Bellator Eyes U.S. Broadcast Deal, Pay-Per-View

By Jack Encarnacao Jun 16, 2009
As it approaches the final event of its inaugural season on Friday, the ESPN-backed Bellator Fighting Championships appears well positioned to grow in the second half of the year, with English language television and pay-per-view on the horizon.

The promotion, which broadcasts its events in Spanish on ESPN Deportes, will air season two on English language television, CEO Bjorn Rebney told Sherdog.com following the promotion’s June 12 event in Connecticut. The season starts in the early fall.

Rebney could not yet say which station will carry the English broadcast, but said it won’t necessarily be one in the ESPN family.

“Based on our deal with ESPN, I can’t speak to the issue of what’s going on,” Rebney said. “Everybody is very excited about what’s going on, and it’s not just our organization that’s excited. We’re not going to be able to make any kind of official announcement for probably 30 days. It’s going in the right direction.”

Regardless of where the English program lands, Bellator will continue to broadcast in Spanish on ESPN Deportes. The promotion makes available an English version of their broadcasts every Wednesday on its website, with a commentary team of Jon Anik, host of ESPN.com’s “MMA Live,” and MMA fighter and former History Channel personality Jason Chambers.

Bellator has attracted a solid television audience on ESPN Deportes, drawing ratings in the 0.7 to 1.0 range, according to Rebney. ESPN Deportes’ average rating this past year was 0.5, according to a recent press release issued by the network. The channel is available in 4.8 million “Hispanic Nielsen homes,” or Spanish-speaking households that Nielsen Media Research counts in determining ratings. By contrast, the flagship ESPN network is in some 98 million homes.

Asked if ESPN’s feathers would be ruffled if Bellator broadcasted on another station, Rebney responded: “That’s an interesting dynamic.”

The promotion will follow the same eight-man tournament format in its next season. Tournament winners will continue to make $175,000 (first win $25,000, second $50,000 and final $100,000) -- a very competitive pay scale by today’s standards. For instance, featherweight champion Joe Soto made more in his title win than the top two 145-pound fighters, Urijah Faber and Mike Thomas Brown, made for their June 7 title fight for World Extreme Cagefighting.

Season two tournament winners will emerge the top contenders for Bellator titleholders. Those title fights, which will be scheduled two to three months after tournament’s end, are targeted for pay-per-view, Rebney said. While each champion will not make the same amount of money, Rebney said champions would likely not make less than what they earned in the tournament. In fact, their paydays would likely be considerably higher, he said, because some would be cut in on a percentage of pay-per-view revenue.

Higher paydays are not a guarantee. Bellator champions are automatically slotted to make $8,000 to show and $8,000 to win, according to a copy of one Bellator contract obtained by Sherdog.com. The contracts are for three years or eight fights, whichever occurs first. For champions, their contracts extend 18 months on top of that, or three additional fights.

"Each fighter's purse structure with Bellator is different," said Rebney. "Some of our fighters' title defense guarantees are X on PPV or Y on non-PPV. Some reach into the $100,000-plus category [like our championship purse] and some do not. Each structure is unique to each fighter in the non-tournament purse setting."

The financials in many ways depend on the economics of a new Bellator television deal and if they can develop their champions into fighters who fans will pay to see. One of the promotion’s top hands is Lyman Good, a 23-year-old Spanish Harlem native who looked exceptional in his defeat of Omar de la Cruz to become the promotion’s welterweight champion on June 12. Good, as well as Soto, “have a number of fights left on their long-term exclusive agreements” with Bellator, Rebney said.

While Bellator contracts are exclusive, Rebney said he has “no issue” with entertaining offers from other promoters in Japan and the United States to keep his champions active between their title wins and the conclusion of the next series of tournaments.

Some Bellator fighters have attracted interest on the open market. Good, for example, turned away from an offer by the now-defunct EliteXC to sign with the promotion. Rebney is glad he did.

“I believe Lyman Good is an A-level guy,” he said. “I believe he has all of the different pieces to the puzzle, inside the cage and outside the cage. He has that unique ‘it’ factor. He looks like an actor, and he’s built like Conan the Barbarian.”

This story was updated at 12:43 p.m. ET to include additional comments from Rebney.
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