Bellator 217 Primer: Sky’s the Limit

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You could be forgiven for seeing Bellator 217 on Saturday at 3Arena in Dublin as just another run-of-the-mill return to the Irish capital. On paper, it looks like the usual fight card filled with local talent, devoid of that big name from overseas that European fans crave; and to a certain extent that is true, but it does not tell the whole story here.

When the event was initially announced, a tinge of disappointment marked the most regular initial reaction. However, that miraculously changed over the course of the last couple of weeks, and now, it suddenly looks like a momentous occasion for Bellator MMA in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The main reason? Sky Sports. After agreeing to a deal to broadcast its European series on Channel 5, Bellator followed by announcing that every American event, as well as the upcoming Dublin and London cards, will be broadcast live on Sky Sports.

Prior to the deal, it was close to impossible to follow Bellator if you lived in Ireland or the United Kingdom. The odd local card would be broadcast live, or with a slight tape delay, on Channel 5 or its sister channel, 5Spike. American cards were broadcast on anywhere from one to eight days of a tape delay. The one exception came when Rory MacDonald’s superfight with Gegard Mousasi was cut short by “Peppa Pig” in a now infamous watershed debacle.

It literally took years for this issue to get resolved, but people can finally watch Bellator live. Problem solved. However, the story goes beyond the resolution of the broadcast situation and extends to the location where it ended up. That is what makes this such a massive deal. Simply put, Sky Sports is the premier sports broadcaster in the UK and Ireland -- with BT Sports, which hosts the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a distant second in what is basically a two-horse race. In a nutshell, Bellator has now partnered with the UFC of UK and Irish sports broadcasters. Outside of the free terrestrial channels, it will bring the biggest audience possible for a sports property, with so many knock-on positives potentially at play for the promotion.

The most noteworthy benefit is Sky Sports News, the 24-hours-a-day channel dedicated to sports news. It covers everything Sky Sports broadcasts, from premier league soccer to golf, cricket, boxing, darts and beyond, and it is noted for hugely pushing the sports for which it owns rights. Over the years, Sky Sports News has become a constant destination for sports fans who have some time to spare at any hour of the day or night, while it is also commonly seen in stores, bars, barber shops and by bookmakers and more. By simply mentioning Bellator on Sky Sports News, it gives the promotion better advertising than it could ever hope for and would go a long way to inserting the organization into the lexicon of UK and Irish sports fans. Add to that the advertising that Sky Sports does for upcoming events on its main channel during premier league soccer -- they own the rights to more than triple that of BT Sports -- and this could be a big boost for Bellator.

Bellator 217 will be the promotion’s first primetime event to air on the channel, as Bellator 216, featuring Michael Page-Paul Daley, aired live at 3 a.m. on Feb. 16. Bellator 217 also airs on the same weekend as Manchester United-Liverpool, one of the world’s biggest soccer games.

For fighters like James Gallagher, arguably Bellator’s biggest up-and-coming star in the region, it represents a huge opportunity on an even bigger platform. The SBG Ireland-trained Tyrone native faces Steven Graham in the Bellator 217 main event, as he looks to bounce back from his first career defeat against Ricky Bandejas. With a win, Gallagher can kickstart his comeback from adversity while making the most of an opportunity no other MMA fighter has had in this region: to gain a new fanbase on a single night.

A slew of Irish fighters, almost all of whom have been built up on the diminutive local circuit, precede Gallagher on the card, with names like Paul Redmond, Kiefer Crosbie, Richie Smullen, Will Fleury and more providing quality talent for the fans. The co-main event, one of four fights that will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, features a rarely seen grudge match, as SBG Ireland’s Peter Queally takes on former teammate and recent Khabib Nurmagomedov training partner Myles Price.

Not too long ago, a fight card featuring this sort of lineup could easily have been held in a small building without being broadcast. Now, it will air live on the biggest sports broadcaster in the area while taking place in the biggest arena in the country in front of thousands of fans. For any promotion, that would be a huge development. For Bellator, it could be a game-changer in regards to UK and Irish business.
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