In some ways this Thursday's debut on Spike TV must feel like the culmination of a long journey to Bellator Fighting Championships founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney. Back in 2008 the company was nothing more than a quixotic vision in Rebney's head of a meritocratic MMA promotion "where title shots are earned, not given." Fast forward to 2013 and Rebney's little promotion that could is poised to plant its flag in the fertile soil of the promised land: a weekly prime time television slot on Spike TV, home to the UFC during its years of greatest growth between 2005 and 2011. In a volatile MMA landscape that has seen most second tier organizations vanish from the face of the earth like so many sand castles washed out to sea, it's a remarkable achievement. However, like most milestones in life, this is only the first step on a much longer and unpredictable road ahead.
While Bellator has what appears to be a golden opportunity in the move to Spike, there are also numerous challenges facing them as well. First and foremost will be attracting and maintaining a sizable television audience. So far this has been something of an issue for the promotion, with viewership on the decline since the jump from FOX Sports Net to MTV2 in early 2011. Bellator's yearly average rating fell from 206,000 viewers per show in 2011 to just 166,000 in 2012. A 19% drop in viewership is hardly an encouraging sign of momentum heading into the most pivotal year in company history.
Of course, with the move to Spike the game changes entirely. A miniscule number like 166,000 viewers may be pardonable on a station like MTV2, but it will get you cancelled faster than you can say "Impact Wrestling Rewind" on a high stakes network like Spike TV. Obviously Bellator season eight is going to blow past seasons out of the water in terms of viewership, but that's academic given Spike's high station average and availability in over 98 million homes. Over the past two weeks the replay and interview show Bellator 360 has done an average of 487,000 viewers in what will be the regular Bellator timeslot starting with this Thursday's show. That's up 193% from what they were doing last season on MTV2, and live fights will assuredly draw more than glorified reruns. The question Bellator's future hinges on is just how much higher ratings end up over the long term.
Media giant and Spike TV parent company Viacom's ownership of a majority stake in Bellator will ensure the promotion receives ample chances to succeed even if it initially under performs in terms of viewership, but eventually Rebneys' brainchild is going to have to produce results in order to justify Viacom's expenditure on it. On the flip side, as long as they can manage respectable TV numbers, Bellator will likely be able to survive indefinitely given Viacom's financial muscle.
In a way it's fitting Bellator is being paired in a programing block with Impact, since the story of American's number two pro wrestling promotion could provide a hint of what the future may look like for the country's number two MMA promotion. The move to the WWE's former home on Spike TV was supposed to be a difference maker for TNA that would spur on unprecedented growth and lead the company to new heights. Things didn't quite work out that way. Impact ratings eventually stalled out, now doing an average of 1.3 million viewers. That's years with zero growth. What's more, the company's pay per view business has floundered since the move to Spike, with things getting so bad recently that executives made the call to downsize the number of yearly live ppvs from 12 to four.
If you're Bellator, taking a long hard look at the cautionary tale of TNA Impact on Spike might be eerily reminiscent of that scene in Back to the Future II when a young Marty McFly travels to the year 2015 and catches a glimpse of his future self as an utterly humbled, broken down middle aged man. Replace "WWE" with "UFC" and "TNA" with "Bellator" and at least on the surface you're looking at a very similar story of a distant number two promotion hoping to use the same television platform the dominant industry leader was once successful on in the past. The question right now is whether or not both stories will end up with similar endings.
An unfortunate similarity between Bellator and TNA is that both have built in handicaps due to the the booking philosophy each company is built on. These handicaps make the already long odds of competing with an entrenched number one promotion even more daunting. In TNA's case, a company culture that from day one has been built around the flawed concept of highlighting names from the past in illogical, dated storylines rather than developing the stars of tomorrow has mired the promotion with so many years of inertia that at this point nobody even pretends forward momentum is still a possibility. The great irony with Bellator is that the biggest potential hindrance to their upward mobility is also what differentiates them from everyone else and gives them their identity: the tournament format.
Any promotion that attempts to carve out a niche for itself in a landscape dominated by the shadow of a monolithic industry leader needs to have an easily identifiable hook that gives fans a reason to believe in it. A big part of why TNA has been such a floundering mess over the years is that even the higher ups in the company perceive it as a collection of underachieving has beens and also rans who are inferior to the real stars in WWE. Rather than presenting itself as "UFC lite" similar to what TNA does with regards to WWE, Bellator bases its entire identity on something the UFC doesn't offer: a strict meritocratic booking strategy. If you were the type of person who was outraged when the UFC announced Chael Sonnen as next in line for Jon Jones' light heavyweight title, then Bellator is hoping they have the cure for what ails you.
In that sense the tournament format is a good thing, but at the same time it also limits Bellator's ability to create stars and put together the biggest money fights available. Some of the most pivotal fights in the early years of the MMA boom period featured mismatches or "undeserved" title shots that wouldn't fit in with Bellator's booking strategy: Ortiz/Shamrock parts II and III, Hughes/Gracie, Lesnar/Couture, GSP/B.J. Penn II, and Lesnar/Mir II are just a few examples (note how many of these fights were rematches as well). Considering those were some of the biggest fights ever for the UFC, that's a lot of money that would have been left on the table had Bjorn Rebney been running the company rather than Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White.
The most glaring example of Bellator failing to make the money match - or the closest thing possible to a money match given the scope they were operating on at the time - is Rebney's steadfast refusal to book a rematch between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez after the latter unexpectedly lost his title to Chander in an all time classic back in late 2011. Instead both men fought talent from outside the promotion in largely meaningless bouts that did lackluster ratings. Luckily for Bellator going forward they've instituted a policy that allows them to issue immediate rematches in championship fights, which gives them a little more booking leeway.
However, the tournament format is still inherently riskier than traditional booking because you run the risk of your big star losing early in the tournament before he can get to the money match. Look no further than Fedor Emelianenko being submitted by Fabricio Werdum in the first round of the Strikeforce Grand Prix for the perfect example of how much money can go up in smoke in a tournament. Beating Fedor made Werdum a bigger deal to a degree, but in no way did the Last Emperor's aura as a top star rub off on the Brazilian.
Bellator may not have a name with the stature of Emelianenko on their roster, but it's nevertheless incumbent on them to make the most of what assets they do possess. Whether or not the tournament format will be a help or a hindrance to that end is something we'll have a much better idea of as Spike and Bellator's relationship progresses over the coming months. With backing from a powerful media conglomerate like Viacom, Bellator is certainly being positioned to succeed. Now all that's left is the hard part of figuring out what their potential audience wants and then attempting to deliver it. If they can pull it off then the sky's the limit. However, if they fail to capitalize on the golden opportunity at hand their future could look a lot like the disappointingly stagnant present of TNA.