2015.
"Honestly, I think the Sept. 5 show was our first big show, but this one (Nov. 15) is one of our big tent-pole events and the biggest under my regime," said Coker. "You'll see more of my signature on it than Sept. 5. You'll see some differences in the production of the live event. It's something we're excited to put together and hope the fans enjoy it."
The business strategy is to go in the opposite direction of the industry-leading UFC. The idea is less is more. The goal is to put on 16 shows next year, trying to fill the shows with fighters that fans know as headliners and introducing promising newcomers underneath. The plan is to have at least one championship match on the monthly Friday night shows, and both title fights and major name stars every three months for the big events on Saturday nights. Instead of running on a treadmill of every week having to promote a show, the goal is to spend a full month concentrating into promoting the Friday shows, and a three-month marketing campaign for the major Saturday night shows.
"I can't speak for them (UFC), but there's no way to hype a fight when you only have a week to do it," said Coker. "I think this is a perfect schedule for us. I think in 2016, we may do six tent-pole events, and eventually do eight, 20 shows a year. That's where we're headed."
"When you do ten straight weeks, by week seven or eight, you're running out of quality fighters," said Bellator Chief Operating Officer Jason Jordan. "In order to keep the level of talent high, you have to do less shows."
And one of the biggest differences is the promoting itself.
"We're going to really integrate Bellator into Viacom," said Jordan, who is also the longtime Senior Vice President of Digital Operations, Strategy and Finance for Viacom. "The previous regime was kind of isolationists. They'd work with Viacom opportunistically, but more or less they were an island onto themselves, and were that way by design. They butted heads frequently (with Spike TV), and it just came to a head months ago. It became untenable. (Spike president) Kevin Kay was talking to Scott (Coker), but he had a non-compete (Coker had a three-year contract with UFC that didn't allow him to promote MMA as part of the deal when he sold Strikeforce in early 2011.)."
The big difference, when it comes to marketing and publicity, the Bellator staff was, and still is, rather small. But the Viacom staff is huge, and they are going to use their muscle to attempt to grow every facet of the business.
"The goal of the last three months was our team aligning with their team, and now everything is humming along," said Coker.
Jordan's strength is in new marketing, with the idea of producing a world of new content for digital consumers, as well as ramping up the use of social media.
"There will be more content on more platforms than ever before," he said. "Going from 22 shows to 16, we have a larger gap between fights. We can't just be speaking to the people the week of the fights. One of the themes is access, giving fans a look into the camps, into the struggles of our fighters, doing Q&As, we want to give people more exposure into the fighters, giving the fans fitness tips, health tips, learn who they are, if they're into cooking or hunting, who they are outside the ring."
He talked of adding five-minute digital content for a guy to click on at the bus stop or when he's just got a few minutes to spare. Instead of engaging 30 people in Bellator content once a month, the goal is to engage five people once a day, with mobile content as a key initiative.
"We'll have our traditional shoulder programming (feature shows and countdown shows) the week of the fight," said Jordan. "But shoulder programming needs to be 24/7/365. We need to be showcasing our fighters every day of the week. Next year there's going to be a bigger gap between the live events so we want to keep the people engaged."
Spike itself is still looking at Fridays as Fight Nights. The plan is for one Bellator show a month, one Glory kickboxing show a month, and to fill the other weeks with other combat sports events, whether it be boxing or something else.
Jordan said that the hardcore fan base knows who Bellator is. The company has been averaging just under 700,000 viewers each week live and another eight to ten percent watching later via DVR.
"Unfortunately the Bellator fan base is more limited than we would like," Jordan said. "There's not a lot of casual fans we're capturing. Our rating is pretty consistent. The 700,000 to 800,000 fans are a strength and a weakness. We haven't done much that gets into mainstream conversation."
There may be a couple of benefits in the new year, with more time to promote each show, and also the elimination of WWE Smackdown as competition for the key 18-49 demo, since that show is being moved to Thursday.
At one point changing the name from Bellator was discussed, but that idea was discarded.
"The name was up for a change but for now we've elected to stay with it," said Jordan. "Scott's kind of bringing in a new strategy. He's got the wind in his back. We don't see the need to get rid of the name. It's Scott's Bellator now. It's identifiable. When you search on the web for Bellator, we're the first thing that comes up. It performs well. We're sticking with the brand name. One of our goals is to expand beyond the hardcores."
Other plans including greatly expanding the merchandise business.
"Right now, the only place we sell merchandise is at our live events," said Jordan. "It's such a limited thing. We've got big plans to expand our merchandise platforms, places we sell them, and we want to focus on that. "
Saturday is the prelude to the new year plans.
"I see the promotional muscle, digital muscle and PR muscle behind this event that we would have never seen in Strikeforce," said Coker. "We never had the manpower. You talk about an army of people working together toward Saturday. It's an amazing sight to see with all the gears falling into place and coming right along. That's doesn't mean there's not room to grow. I've only been here four-and-a-half months and I've seen big improvements. When I first got to Bellator, I didn't know what to expect. When I got here, nobody was talking to the parent company and they were instructed not to talk to them. That's where the breakdown came."
Jordan is also targeting the Hispanic audience this coming year.
"That's an under served market for us," Jordan said.
Among the ideas are to do Spanish language videos and they just introduced a Bellator in Espanol twitter account.
Another plan is to push the prelims on the Spike web site harder, and up the quality of the fights. They are even talking about no longer calling them prelims, but pre-main card fights.
"They're very sophisticated in marketing and television projects, and that's what Bellator is," said Coker. "We've already got marketing done for the first quarter and the second quarter of next year, and are starting to work on the third quarter."
Coker said they already have an idea of their schedule and top fights for the first quarter.
"I think we're pretty much done with January, February and March," he said. "That's the beauty of not being in the tournament business. You can schedule fights. We had the same problem with our (Strikeforce) heavyweight tournament, Showtime had the problem with their middleweight boxing tournament. Things happen, and the champions are kept waiting and waiting for the tournament to end. Sometimes they had to wait for a year. Here's your world champion, one of the best fighters on your roster, and he may only be fighting once a year. I'd like to have our top guys fight three times a year. That's the number in my head. People get injured, so sometimes that's not possible. But sometimes people win quick and they can turn around and fight right away, but three a year is the goal."
This Saturday is a crazy night, with not just UFC, but also the World Series of Fighting, all going head-to-head. From 9-10 p.m. there will be simultaneous MMA fights on Spike, FS 1 and NBC Sports Net. At 10 p.m., Bellator and WSOF to head-to-head with UFC 180, on pay-per-view from Mexico City.
Coker said they aren't looking at taking on UFC at the same time, but said that when you run major shows on Saturday night, there will almost always be competition, whether it's UFC, boxing or both.
"Our goal is not to go head-to-head with UFC," he said. "Our goal is to put on fights on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes we may have big shows on Fridays. In this one situation, on a Saturday, it just worked out like that. But really, when is there not an MMA show on a Saturday night? It's just going to happen. What I'm looking forward to is pulling back on the number of shows and putting on more fights that people want to see. When you think about it, with a weekly fight series, the show is not an event, it's just another show. Friday night you turn on the TV and there's a bunch of fights and you don't know who the fighters are. What I want to do is take a step back, have a title fight on our monthly show, every show, at least one title fight."
The key at first is to do like Saturday, trying to use fighters with name value, like Ortiz and Bonnar, to get people to watch television, and introduce the future stars, like Michael Chandler and Will Brooks underneath.
"Our focus is a quality product, at the right price point, free, fights with fighters people want to watch, recognizable stars and up-and-comers, and for the fans to be entertained and involved with the broadcast," said Jordan. "If we do that, the rest will take care of itself. Spike's in 100 million homes."
Coker noted that both Ortiz and Bonnar are scheduled to be fighting with the company next year. The other major name, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is somewhat in limbo.
"He's opening a gym, and he's opening a sports bar project, working on an app, a social media thing, so we're waiting to hear from him about when he wants to fight again," said Coker.
One of the goals for 2015 is getting the people interested in new stars. There is a long list they are prioritizing, which include new middleweight champion Brandon Halsey, former bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas, as well as featherweights Bubba Jenkins, Goiti Yamauchi, Jonathan Bonilla Bowman and Julio Cesar Neves; lightweight Brent Primus, welterweights Michael Page, Chris Honeycutt, Neiman Gracie and Brennan Ward, middleweight Emeliani Sordi and light heavyweight Linton Vassell.
"Just like we did in Strikeforce, we're looking for the right guy and the right girl," Coker said. "We're scouring the planet for top level talent, whether it's the Jiu Jitsu community, Olympic wrestling, small shows in MMA, we're out there hunting. We might have some announcements real soon."
"There's some talent on this roster, but talent is one thing, there's also marketing and PR. It's who you make a big star. I think there's tremendous talent on this roster and we're going to add some talent to the mix. There's some hidden gems and we're going to polish those gems. There's so many, (Joe) Warren, The Pitbull Brothers, (Pat) Curran, (Daniel) Straus, and there's more. There's a kid from Japan, who is part of (Antonio) Inoki's group. He's Japanese but lives in Brazil. When I saw him, holey moley, he's a talented fighter."