BBC criticised for signing MMA deal after failing to put up a fight for cricket rights

Ben Rumsby
·3-min read
Corey Anderson
Corey Anderson

The BBC was on Thursday accused of putting cage-fighting before Test cricket after giving mixed martial arts a regular spot on iPlayer.

The licence-fee-funded national broadcaster on Thursday announced a deal with Bellator, one of the sport’s two main promotion companies, to show all of its 2021 events live.

The deal was confirmed a week after the BBC was nowhere to be seen when Channel 4 landed the rights to England’s Test series in India, something that has delivered bumper ratings on what has been the longest form of the game’s first terrestrial outing since the 2005 Ashes.

Steve Brine MP, a member of parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee, told Telegraph Sport: “This is pretty desperate stuff. We don’t know how much the BBC paid for these rights but I think it will sit pretty badly with Test cricket fans missing out their sport or hardworking local journalists losing their jobs at this time.”

A BBC spokesperson responded: “The BBC caters for all licence fee payers and we are delighted to add MMA to our extensive live sport offering.”

The Bellator deal followed a successful trial last October, in which a cage-fighting event from Paris was aired on the iPlayer — the first time the sport had been shown on the BBC.

Scott Coker, the president of Bellator MMA, said he was “thrilled to be confirming the BBC as our UK broadcast partner”.

“To have every event on the biggest network in the UK is a great opportunity,” said Coker. “We look forward to working with the BBC to bring our exciting roster of talent and our extensive events schedule to an ever-growing audience.”

Ben Gallop, Head of Digital at BBC Sport added: “Following on from the success of the Paris show we are delighted to continue our partnership with Bellator. We look forward to bringing live, free to air Bellator action to both existing and new fans of MMA on BBC iPlayer.”

The first Bellator event of 2021 is scheduled for Friday April 2 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, USA. The organisation has set up residence there since last year with a Covid testing bubble in place and no crowds in the arena.

The headline bout is a featherweight title fight between the champion Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire, of Brazil and the American Emmanuel Sanchez. Three further events will take place in April and May, including a light-heavyweight tournament featuring eight of the leading fighters, among them Bader, Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson, Yoel Romero, the Russian champion Vadim Nemkov, and Phil Davis.

The tournament culminates in October this year, when European events are likely to have returned, Covid restrictions permitting.

Bellator MMA, a mixed martial arts league of male and female fighters founded 13 years ago, is owned by ViacomCBS, the US multinational media conglomerate, whose revenue was almost $28 billion in 2019.

Comment: Sport's scruffy cousin has gone mainstream

By Gareth A Davies

The powerful commercial partnership between Bellator and the BBC is a clear marker of the global growth of a sport which is not yet three decades old.

No longer is MMA the scruffy cousin of the sporting landscape. It has become mainstream. All this just 15 years after the corporation's sports editors had refused to cover the sport on the BBC website. Time, interest, and growing professionalisation have clearly changed attitudes.

David Green, the head of Bellator Europe, told Telegraph Sport that the BBC's alignment with Bellator was "a clear statement of intent" and "a ground-making moment for Bellator and MMA as it continues exponential growth with broadcasters and fans".

Green added: "We're thrilled to be able to bring live Bellator MMA action to millions of UK homes on BBC iPlayer. To have every event from all over the world available for fans in the UK to watch live is something we have been working really hard to achieve, and to be able to call the BBC home for Bellator in the UK is really a fantastic moment for us and for the sport.”