There is no eclipsing the UFC brand. No chance at all. Too much brand power, too much broadcast content, too many top fighters, and too much of a lead on international expansion. Most attempts to compete will wind up looking like the XFL. At least that Vince McMahon venture went big early and imploded early; many fight promotions prefer a slow, dripping death.
I was ready to write Bellator’s eulogy earlier in the year. Despite a strong roster of talent, their champions (Hector Lombard, Eddie Alvarez) didn’t have much competition and anyone they did groom could be plucked by a promotion with deeper pockets. Worse, a deal with Fox Sports Net made it virtually impossible for any viewer to feel any sense at all of continuity. What Bellator had done so wisely -- fracture shows into “seasons” that were easily understood and followed -- was totally undone by that network’s timeslot bleeds. At least half the time my TiVo recorded a Bellator program and played it back, no one was getting kicked in the head.
What kept Bellator’s optimism up might’ve been dwelling on the idea of Fox as a staircase. Long before Spike entered the picture, the UFC had struggled with its own FSN deal. It seems likely that having some sort of presence on television made them less of a risk to the channel that would become their permanent home. In both cases, the promotions have used that erratic exposure to graduate to a higher-profile opportunity on a Viacom-owned station.
(That shared umbrella might be the most interesting fact of Bellator’s new deal with MTV2, which is scheduled to launch in March with a light-heavyweight tournament: Viacom owns both Spike and the music-television channels, making Bellator a kind of distant cousin in a family tree the UFC obviously has no interest in exploring.)
And while it would seem like the opportunity to expose their product in 75 million homes is Bellator’s hand to play as they see fit, the reality is that their success or failure has relatively little to do with them. It’s entirely dependent on how MTV2 chooses to capitalize on their new toy.
Spike’s success in recent years can be attributed in large part to their comfort in becoming a destination channel propped up mainly by the UFC: while “1,000 Ways to Die” and “Manswers” are cheap programming filler that can rot brains as rapidly as anything else on television, it’s the UFC machine that keeps them a visible and viable choice for desired demographics. It’s a partnership that’s paid dividends for both parties. Without mainlining UFC product on basic cable, it becomes extremely difficult to coerce viewers into stuffing their cable bill full of pay-per-view events.
If MTV2 has had any designs on becoming a pre-selected programming option instead of a channel-surfing, it’s-either-this-or-“Die Hard II”-on-TBS desperation choice, they haven’t offered much evidence of it. Their programming is primarily recyclables from MTV and the occasional, quasi-cultish comedy series like “Wonder Showzen.” It’s a sidecar on the MTV motor, content with repeats and low-wattage programming. Its only identity is having a lack of identity.
Bellator can change that. In contrast to the UFC, which offers 24 weeks of the pre-taped “Ultimate Fighter” and a handful of live events in a calendar year, the company is floating the idea of 27 live events in 2011. That’s a regular, consistent percussion of live bouts.
If MTV2 wants to make them an equal content partner, it could mean a radical change in how the network is perceived. If they want to treat it as silent filler and hope the hardcores latch on to it, it won’t be worth considerably more than the Fox deal. As we’ve seen with CBS and Strikeforce, there’s no guarantee a deal means corporate adhesion. A broadcast partner with no interest in your product isn’t worth the coaxial cable it’s fed through.
Assuming the network gets it, Bellator still has significant hurdles to overcome: there’s potential their inoffensive production could be re-imagined for the ADD generation; injuries can often wreck the tournament format; and there’s still the inherent suspicion on the part of viewers who don’t see “UFC” anywhere in the channel listing.While there is no catching the UFC, there are niches available in MMA but it takes a marriage between product and provider. For Bellator to have a chance, MTV2 needs to do a lot more than just the bare minimum. The UFC and Spike gave everyone the formula; it’s up to Viacom to see if it’s repeatable.