After watching every Bellator event in the eleventh season - in some ways both the least meaningful and most - it's time to take a look back at what worked, what didn't, what's next and what's missing now that Scott Coker is in charge and Bjorn Rebney (and his tournaments) are gone.
1. Bellator 131. I use this as a catch all for a wider array of changes. In other words, yes, this event was successful, but this event is representative of the pivot in strategy. That's what really worked. The old regime and way of doing things with the tournament had a value at a time in the organization's growth, but it long outlived its usefulness to the point of becoming an constant obstacle. In a time in the sport when fans complain of oversaturation, the previous strategy Bellator employed only added to that fatigue. Backing away, taking time to manicure the fan experience, giving events time to breathe and stand out, this is what is sport needed. It was a turn Bellator had to take to survive, grow or be anything that ever really mattered.
There are challenges ahead to be sure. The UFC's loaded schedule is going to make promoting any event difficult. Acquiring talent is going to be an ongoing chore. Keeping costs down will be next to impossible. Yet, there was a realization by the players at Viacom that the bridge they were building with Bjorn Rebney was to nowhere. If the investment and purchase of the Bellator brand was to ever be useful, it had to be something that made an impact, shook things up and got people talking. This was the only way to get there. As much as it was an upheaval, it was really just a basic if utterly necessary correction.
2. The familiar names. Using Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar turned out to be a smart play. These aren't just UFC Hall of Famers and, therefore, famous, generally. These are fighters who partly built their name on Spike TV. They are familiar to Spike TV audiences, even years removed from the channel. That's also why Coker elected to use or keep in rotation names like Houston Alexander, Bobby Lashley, Kendall Grove and Cheick Kongo.
Bellator is in the precarious position of not just trying to acquire real talent, but pulling out all the stops to draw audiences with their limited roster. Keeping things familiar and visible is the right call, even if it means having to make use of less than optimal talent.
3. Clever use of lesser talent. Is Joe Schilling even a top 50 middleweight in the sport? Probably not. In some sense, using him, especially on a main card, seems bizarre. Yet, within context, it's a bit of a genius stroke for an organization with a still very limited roster. Whatever his MMA shortcomings, Schilling is an elite middleweight kickboxer. Putting him in action fights in MMA against other top kickboxers allows most of their world-class talents to shine through. That translates into a quality experience for the viewer and the ability of the promotion to talk up their actual strengths without focus on their clear deficiencies. Most importantly, it gives Bellator the ability to get by on a roster that's short on big names or top MMA talent.
4. Appropriate use of rising talents. One of the most overlooked aspects of this previous season was how the promotion treated its rising talent. Fighters like Michael 'Venom' Page got the appropriate kind of challenges to develop into something more. Ditto for fighters like Bubba Jenkins, Alexander Sarnavskiy and more. In the previous regime, it was never really clear how some of these fighters were going to progress given the uncertainty of the tournament system. Some great fighters are great tournament fighters. Some great fighters are not. Losing the latter because of fealty to a dubious system is not great idea.
5. Enhanced experience. How could anyone look at what we saw at Bellator 131 and think this wasn't fun or something different or, really, just an experience? Isn't that what MMA fans want? Isn't that partly missing in the sport? MMA is a sport and should always be treated as such, but that doesn't mean we need to coldly strip out the trimmings of spectacle or pageantry that make for fond memories. Audiences want to be wowed, amazed and dazzled. Putting on the best fights possible is key to creating that, but live production is, too. And in an age of MMA where everyone is trying to ape the brand leader or something else, seeing an organization depart from that to deliver something different and edgy is a breath of fresh of air.
6. The commentary duo. Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith are arguably the best commentary team in the sport. It's about time they got credit for it.
1. Business as usual. Coker was marking time to get through the existing contracts and obligations the previous Bellator regime had agreed to while focusing on the pivot to the new (or older, depending on your perspective) style of promotion. Virtually all of this criticism is more reflective of what's being left behind, not where Coker wants to take it. That said, watching a promotion in enough of the cat bird seat to be on Spike TV more than twenty weeks a year take their promotion to the middle of Nowhere America was borderline criminal. The idea that straight jacketing contender development with a rigid process while doing so in places where there's no media or ability to be visibly seen in metropolitan communities was going to lead to growth seems insane. Even with the tournaments abandoned, the simple optics of going to ballrooms and casinos off the beaten path just made Bellator look and feel small time. The previous regime was trying to keep costs down, which they did. In the process, they held down the entire operation.
2. The inclusion of women. I don't write this to say adding a women's featherweight division was a bad idea. I also gather this is a long-term play. Yet, aside from making news about reintroducing women to the Bellator roster, there wasn't much clever or effective use of them this season. Signing Marloes Coenen is a fine decision, but in the short run, it did next to nothing in terms of moving the proverbial needle.
Putting aside the argument women deserve to be placed alongside men major MMA cards or events, there's plenty of evidence to suggest women can be a value add in terms of earning notable television ratings, garnering earned media and more. To get there, Bellator's going to have to make a much robust and inclusive effort.
3. Digital content not where it needs to be. This might sound like a small, even petty complaint, but I'd argue it matters. So much of Bellator's content - shoulder programming, archived fights and more - exist on Spike TV's website. There is some overlap with YouTube, but not nearly enough. If you want to embed or share their content, you have to use Viacom's media player. That inhibits sharing. MMA fans are a smaller group than fans of other stick and ball sports, but the MMA audience also might be the most digitally native. Yet, that doesn't mean they'll consume any and all forms of content, but rather, they'll spend time online accessing the content that's easiest to find, share and use. There's a huge missed opportunity here to have Bellator's content more regularly on the radar of MMA fans.
The Strikeforce playbook. We saw a glimpse into the future at Bellator 131. It's a familiar sight, really. We know what Coker can do because we know what Coker has done. There are now some clear production upgrades and the talent isn't what Strikeforce had, but the plan remains the same: do bigger events in bigger venues in bigger cities with bigger names, all of which takes place spaced out far enough from one another to be properly promoted.
Rampage Jackson. The all-time great light heavyweight seems to be the only person in mixed martial arts who longs for a day where Rebney was in charge, but that's the state of things. He is eternally displeased for reasons that never seem quite clear other than, in this case, Jackson likely perceives the benefits that came with having Rebney around to be gone with the change in leadership. Still, Bellator and Coker can greatly benefit from having Jackson around. The trick will be convincing him to come back without him doing media where Jackson appears like a mistreated malcontent, something the UFC was unable to do when he left that organization.