Pluto TV’s Secret MMA Weapon? A Guy Named ‘Squid’

By Josh Gross Apr 2, 2021

Andrew Montanez had trouble deciphering sounds during a weigh-in prior to a regional fight card at the Icenter in Salem, New Hampshire, in 2009. Montanez, 24 at the time, was dehydrated so badly from cutting weight that there were moments he remembers barely being able to hear. Years later, the moment clings to Montanez because it was when he decided to reevaluate what he was doing with his life.

Montanez’s hearing returned after he fought his way through the darkness and made the lightweight limit like he was supposed to. The following night, he lived up to the terms of his bout agreement against a rising prospect from neighboring Massachusetts nicknamed “The Boston Finisher.”

It had been five years since the start of Montanez’s pro career. Along the way, “Squid” won a small regional title at 170 pounds and embraced the business side of the fight game, running what he described as a small kickboxing promotion back home in New York. Montanez grew up in Long Island and wrestled in high school. That’s where the nickname came from, because he grappled like a squid—all limbs, flailing and grabbing, latching onto opponents and hitting funky techniques. That experience, plus years of submission grappling, led to his recruitment into the well-documented underground fighting circuit in New York.

When Montanez eventually crossed paths with future Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight contender Calvin Kattar in New Hampshire, he owned the record and the reputation of a guy who agreed to every fight offer he received. Leading up to the Kattar bout, the aspiring journeyman had not won in five fights—he was 0-4-1—but he was not an easy out. Montanez had gone the distance in four straight appearances and turned out to be stubborn enough to force Kattar to a decision, ending his run of first-round wins.

Montanez had no way of knowing who Kattar would become, so he could not possibly know how to measure himself in the moment. However, he knew that weight cutting was awful and that he was soon to be a 25-year-old fighter closing in on 20 pro bouts and a losing record. Montanez would fight twice more, winning each of them, before he retired from competition in 2010 to pursue another brutal business: film and television.

A decade later, Montanez is comfortably settled in Hollywood and walking around 40 pounds heavier than his fighting days; and he’s fine with that. Starting his journey with stunt and fight choreography, he worked on “CSI: NY” and “Brooklyn 99.” Montanez competed in SyFy’s robot tournament competition series, “Robot Combat League.” He hosted and produced a YouTube show, “MMA Surge.” He produced hip hop videos.

“Squid” came to Los Angeles as a go-getter. In 2013, he stumbled across an opportunity to produce and direct first-pitch videos for a startup seeking capital called Pluto TV. He landed the gig, and while he was on set took a chance to pitch himself as the guy—a former fighter who knew some stuff about content—to launch fight channels on the free television streaming platform.

“Literally, they were like, ‘If you want, you can start Monday,’” Montanez said. “It was as simple as that. No one knew the company would blow up like it did. I just wanted the job.”

Essentially, he conjured a fight fan’s dream position that let him create, curate and grow Pluto TV’s combat sports content. There were less than 10 people working in a small room in West Hollywood when he began aggregating short-form content from YouTube. This evolved into licensing long-form premium content, and in March 2019, the ad-supported, free-to-watch Pluto TV was acquired by Viacom for $340 million. Viacom’s merger with CBS in 2019 added to the premium content options to which Montanez has access, and Pluto TV boasts a global monthly audience of 43 million viewers throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.

Synergy between Pluto TV, Bellator MMA and Showtime is indicative of what Montanez hopes to accomplish within the ViacomCBS family. Bellator’s debut event on the subscription-based Showtime network this Friday will also be broadcast live across a variety of streaming platforms, including Pluto TV.

“We’re trying to create that ecosystem where even though they’re not the same streaming platform, we can all kind of feed to each other,” said Montanez, who regularly speaks with Bellator President Scott Coker and admits to pushing as hard as he can to bolster his combat sports portfolio. “The day we signed [the Viacom deal], my brain started going a million miles an hour, like, oh my God, Bellator, and not just that. Oh my God, a few months later, Viacom merged with CBS. Oh my God, Showtime Boxing. So in my head, we’re going to get all this amazing content funneled to us eventually.”

Montanez hits his programming prime while overseeing nine channels comprising various forms of professional fighting and professional wrestling. When Montanez went to work for Pluto TV, streaming services had not been widely adopted. “A la carte” programming was still more theory than big business.

The impact of mixed martial arts on building a viable steaming service became apparent when the UFC unveiled Fight Pass in 2013 and placed a big bet on internet-based distribution over cable as the way forward. In 2020, UFC Fight Pass subscriptions were up over 40%, and the UFC set a record for the most global pay-per-view buys in its history, according to company documents. The UFC’s successful partnership with ESPN+ runs through 2025. All of this requires combat sports fans being conditioned to pay regular and at times costly fees to watch live fights.

Montanez has set out to do something different—a bit of old school in the new world.

“My whole goal with Pluto is to move away from the pay-per-view model,” Montanez said. “I’m trying to convince people through our ad model that if you drop the pay-per-view wall and put it on a free platform you don’t [have to] worry about illegal streams. You don’t [have to] worry about people saying they don’t want to pay. The whole goal of what we’re trying to build here is if we run commercials embedded into the actual live events, they can make similar money if not more money than they would on a pay-per-view.”

Over the past eight years, Montanez has learned a lot about the habits and preferences of interested MMA watchers. In the morning and afternoon, fans like news content and podcasts. During lunch? Quick-hitting consumables describes more than the food going in their mouth.

“Knockouts,” Montanez said. “I have a Bellator series of just knockouts. People when they’re grabbing lunch want to watch faster-consuming content rather than a full event.”

In the evening, they watch entire cards or movies.

“You can’t just throw one thing up and loop it,” he said. “I program the channel based on the time of day. We have a huge data team that feeds me this information. ‘Hey, this might perform better at this time. At 2 a.m., 3 a.m., play the weirder stuff. Play the Lethwei bareknuckle stuff. Play the kind of more obscure fighting stuff.’ I’ve been working on getting Medieval fighting and knife fighting. The stoner audience, I think, kind of likes that stuff. The late-night audience up at 2 a.m., I think it performs well. So that’s the fun part about running a bunch of these TV channels is I can choose different times for different audiences.

“We can see their whole user path,” he said. “Am I building an audience? Are they coming for one and going to another? Are they coming for one and staying? That’s stuff we look at, to see if we’re actually building the audience. But we are. We really are.”

Fans tend to tune out long events unless cards are condensed. Preview and ancillary content rarely hits. Interviews and features don’t often move a needle. This is why Montanez’s vision leads to Pluto TV hosting fights that are exclusive to the free platform and hoping people appreciate not needing to pay to watch.

“I’m talking with all sorts of fight promotions about moving their content exclusively to Pluto,” he said. “People aren’t going to come if they don’t think they can only watch it here.”

Since 2013, MMA’s increased visibility among Pluto TV audiences has gotten Montanez shoutouts from his bosses. The streaming service’s co-founder, Tom Ryan, appeared on the 2020 ViacomCBS earnings call in late February. He did not mention “Squid,” which is what everyone at Pluto TV calls Montanez, but he referenced contributions from “secret weapon” curators, including one former MMA fighter. Montanez’s twitter bio spoils the need for much sleuthing, and he admits that he’s aware Ryan, who was named CEO of ViacomCBS Streaming in October, has touted him and other Pluto TV curators in pitch meetings.

“That’s how we built our team,” Montanez said. “The guy running our comedy channel is a legit stand-up comedian who has done tons of national commercials. We try to have people where it kind of doesn’t feel like work. You love the content so much you want to go after the best content. It’s so easy.”

Easier than making weight. And, he noted, it hurts less.
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