The antitrust lawsuit filed against the UFC refers to the other MMA organizations in the United States, namely Bellator, as minor leagues. Spike TV president Kevin Kay takes umbrage with that depiction.
"I don't think we're a minor league at all," Kay told MMAFighting.com recently at an event to promote Premier Boxing Champions on Spike. "That's just lawyers talking. They have to position stuff a certain way."
Bellator airs on Kay's Spike TV and is owned by Viacom, the parent company of both entities.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in December and lists former UFC fighters Cung Le, Jon Fitch and Nate Quarry as plaintiffs. Subsequent suits have been filed by former UFC fighters Brandon Vera, Dennis Hallman, Javier Vazquez and Pablo Garza. The same firms are working on all three lawsuits.
The major claim being made is that the UFC is a monopoly and every other MMA promotion is "minor league." The suits also state that the UFC has used anticompetitive methods (like aggressively buying up competitors) to maintain that monopoly. Additionally, there is an assertion that fighters are not treated well or paid fairly and do not have leverage to work elsewhere since the UFC has eliminated other options.
"Bellator athletes lack significant public notoriety, in part because it is a ‘minor league,'" the filing states. "Bellator's bout purses, gate revenues, attendance figures, merchandise sales, television licensing fees and ad rates are minimal compared to those obtained by the UFC."
Kay disagrees with that, pointing to Bellator's recent ratings upswing. Bellator 132, which took place on Jan. 16 in Temecula, Calif., peaked at 1.1 million viewers, a number that is more than many UFC events on FOX Sports 1 garner. Also, Bellator 131 on Nov. 15 in San Diego averaged 1.2 million viewers, peaking at 2 million during the Tito Ortiz-Stephan Bonnar main event. Ortiz-Bonnar was the most watched MMA fight on cable in 2014.
"We're right on an even footing [with the UFC], I believe," Kay said. "We're certainly not the minor leagues. Obviously, they are the market leaders right now, but I think Bellator is stepping up in a big way."
Bellator 131 went head-to-head against UFC 180, a pay-per-view. Ortiz-Bonnar didn't start until after the UFC 180 main event of Fabricio Werdum vs. Mark Hunt was over, but it was still an impressive number. Werdum-Hunt was for the UFC interim heavyweight title.
"I think that San Diego fight really showed off what the potential was," Kay said. "Tito and Stephan, whether you like them or not, they did a great job promoting that fight."
Bellator MMA president Scott Coker has also made it abundantly clear that the UFC will have no advantage over Bellator when it comes to signing big-name free agents. Bellator lost out on Mirko Cro Cop to the UFC last week, but plans on being in the mix for WWE star and former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar if he becomes available.
"There's not going to be a fighter on the planet we can't afford and have access to," Coker told MMAFighting.com in December.
Kay doubled down on that statement last week, promising Viacom and Spike TV's continued commitment to Bellator as a potential MMA powerhouse. As for whether Bellator could surpass the UFC in the next five to 10 years, Kay was succinct.
"I would like to," he said.