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History tells us odds are against Bellator succeeding on pay-per-view

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Back in 2000, when the Fertitta Brothers started talking with Bob Meyrowitz about purchasing the UFC, the big question was, What exactly were they buying?

Meyrowitz had sold most of the company tangible assets in an attempt to keep the company alive. Lorenzo Fertitta years later noted, what they were buying, was three letters.

That $2 million check for a small percentage of the alphabet has paid dividends perhaps 1,000 times over for he and his brother.

As far as the value goes of the letters, in the 20-plus years that MMA has existed in the U.S. and Japan, something like 26 companies have tried pay-per-view. And in the end, 25 have ultimately failed in that arena.

There are all kinds of initials from CFFC, to MARS, to WFA, to EFC, WCC, KOTC, Ultimate Chaos, Yamma, Bodog and others far more forgettable. There were even companies that at one time were significant historically like Pride, Pancrase and Strikeforce. In common was unless you had the initials, ultimately, you never did big numbers, and ultimately didn't survive on pay-per-view.  What was important is that company after company built their business around a plan that included rich eggs from a golden goose that wasn't nearly as golden as it looked from afar.

On Saturday, Bellator tries to join the small side of that ledger with its second attempt at a first impression.

What's notable is, unlike all the others, whose business plan was based on a big score pay-per-view, Bellator has a completely different business model.  It's a television product owned by Viacom. Unlike most of the others, if Saturday's show doesn't do well, they're still in business and running shows every Friday night in the fall.  Little changes, except perhaps some, or a lot, of money is lost, a lesson may be learned and some egos may be quietly bruised.

There are arguments why Bellator could succeed on pay-per-view, and others why it can't.

Why it could is that Bellator has a weekly television vehicle that can reach anywhere from 500,000 viewers on a show where the headliners are names that may as well have come from the witness protection program based on how well known they are, to 900,000 viewers with names that were once stars in UFC or were named Eddie Alvarez or Michael Chandler. The main events frequently top 1 million viewers. In theory, if this show was on Spike, it would probably do well in excess of 1 million viewers. So the mentality is, if you can get only 20 percent of those people to buy, you've hit a home run, and even 10 percent is a good showing to build from.. 

That's a takeoff on the mentality that led the dirty dozens into bankruptcy.

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We know there are a million people who are MMA fans that will buy pay-per-view, because Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz in 2006 showed us that. Whenever UFC has something really big, it can threaten or even beat that number. So if we can only get one out of ten of those fans to sample our show, we'll be rich. That math sounds great, but real life is more complex than percentage of UFC's big show numbers, or percentages of your television viewers. 

Bellator's sister promotion, TNA wrestling, which has both of Saturday's main eventers, King Mo Lawal and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson under contract, even though neither has appeared on its show in months, does anywhere between 1 million and 1.5 million viewers every Thursday for free. When they go to pay-per-view, they're getting maybe one percent of those people, not 20 percent.

Another reason it may not work is that Bellator this week has to make viewers overcome a huge psychological hurdle.

When viewers see your product as something that you don't pay for, they are going to believe it isn't worth paying for. UFC is already having that problem. The more free product there is on television, the harder it is to convince their audience to pay for it, unless it's something really big. And UFC has protected its top stars, in the sense going forward, I don't think you'll be seeing Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Chris Weidman or Ronda Rousey defend their championships on free television.

Bellator has been a free product. Every star and every championship match has been given to the public free of charge. Asking them to then believe the product is something that they should pay for is going to only result in a push back, because Bellator has already established a price and a worth for its biggest fights. I saw Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler fight twice, and it gets no better than that, and it cost me nothing.  Why should I pay to see Chandler face Will Brooks?

It's the same mentality of why pay-per-view worked in the U.S. and Canada, but in other markets, like Japan and Mexico, it never really caught on. 

The three stars of pay-per-view are boxing, pro wrestling and MMA. In the U.S., for as long as anyone can remember, the big boxing matches, whether it was Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard,  Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather Jr., were something you paid for. Before pay-per-view existed, you had to go to your local auditorium and watch it on a big screen. Pay-per-view was just a more convenient way to pay money than the old way. In pro wrestling, television promoted the big match, but before pay-per-view, you had to go to your local arena and pay to see it. After that, pay-per-view was a natural transition. UFC itself started on pay-per-view in 1993, and didn't even get on regular television until 2005.

In Japan and Mexico, Ali fights were on network television live. The biggest pro wrestling matches were live and free in prime time on the networks. Pay-per-view did work to a degree, but as big as wrestling and combat sports were in Japanese society, it never worked like in the U.S. Mexico is the same situation. They always had their big boxing matches and big wrestling matches for free. Paying money for a big fight, even though boxing and wrestling are far bigger culturally than the U.S., never caught on to any significant level.

I can't help but feel Saturday's show is on pay-per-view only because, to fans and maybe far more importantly, business partners and cable distributors, you get one pass. Bellator got that pass last time, when it canceled its original first pay-per-view at the last minute when Tito Ortiz was injured, eliminating the heavily promoted main event with Rampage Jackson. The show was moved to television. The same thing happened here, with Alvarez's injury, taking the main event off the show. But if they canceled twice in a row, Bellator becomes, to the pay-per-view providers, the boy who cried wolf.

It's absolutely a strong show for Bellator.

Of the five fights scheduled, four of them could viably headline a Bellator Friday night show. Jackson vs. Mo could do 1 million viewers on its own if it was on Spike. Chandler vs. Brooks would do well above average numbers. Even Tito Ortiz vs. Alexander Shlemenko, as a television main event, would beat the average.  Blagoi Ivanov vs. Alexander Volkov in the heavyweight tournament final is a viable television main event, although not one that would do above average ratings.

So the last two weeks, Jackson and King Mo in a few 11 p.m. time slots have to convince you that they hate each other as much as Jackson and Rashad Evans did years ago, and get you to pay to see them fight while putting out of your minds how Jackson vs. Evans delivered. Somehow, after getting two Alvarez vs. Chandlers for free, and knowing a third is imminent unless Chandler is upset, we have to get excited about Chandler vs. Will Brooks.

And speaking of wolf, in a fight that really defies logic, big light heavyweight Ortiz brings us back to the size mismatch days of Pride, in facing much smaller, and much better Alexander Shlemenko. I'm not sure which fight it was where Ortiz proclaimed he was in the greatest shape of his life and was healthy for the first time since 2002, and then as soon as the fight was over explained that he couldn't wrestle or spar or train at all because of all his injuries ,that he jumped the shark as a drawing card. It's happened so many times that his saying how great he feels this week sounds like the beginning of a Jay Leno monologue.

The only thing that remotely makes sense here, is that they are hoping that either Ortiz, at 39, after more retirements than Leno, can somehow get resurrected and be worthy of his huge paycheck by winning against a guy much smaller, and people will buy it, and want to see him face Rampage or Mo. Or, more likely, that somehow Shlemenko, the company's middleweight champion, will increase his value by the notoriety he'd get for beating Ortiz, as if that is an exclusive club.

This was a tough sell for Chandler vs. Alvarez as the main event, but at least there was a hook in the sense it was the deciding fight of the greatest in-cage trilogy ever in the U.S. With Alvarez out, the hook is buying Rampage vs. Mo, or if you've got nostalgia to see Ortiz. Given the success of the post-UFC resurrections of Ken Shamrock, I'm not holding my breath on that one.

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