New Bellator MMA President Scott Coker knows how to build stars. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Bjorn Rebney is out and Scott Coker is in as the new head of Bellator MMA. Is this what Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White was talking about in regards to Viacom's potential to terrorize the sport like a giant, corporate Leviathan?
Truth be told, the UFC will still be the dominant player in mixed martial arts no matter how much growth Bellator experiences in the future. The UFC will still be able to sign the best talent and the biggest names. Bellator has always been a minor competitor to the UFC and the move to bring in Coker as CEO won't change Bellator's status as an alternative.
The former Strikeforce CEO has had his critics with quite a few labeling his past successes as overrated. But look at the amount of Strikeforce fighters who have recently found success in the UFC. Strikeforce and Showtime managed to build a very interesting, appealing alternative to the UFC by building new stars and repackaging veterans in a way that made fans care about what they were watching. In today's environment, it is difficult to make an MMA show feel special. Strikeforce managed to produce events with Showtime that felt uncommonly good.
The difference this time around for Coker is that he may not have Showtime’s television outlet, but he will have access to Viacom's checkbook.
Under Rebney's tenure, Bellator didn't open up the checkbook. They ran on the cheap: weekly Friday programming with improving ratings and a skinny budget. Given the television tax checks cut to California's athletic commission for prior events, it would be fair to estimate a minimum starting budget of $50,000 to $60,000 for a weekly Bellator event under the Spike TV banner. Viacom had a decision to make on the future: get on pay-per-view and see what happens. If the initial buy rate tanked, then keep running frugally. If the buy rate exceeded expectations, then it's time to take operations to the next level and see how far the promotion can go. The first PPV effort, according to Spike TV management, drew 100,000 buys. That far exceeded internal projections of how it would draw.
This success on PPV opened the door for Viacom to bring in Coker. Now the question is how much money will Viacom let the San Jose, Calif.,- resident spend and if he will be able to attract some big-name free agents. The UFC's previous strategy with competitors was to let rivals overpay for veterans and sink financially. Coker won't have to worry about that problem with Bellator's bank account. He can be very aggressive. And that prospect is a great thing for both fighters and fans.
Viacom hiring Coker raises so many interesting questions for the promotion's future. Currently, the company's headquarters are in Newport Beach, Calif. Will the operations now move to San Jose? If so, what does this mean for the California MMA scene? I think it's safe to predict that business is about to pick up. That is a good development.
When Viacom established headquarters in Southern California, the hope was that we would see several major events in the state. While there were a few events at Pechanga and Irvine, there really wasn't any major arena events in the Golden State. With Coker in charge, I would fully expect Bellator to start running some legitimate big-league arenas for shows. Image is everything and there are a lot of educated MMA fans in California who would love to go to shows. When Rebney was in charge, the promotion ran most of its lineups on tribal land. The new CEO should be able to mix in some arena events onto the calendar and give the company a more top-notch feel on television.
A serious factor in running successful shows in California long-term will be Bellator's ability to appeal to minorities and sports fans that the UFC has failed to attract. The UFC still has great hopes for Cain Velasquez as their trump card in attracting Latino sports fans in the 18-to-34 demographic. So far, the results have been mixed. Coker knows the demographics of California better than any MMA promoter. If he wants to find different ways to be competitive in today's oversaturated television environment, promoting as many Spanish-speaking stars as possible will be a key component moving forward.
The irony, of course, is that Bellator initially launched on ESPN Deportes.
There will certainly be a push-and-pull tension regarding how many shows Bellator runs and how to craft bigger PPV-quality events. Quality over quantity. The future of Bellator's tournament format feels doomed ... initially. However, Coker loves the Japanese grand prix format. I think the concept could certainly have some fan appeal in the U.S.
Rebney treasured the tournament format as both a marketing gimmick and as a potentially adhesive way to contractually keep fighters under contract. One of the major challenges facing Bellator is the ability to convince athletes that the company is a friendly alternative to the UFC and will provide an opportunity to make a living without signing away every professional under the sun. If changes are made to Bellator's current contracts, Coker should be able to bring in some respectable names for big events, including females. He tried to downplay the possibility of Bellator's re-entry into the women's scene on a Wednesday conference call but don't fool yourself into thinking that Scott is going to stay away. He understands how to promote female stars and what the fans want to see. The UFC, through the end of the first six months of their 2014 campaign, will have promoted a grand total of 7 female fights out of 245 bouts. I reckon that Bellator, once firmly entrenched, will be able to easily match the UFC's rather tepid 2014 showing. There is clearly value to promoting females and building stars that people want to see. Gina Carano. Cris Cyborg. Ronda Rousey. And should Bellator show any interest in signing her quickly, Marina Shafir may be the next big thing in women's MMA on a national scale.
If Coker can't sign all the fighters he wants to promote, he'll certainly work in conjunction with other promoters to get business done. He worked with Sotaro Shinoda, Nobuyuki Sakakibara's right-hand man in the past. With the rumors of Sakakibara returning to the MMA scene, it would not surprise me to see the two work together in the future. Additionally, it would only be natural to expect the phone call to a promotion like One Fighting Championship. Ben Askren could conceivably return to the Bellator cage. An even more intriguing scenario could involve the promotion working with the World Series of Fighting, a league that many fans view as being close to UFC given the talent swapping that has happened over the past couple of years. Excluding the political nature of such a co-promotional relationship, it would be a lot of fun to see fighters like Nick Newell and Justin Gaethje competing against Bellator's best.
The MMA scene just got a whole lot more interesting and a little more complicated as to which chess pieces will be moved next by the UFC in response. That September head-to-head showdown in Connecticut will be delicious.