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There were reasons to have expected Dec. 29 would be a big date for Bellator MMA. Bellator 237 took place at the historic Saitama Super Arena in front of an impressive crowd in Saitama, Japan. Bellator and Rizin Fighting Federation scheduled the event to take place midday local time in order to accommodate American viewers and broadcast the event in a familiar Saturday time slot. Most importantly, Bellator put together a card with plenty of star power.
Well-known former Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strikeforce star Lorenz Larkin was scheduled to fight for the sixth time in Bellator. The charismatic and entertaining Michael Page was brought in on relatively short notice to compete. Multi-time Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler was returning for the first time since losing his title to Patricio Freire. All those were appetizers for a main event that featured two iconic names: Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton Jackson. This type of card has often been featured on Dazn recently, but it was available instead to a wider audience on the Paramount Network.
That wider audience did not tune in. Bellator drew a paltry 311,000 viewers for the event, continuing a worrying trend for a promotion that has seen its viewership markedly decline in recent years despite a talent roster with more name value than ever. Bellator had tough competition in the Clemson-Ohio State college football playoff semifinal, but this was another rough number for Bellator in a year full of them. Thanks to a lucrative distribution agreement with Dazn, Bellator is doing plenty well financially, but its levels of popularity and fan interest are noticeably down. That’s a problem Bellator needs to find a way to address in 2020.
There are two primary reasons Bellator got to this point. First, the company’s overreliance on names from the past and gimmick fighters diminished the company’s best active competitors and made it harder to turn them into difference-making stars. The drawing power of declining fighters tends to decline over time, leading to diminishing returns when they are perceived to be the flagbearers of the promotion. That was the case with Emelianenko and Jackson.
The other issue has been with the transition from running almost all Bellator shows on Paramount to airing some on Paramount and saving most of the biggest shows for Dazn. It was unavoidable that the Dazn deal was going to undermine fan interest because Bellator was putting up a paywall for its customers. Fans who didn’t want to subscribe to Dazn were going to find it harder to follow the careers of their favorite Bellator fighters and were thus going to be more likely to give up trying altogether.
Bellator has time while the Dazn money is coming in to try to address the problem of declining fan interest, but it’s crucial that at some point the promotion reverses the trends of recent years. The solutions are straightforward but easier said than done. Bellator needs to find a way to use its big-name legends to make its younger stars feel enhanced rather than diminished, and it needs to find a way to cultivate a larger base of regular television viewers who can hopefully with time be converted into Dazn subscribers.
In terms of making its best young fighters seem like bigger deals, Bellator has already done a lot of damage in the way it has focused on past-their-prime athletes. Luckily, Bellator has plenty of high-quality talent with which to work. It just needs to find ways to make those stars feel bigger. Ilima Lei-Macfarlane is probably the best example of Bellator creating a star in recent years, as her bouts in Hawaii have featured a tremendous atmosphere. However, she also shows the challenge inherent in the current Bellator model, as she hasn’t fought on Paramount in a year and a half. Her biggest triumphs have been seen only by the viewers who are most invested to begin with.
Bellator has been slowly building other key stars like Page and James Gallagher, but the fighter who shows the most promise to be a difference maker is the prodigiously talented A.J. McKee. If in 2020 the name Bellator makes fans think first of McKee rather than Emelianenko, Lyoto Machida or Cristiane Justino, that’s a very positive sign that the promotion is shifting its brand towards a more emergent identity.
Even trickier than shifting fan focus towards fighters who are presently less known for Bellator is finding the right balance between Dazn and Paramount to draw subscribers to the premium service while simultaneously preserving a healthy base of television viewers. The Dazn contract isn’t nearly as good of a deal if it means the popularity of Bellator is eroding. That has been the case thus far, and Bellator needs to make a concerted effort to address that problem.
Central to reversing viewership trends on Paramount is leaving non-Dazn viewers with a firm sense of what’s going on in Bellator, even if they don’t subscribe to Dazn. Presently, the shows on Paramount seem largely random, which has to leave non-Dazn viewers confused as to what’s going on in the promotion. The trick is going to be to provide viewers who just watch Bellator on Paramount with a cohesive series of fights that leave those viewers wanting to see the premium Dazn content rather than just giving up on the product. Show and fight selection for each platform needs to be very careful.
Bellator can likely continue to coast with its current direction for a little while longer, but the trends are not good and call for meaningful introspection. The Emelianenko-Jackson rating was another warning signal that fan interest is moving in the wrong direction. Bellator needs to find a way to better balance the Dazn-Paramount dynamic and get fans invested in its homegrown stars. If that doesn’t happen in 2020, the task will only get more difficult.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.