Opinion: Blunders Aside, Bellator is Making Some Good Moves

By Anthony Walker Jun 28, 2018
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The battle for supremacy in the mixed martial arts world has been dominated by the Ultimate Fighting Championship since its acquisition of Pride Fighting Championships in 2007. Since then, every other promotion has been fighting for second place. Every so often, a company is able to make a name for itself and carve its own place in the market.

The Scott Coker-led Strikeforce was probably the most notable example. The organization’s 2011 heavyweight grand prix garnered a great deal of attention as it featured some of the best the division had to offer, the nostalgic tournament idea, and juxtaposed itself against the historically top-heavy nature of the same weight class in the UFC. Behind the scenes, uncertainty and Zuffa’s habit of absorbing its competition led to the San Jose-based company being bought out that same year.

Since the purchase, the fight for the No. 2 promotion in MMA -- in the Americas -- has been a battle for scraps. The UFC’s increased event schedule brought on by demanding global television commitments and an online streaming service has had other promotions scrambling to find space in a crowded calendar. In addition, the growth in number of events, absorption of Strikeforce and World Extreme Cagefighting and the inclusion of women and new weight classes has led to an inflated roster that has put a noticeable strain on competing organizations.

Once again, Coker is attempting to pull a rabbit out of a hat. After taking the steering wheel at Bellator MMA upon founder Bjorn Rebney being ousted by Viacom, Coker has taken some notable steps toward securing their No. 2 position. While his approach has certainly not been flawless, it’s undeniable that Bellator is doing what it can to cement its place in the MMA world.

Just this week, several noteworthy moves were announced that could potentially elevate the now Newport Beach, California,-based brand. The most significant of these announcements was the broadcasting deal with sports streaming service DAZN. This is a big for Bellator in several different ways. First, it’s the long overdue solution to the tape-delay plague. The live element is essential to the casual enjoyment of sporting events. The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty as two fighters approach the opening bell can’t be replicated if the results are already known. Combine this with the plethora of up-to-date information provided by social media and there’s simply no way for any major sports league to not have live viewing available and still be taken seriously.

Second, Bellator is now positioned next to other marquee names in the sports world. Any fans in Canada that want to watch the NFL can enjoy Bellator programming positioned next to the undisputed giant in North American sports. DAZN has also recently signed a broadcast deal with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing, home to WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, and the World Boxing Super Series. As a home for premium combat sports content, fans of either sport can easily be roped in to watch the other.

DAZN also provides an alternative to the brand confusion brought on by its corporate ownership. Viacom had a clear strategy when it first got into the MMA business. Spike TV’s foray with the UFC was greatly beneficial to both parties. The UFC was now widely available in a larger than ever amount of homes in the United States. Spike was available to further establish itself as the channel focusing on the interest of young to middle-aged men. When the UFC jumped ship in favor of Fox, Bellator was able to step and fill in the void, and Premier Boxing Championships and Glory Kickboxing rounded out a heavy dosage of combat sports content. However, as both Glory and PBC ended their respective partnerships and Viacom decided to rebrand Spike as the Paramount Network, Bellator was left as the lone reminder of what Spike TV had once been. While Paramount still will air Bellator, simulcasting with DAZN alleviates at least some of the problem.

The influx of money from the DAZN deal will be extremely helpful to Bellator. While the exact figures aren’t publicly known, it is reported that it is worth nine figures. Nine figures can work wonders in acquiring talent that can further push the brand. With the UFC having such a strong hold over the top-level talent, there isn’t much available outside of the occasional free agent. While Coker has been able to lure away a few high profile UFC vets, former light heavyweight champion and middleweight challenger Lyoto Machida being the latest, more money won’t hurt their chances. As the UFC has exerted more control over the athletes with USADA and Reebok alliances, Bellator’s sponsorship opportunities and looser grip over its roster can be enticing for a fighter looking for more money and freedom. Aside from free agency, developing talent may find an increased budget.

Much has been made of Aaron Pico in the infancy of his MMA career. His progress would not have been possible without the interest and money of Bellator as he began transitioning from his wrestling, boxing and pankration roots. An increase in the funds allotted for developing talent means more focus on blue-chip prospects and in turn, better athletes in the future. The UFC has apparently taken notice of this model, as Greg Hardy is expected to be a fighter in development before officially stepping in the Octagon. Also, the increased availability of Bellator content could even drive up the value of its in-cage sponsorship market.

The next major move that Bellator announced was the start of their welterweight grand prix. The best names in their most stacked division are expected to face off while champion Rory MacDonald and middleweight king Gegard Mousasi have the first genuine superfight in promotional history. Much like Coker did with the heavyweight division seven years ago, Bellator will highlight its strongest division while public perception of its UFC counterparts is not at its highest. UFC champion Tyron Woodley has been heavily criticized for not having exciting title defenses, while newly minted interim champion Colby Covington has had a string of cringeworthy trash talk that so far hasn’t garnered the intended level of attention from the general public. While their inevitable unification bout is a stylistic fireworks display on paper, seizing the moment is a good move for Bellator. Names like Jon Fitch, Douglas Lima and Michael Page could all make for impressive showdowns in the meantime. The grand prix format also does away with the organization’s promotional gimmicks. While MVP’s antics against carefully picked opponents are quite entertaining, they alone won’t win any fights. An air of legitimacy in regards to high profile matchmaking would be a refreshing break from some of the recent happenings in MMA.

Under Coker’s leadership, Bellator has been far from perfect. Ratings have taken a significant nose dive as some of their marquee names have been lost in the shuffle of random and irrelevant fight cards. The reliance on older names to put butts in seats is not sustainable and has not been used appropriately to draw attention to the younger names that could carry the brand into the future. However, the DAZN broadcasting deal and welterweight grand prix are indeed bright spots that could have great implications for the future. Yes, DAZN will once again increase the monetary commitment for MMA fans to get their fix of fisticuffs. But that beats the alternative of tape-delayed fights falling by the wayside.

Yes, the UFC has an incredibly stacked welterweight division with the beginnings of a dominant champion establishing himself. But fans are fickle, and action on the other side of the fence can be the start of much needed momentum that could carry over into other divisions. More money, more potential eyes on the brand, more talent entering their roster and more intriguing and sensible matchmaking are recipes for success that will either further establish Bellator as the No. 2 name in MMA or gradually inch them up a bit higher.


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