If someone was asked about who the most influential people have been in the history of MMA, the name Kevin Kay probably wouldn’t have been the first off the tip of one’s tongue.
But it should. After his ouster this past week as head of the Paramount Network, if you look back historically and take Kay out of the picture, it is very likely MMA wouldn’t be much more than an underground sport.
It was Kay, who at the time was working underneath Doug Herzog in running Spike TV, who greenlit “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show as well as agreed to put MMA live events on television in 2005, greatly changing the course of this sport’s history in North America.
Later, as president of Spike TV, Kay was behind the purchase of Bellator as a Viacom property, a decision that bolstered UFC’s biggest competition and allowed development of new stars and fighters to have more than one option to make real money in North America.
Prior to 2005, UFC was struggling, reportedly having lost $34 million since Lorenzo & Frank Fertitta had purchased the company from Bob Meyrowitz and Semaphore Entertainment Group in 2001. The sport had a very negative stigma with the public and the television world even with the Fertittas investing millions in trying to change that. Until Kay and Herzog at Spike, nobody in television would touch the sport. There was one taped fight on a few years earlier on Fox Sports Net, and even with strong ratings, the stigma was such that Fox Sports Network didn’t follow up.
Without television, UFC’s potential for success at any significant level was impossible.
Kay was the key TV executive who opened the door to change, and if those decisions never happened, given nobody else in television was open to the idea of MMA at the time, the incredible rise of the sport would simply have never happened. While the Fertitta’s money and the work of others like Dana White and Joe Silva took UFC from the verge of extinction to a major worldwide sports property, they needed a television executive ally in Kay or it would have been all for naught.
Viacom CEO Bob Bakish announced this past week the appointment of Kent Alterman, who had been President of Comedy Central, to take over the Paramount Network, formerly Spike, which owns Bellator MMA.
Whenever there is a management shakeup of this type in television, the questions about the future grow large. Bellator had been doing healthy numbers for Spike from its debut on the network in 2013 through early 2018. There were great hopes with the synergy with Viacom and the hiring of Scott Coker to run the promotion in 2014, that they’d create their own stable of new stars and promote MMA with a different flair than UFC.
But Bellator has struggled with creating a home-grown major ratings mover. It’s most tenured championship-level headliner, lightweight Michael Chandler, has not broken through to become a ratings draw. Its biggest numbers were when UFC stars from the past, or more recently, the legendary Fedor Emelianenko, were used on top. They had major success using previously made superstars like the late Kimbo Slice, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Tito Ortiz, and to a lesser extent Emelianenko and Chael Sonnen.
But Slice passed away and Shamrock and Gracie ran their course. Things declined greatly this year. While it peaked at more than one million viewers including those watching via DVR, the Oct. 13 show headlined by Emelianenko vs. Sonnen averaged 521,000 viewers live, and many recent shows have fallen below 400,000 live viewers.
Overall same-day numbers for Bellator on Paramount are down 34 percent from last year on Spike.
Kay had been a huge supporter of both MMA and kickboxing, the latter of which never caught on at a high level in the U.S., partially due to the lack of breakthrough personalities.
Kay’s greenlighting and then going heavy into MMA on television, with success of UFC under his watch from 2005-11, was one of the biggest successes he was known for in television circles, with the other being the launching of “Spongebob Squarepants” on Nickelodeon.
The success of UFC led to Kay being made President of Spike in 2007, with the idea of it being a network aimed mainly at young adult males, which UFC worked perfectly with as programming. But in recent years, Spike wanted to change that perception to attract more women viewers, and then, in 2018, was rebranded the Paramount Network. UFC became such a success that its value outgrew Spike TV, and in 2011, FOX offered more than triple the $33 million per year Spike was paying the UFC.
That’s where the decision to purchase Bellator came in. Bellator, which started in 2009, was the largest UFC rival left standing after the collapse of Elite XC and sale to Strikeforce, and then Strikeforce being sold to Zuffa, the parent company of UFC, earlier in 2011.
The feeling was in an era where rights fees for sports were skyrocketing and people were banking on live sports as more important programming because of the idea it was more DVR-proof, if they purchased Bellator, they would own it and its broadcast rights forever without having to pay huge money going forward.
In addition, if they built it up, they would never have to worry about losing it, like happened with UFC.
While they had talked of doing pay-per-view shows, and did a few, the numbers never topped 100,000 and they got out of that game, and their major talking point was that you could see the biggest Bellator fights on basic cable on Spike, unlike the UFC where you had to pay a PPV fee to see them.
But Bellator did make a streaming deal with DAZN this year and its deepest event as far as quality talent in months, the Sept. 29 show in San Jose, didn’t air on Paramount.
It’s hard to believe with usually so many live MMA events on television involving a variety of companies on a number of channels, that just 14 years ago, nobody would touch MMA on television. Without television, the pay-per-views, the leading revenue stream, struggled. In various interviews, Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White have described “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show as their last gamble before accepting that UFC just wasn’t going to make it at that time as a viable business.
The reality is TUF was financed at first by the UFC, and in that sense was almost like a time-buy. But where Kay came in was placing the show at 11:05 p.m. on Monday nights, directly after WWE’s “Monday Night Raw.”
Raw was the station’s most popular program and one of the most popular shows on cable television. It was the greatest lead-in possible because fans of simulated violence, unique personalities and interviews building fights were the perfect audience for a reality show featuring real fights, personalities like Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck, and storylines and interviews building fights.
Despite its late-night time slot, “The Ultimate Fighter” became a big hit, being particularly successful in keeping the 18-34 year-old male audience that watched Raw.
This exposure turned around the pay-per-view business and took UFC from famine to feast. The first pay-per-view show promoted after “The Ultimate Fighter” hit television, a light heavyweight title fight with TUF coaches Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, did nearly 300,000 buys. The two had fought once before, with no Spike TV, and did 48,000 buys. Everything exploded from there, and by 2006, the pay-per-view business and overall UFC business was on fire.
When the first live MMA event ever on television, featuring the legendary Griffin vs. Bonnar fight, averaged 2.6 million viewers, Kay made the obvious call to go all-in with UFC, moving “The Ultimate Fighter” to prime time and replaying it multiple times per week, televising live events, as well as airing endless tapes of older fights and producing “Countdown” shows that would built up the pay-per-view cards, as well as airing live fights before the pay-per-view itself started.
After losing WWE programming to the USA Network in late 2005, Spike TV for years was essentially the UFC Network. At one point, Spike had half of its prime time hours comprised of UFC live and taped content.
”Kevin is a passionate storyteller whose legacy at Viacom spans more than two decades and seven networks, and I’m thankful for him and his team for their many contributions,” Bakish wrote in a memo that the Hollywood Reporter first obtained when it reported the news of the change. “At Nickelodeon, Kevin left his mark by overseeing a string of hits that included All That, Kenan & Kel and The Adventures of Pete and Pete–as well as developing and greenlighting SpongeBob Square Pants. And during his tenure at Spike, he oversaw the launch of fan-favorites like The Ultimate Fighter, Lip Sync Battle, Bar Rescue and Ink Master, as well as the expansion of Bellator. Most recently, he had his team undertook the huge task of launching Paramount Network. Thanks to their hard work, Paramount quickly established itself as a home for premium content, achieving early critical and ratings success with the high-quality, cinematic original series Waco and Yellowstone–the latter of which is now the second-most watched cable series of 2018. All of this while also ensuring that TV Land and CMT continue to be dominant forces in the very important audiences they reach.”