Bellator’s Plan: Talent, Efficiency & YouTube

Jan 24, 2010
Until a couple of weeks ago, fans who enjoy staying up until 3 a.m. watching YouTube clips of top prospects were probably feeling pretty frustrated.

Elite prospects like Brazilian beatdown dynamo Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and collegiate wrestling standout turned full-fledged face-smasher Ben Askren were inexplicably out on the open market, just waiting to be signed.

That has changed, but not because the UFC or Strikeforce drove a gold-plated dump truck full of money into those fighters’ homes. Instead, Bellator Fighting Championships, a promotion with all of 11 live shows to its name, managed to sign just about every top-shelf prospect out there that wasn’t securely bolted to the ground.

At a time when the UFC and Strikeforce are battling on the open market for talent, it’s surprising that Bellator snagged not only Askren and Freire but also fighters like Mike Ricci, who trainer extraordinaire Firas Zahabi has spoken of as being the next Georges St. Pierre.

How exactly did Bellator lock up a small army of talent without getting into bidding wars with the juggernauts of the sport?

“The guys I’m working with just never sleep,” was just one part of Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney’s answer. “You know, at 2:30, 3:00 in the morning, I’m up watching YouTube clips of fighters.”

Sharing the sleeping habits of hardcore fans and keeping a staff that combines enthusiasm with insomnia will get you the knowledge necessary to target elite talent, but you’d presume the UFC and Strikeforce are doing the same and bringing their war chests to the negotiating table.

“Really they gave me the best offer I could get right now,” Askren said of Bellator when asked whether Strikeforce or the UFC had pursued him like the prized recruit he is. “I had a decent offer from Strikeforce, and the UFC didn’t offer me anything.”

Another one of Bellator’s headline signings, Brazilian jiu-jitsu virtuoso Jacob McClintock echoed the sentiment: “The UFC and Strikeforce really aren’t offering me anything that Bellator is offering me.”

The idea of talent signing en masse to another organization normally wouldn’t be enough to register as significant since the assumption is that the UFC or Strikeforce will eventually snatch them away and capitalize on the promotional efforts of an organization like Bellator.

It’s something everyone should expect given this sport’s history, but Rebney has learned from the mistakes of promoters past.

“Our contracts are long-term agreements,” he said. “They’re multiple-year, multiple-fight deals.”

Rebney went on to explain that anyone who enters a Bellator tournament, regardless of how they perform, could be locked into a lengthy commitment.

This may all seem innocuous now, but Bellator already picked up quality fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Lyman Good and Joe Soto in its first series of tournaments. The promotion seems set to deepen its roster significantly based on the signings it has announced for its second tournament series starting in April.

The competition for talent will be what defines the next era of MMA as the UFC finds itself challenged by increasingly intelligent promotions. What really makes Bellator’s approach unique, however, is that its business model is built on old-fashioned penny pinching.

The idea of paying relatively unknown fighters $25,000 for winning a single tournament bout seems foolish, but even a tournament winner isn’t making much more than what Chris Leben made for a single night’s work at UFC Fight Night 20.

“We put our money into two areas of our business. One of them is our fighters and the other is production,” Rebney said of the long-term financial viability of Bellator.

He isn’t afraid to point out where others have failed.

“All of the superfluous expenses that the EliteXCs and the IFLs spent millions upon millions of dollars on, and they’re public record, is something we’re just not doing,” Rebney said. “The reality is that the expenditures of those organizations were foolhardy at best, and we’re keeping it cheap where it needs to be cheap.”

The commitment to fiscal responsibility in Bellator is so great that, according to Rebney, Bellator’s offices cost a 10th of what EliteXC’s offices cost and even executive employees fly coach to save a few extra bucks on the bottom line.

Throw in the trio of television deals that Bellator has secured with Fox Sports Net, Telemundo and NBC, and you have to start wondering if a few years from now we’ll all be talking about the stranglehold Bellator has on young talent in the sport.

There is no better system for success in business than to carefully evaluate young talent and lock up the stars in the making. It works for everyone from general managers in the NFL to headhunters for multi-national corporations, and it’s already working for Bellator.

Promotions like the UFC or Strikeforce are hampered by the fact that they need stars right now and don’t have an effective built-in mechanism for exposing the public to their next generation of talent. “The Ultimate Fighter” is simply not generating the same return on investment it once did. Strikeforce is trying and failing with its Challengers Series, which rarely features many fighters that fans want to watch.

Bellator, meanwhile, has structured itself to do nothing but expose fans to exciting new talent and then quickly turn the best and brightest into headline attractions.

Far too many promotions have fallen by the wayside for anyone not on Bellator’s payroll to say that they will not only survive but thrive in a market where the UFC is synonymous with the product being sold. By the same token, the UFC capitalizes on the lay fan and assumes that they’ll always be first in their minds.

Time will erode that notion as long as there is legitimate competition out there. While Strikeforce seems to be relying on matching the UFC dollar for dollar, Bellator is content to quietly amass talent and slowly but surely develop its brand.

Right now Bellator is no threat to anyone, but talent is the great equalizer in this game.
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