Fans, fighters and promoters in mixed martial arts might not have believed that the sport would ever reach a platform as big as the BBC, especially this early in its history, which stretches back shy of 30 years. But David Green, head of Europe at Bellator, has long envisioned the moment.
“It’s always been a bit of a goal of mine to get MMA on the BBC, it was a massive thing for me,” the 50-year-old tells The Independent. “I’ve been around MMA in this country for over a decade, and more so in the UK than in America you’ve got certain images and a stigma attached to MMA, which we’ve had to throw off.”
Green was founder and CEO of British MMA promotion Bamma, which operated between 2009 and 2018, before joining Bellator – chief rivals of the UFC – at the end of Bamma’s run. Green, from South Shields, soon helped Bellator to sign a broadcast deal with Channel 5, before that partnership was replaced by a deal with the BBC in 2021.
All of Bellator’s 2021 events were available to stream on the BBC’s online iPlayer platform, and a new deal has been struck this year, meaning Bellator cards staged outside the US in 2022 will air live on iPlayer and the newly launched BBC Three channel. The iPlayer, which was reportedly used by an average of 10.7 million accounts per week in 2021, will also stream Bellator’s US events this year.
“It was months and months and months [of negotiations] – the best part of a year,” Green says of the initial deal. “It was a bit of a leap of faith from their side as well.
“In the early days, when MMA came to this country, it maybe got off to the wrong start and got this bad press, which was unfortunate and really unfair. In the States, a lot of fighters come from collegiate wrestling and this white-collar mentality, so MMA doesn’t have the connotations we have.
“It’s been a real uphill struggle, we’ve had to battle against people thinking it’s not professional, they’re not athletes. I’ve had to convince people who haven’t seen the sport, and get rid of those preconceived ideas.
“I think anyone who’s involved in the sport realises these guys are of an Olympic standard when it comes to fitness – and the sports [that make up MMA] are available for us to see at the Olympics. It’s just fantastic combat and fantastic sport.”
Green gives credit to the BBC, however, for acknowledging the legitimacy of MMA and the sport’s potential to explode into the public consciousness.
“To be fair to the BBC, they looked at it very pragmatically and understood,” Green tells The Independent.
“And when you look at the growth figures for MMA, it’s incredible – in the US, in Russia, in Europe. The BBC, I think, identified that the time was right for them to cover the sport.
“We had to allay some fears – in terms of how the sport is commissioned, in terms of how we’d present it. And I’ve been behind the safety of the sport for years as well; I’m a massive boxing fan, but we’re as safe if not a lot safer than boxing statistically.”
Ian Singleton, an editor at BBC Sport, told The Independent: “We cover 50 different sports, and it was clear in our research that there is a significant following for MMA in the UK. As the BBC exists to serve all audiences, we felt we had to develop our coverage amid that interest. We are delighted with this partnership and the chance to bring top-level MMA to audiences free to air.”
Singleton noted the presence of MMA across BBC platforms dating back to 2016, though it had predominantly been radio based for much of that time – not embraced in the manner that it has been with the new deal.
Another factor that appealed to the BBC was MMA’s emphasis on gender equality, which is distinctly lacking in most sports. It is an element that was also key to Channel 4’s recent deal with the Professional Fighters’ League – a partnership that bears similarities to the BBC’s connection with Bellator.
“It’s a massive thing that doesn’t get the headlines that it should,” Green says of gender equality in MMA. “There’s not another sport in the world where I can put a female fight at the top of the card and it will have no difference to the live attendance or ratings, and they get paid the same as the guys.”
One way in which Bellator is seeking to distinguish itself from the UFC, which has so far reigned as MMA’s flagship promotion, is by establishing a strong presence in Europe.
Bellator has held multiple events in the UK and across the continent in recent years, and the new BBC deal coincides with a period in which the promotion staged an event in Dublin in February before upcoming Paris and London cards in May. The May events, like the one in Dublin, will be headlined by world title fights – contests of a stature that rarely accompanies UFC bouts this side of the pond.
Green is keen to see Bellator’s growth – and that of MMA in general – continue in the UK in the coming years, but he remains realistic.
“I’ve got a vision of where I’d like to be, but you’ve got to bring everyone else along for the ride,” he says. “You can’t just expect it to happen.”
Bellator 280: Bader vs. Kongo 2 and Bellator 281: MVP vs. Storley will be live on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer on Friday 6 May and Friday 13 May. All European Bellator shows in 2022 will be live on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer. US Bellator shows will be live on BBC iPlayer and fans can catch up on the US action with the new BBC Three Bellator highlights show.