There was a huge question with the promotion of the Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar fight, and the answer to it was coming on Tuesday.
What gets people to watch fights on television? Both were heavily criticized for an in-ring confrontation, that with a pull-apart chaotic brawl and a masked man reveal, that looked right out of pro wrestling on Sept. 5. Shoulder programming continued in that direction, with a hype special of the two men together trading insults in an empty gym where Bonnar was clearly playing a character, given he's been a regular on television since 2005 and his actions were altogether different from anything he had done in the past.
The answer was something a lot of people didn't want to hear, and others feared. What drew ratings was not two top fighters battling for a championship, but two stars of UFC past, clearly past their prime, doing an over-the-top storyline.
What made this number far more impressive is that Bellator was going head-to-head with a UFC pay-per-view, and a World Series of Fighting event on NBC Sports, which in theory, should have split the MMA fan base. Instead, this fight drew far beyond the usual MMA audience, and drew enough curiosity to get some of the hard-to-reach casual audience that Bellator COO Jason Jordan said the promotion is focusing its efforts on.
The three-round fight, hardly a classic, averaged 1.8 million viewers between 11:50 p.m. and 12:16 a.m., making it, by far, the most watched fight in the history of the Bellator promotion. That number, and the peak rating of 2 million viewers, made it the most watched MMA fight on cable television this year.
In ratings, in the key Male 18-34 and 18-49 demos, it beat every MMA fight this year except the Benson Henderson vs. Josh Thomson UFC fight on FOX in January, and that was on a night UFC had no competition from the MMA fan base, and for a show heavily hyped on NFL playoff broadcasts by FOX.
That statement should be qualified, in the sense ratings measure the percentage of viewers in the demo that can see the show that watched it. It is possible that other FOX main fights this year had more viewers in the demo because of the larger universe for FOX, but on a percentage basis, Ortiz vs. Bonnar beat the rest of them.
The negative is this type of promotion, and using stars from the past, isn't something that can be done on too regular a basis. While this fight was a home run as far as garnering an audience and attention for Ortiz and Bonnar, what is more important in the long run is if those viewers will become fans of the promotion and increase the Bellator base. The other real key is if it will lead to more interest in fighters like lightweight champion Will Brooks, Lawal, Joe Schilling and Mike Richman, who all won undercard fights.
Bellator produced a show with a fun overall atmosphere, that felt different from UFC as far as production elements. That was a positive. The question is whether fans that responded to what was, essentially, a pro wrestling buildup, will garner interest in the new look of the promotion as a whole, or if they'll only be interested in future events with similar name power from the past and using similar hype.
"Bellator 131 was an incredible event that had something for everybody, and I'm thrilled to see our efforts were so well-received by our fans," said Bellator President Scott Coker in a statement. "I'm very proud of our entire Bellator and Spike family for all the hard work they put resulting in these record-breaking ratings. The most exciting thing for me is the knowledge that we are just getting started, and I can't wait for everyone to see what we have in store for the future."
The entire show drew 1,241,299 viewers. It was the second-highest MMA broadcast of the year on cable, trailing the Feb. 15 UFC broadcast headlined by Lyoto Machida vs. Gegard Mousasi, that did 1,400,000 viewers. But that show's audience was greatly helped by a NASCAR lead-in of 3.53 million viewers.
Bellator's previous record-setting event on Spike was on Nov. 2, 2013, for the second Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler fight. That averaged 1.1 million viewers. That show had the benefit of far more promotion since it was originally a pay-per-view event built around an Ortiz vs. Rampage Jackson fight, that fell through due to Ortiz suffering a neck injury.