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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has its first pay-per-view card of 2017 on Saturday, and on top of that, the promotion is going to crown its first women's featherweight champion. That hardly means the week entirely belongs to the UFC, though.
It was nothing the promotion could help, nothing it had a say in, but Bellator MMA's future became a talking point this week when parent company Viacom revealed that in early 2018, Bellator's television partner, Spike, would be re-branded as the Paramount Network. Being that the “Paramount Network” doesn't necessarily sound like anything on which fights would appear, MMA fans were immediately curious what it meant for the No. 2 promotion's future.
The re-branding efforts are not so much just about Spike, lest you think that Viacom simply got sick of the cable channel having a reputation for having reruns of “Cops” and the guilty pleasure of “Bar Rescue.” Viacom's efforts are centered around re-prioritizing and developing six key brands in its portfolio: MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and, of course, Paramount.
As I said, these are philosophical business decisions that go well beyond Bellator and even the individual profile of Spike. As you could maybe guess from the name, much of this particular re-branding stems from hardships faced by Paramount and Viacom's desire to resurrect its once-dominant film studio.
“Paramount did well this quarter on the critically acclaimed side, but we were disappointed on the financial side,” Viacom CEO Bob Bakish said in a Thursday interview with Variety.
Given the financial woes of Paramount, it is thought that Bob Grey, CEO of Paramount for the last 12 years, could be on his way out. In the most recent earnings period, Viacom reported that Paramount posted a $180 million operating loss, down 23 percent year-over-year. Worse, in 2016, Paramount was last of the major six film studios in terms of market share. Viacom's decision to retool Spike and push the Paramount brand is more about trying to increase the health, awareness and profitability of a legacy brand it owns.
Spike just happens to be the perfect cable re-branding canvas. Why? Well, it has already been done several times, for starters.
When it launched in 1983, Spike was The Nashville Network, which is how I first came to know it growing up; it showed country music, NASCAR and low-rent game shows. Then came the New TNN in 2000, when Viacom realized TNN and Country Music Television were essentially redundant. New TNN was a hodgepodge of extreme sports, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and pro wrestling. Then it was Spike TV and then just Spike; and those are the name changes, not a complete history of how many times the channel has had its purpose re-imagined.
On first blush, this does seem sort of awful for Bellator. If Paramount's legacy is completely amorphous, it would seem to suggest that whatever exists now on Spike could just be gone tomorrow, Bellator included. Fortunately for MMA fans, fighters and Bellator itself, it's more complicated than that.
Ultimately, in the grand scheme of Viacom financial checks and balances, the $50 million it paid for a majority stake in Bellator back in October 2011 is pennies in the bucket. All entertainment media reports indicate that Spike-slash-Paramount boss Kevin Kay's job is safe, and he has been one of the most influential people in bringing MMA to the North American masses, period.
Since the January 2005 launch of “The Ultimate Fighter,” MMA -- be it the UFC, Bellator or otherwise (like a Fedor Emelianenko on Japanese New Year's Eve special) -- has been one of the foremost pieces of the channel's identity. On the one hand, it's shrewd and calculated, as live sports rights remain the most valuable asset in modern TV programming, and MMA is cheap compared to trying to grab the NFL or NBA. Pro boxing has long been a beautiful hook for HBO and Showtime, and while they're premium cable entities with a subscription model, it is a testament to the ability for fights to draw in a unique audience, even if the rest of your programming is radically different. Again, Viacom actually owns majority stake in the second-most distinguishable MMA brand in North America.
However, it's not just the smart economics of it. Viacom has always been pleased with what MMA has done for the channel in its various incarnations of the last 12 years, be it the UFC or Bellator, and that includes now. Just weeks ago, about 1.85 million people watched Tito Ortiz-Chael Sonnen live, 2.2 million when you factor in DVR +3 numbers. These execs are not daft to the MMA industry and, going back to the UFC-Spike days, have definite ideas about what fighters and fights should be on the channel.
It may not always satisfy the legitimate hardcore MMA fan's palette when you're watching Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock 3. However, the idea that the Spike-Paramount legacy is a wholly nebulous one, one in which there is no strong, defining characteristics, is wrong. For 12 years now, this company has known how to turn people fighting in cages into ratings to suit its cause. It's one of the things that got Kay promoted to president of Spike in 2007, courtesy of his “Ultimate Fighter” launch.
Not one person I've talked to in the Bellator-Viacom bubble has been worried in the slightest. The expectation all around is that Bellator MMA will be every bit the priority under Paramount that it was under Spike, as it should be. After all, between the last 12 years of brand shifting, retooling and renaming, from “Blue Mountain State” to those awful video game awards, from the “Crime Scene Investigation” marathons to the “Jail” marathons, MMA has been one of the only things that has made this network unique, stand out and do real business. That's not going to change just because Viacom wants to help prop up its flagging film studio by gifting it a cable channel.