Bjorn Rebney isn’t the kind to think small. He was dreaming big in 2008 when he founded the Bellator Fighting Championship.
Bellator was among a number of promotions to pop up in the wake of the UFC’s unexpected success following the launch of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2005.
The history, though, wasn’t good. Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and Dana White bought the UFC for $2 million in 2001 and proceeded to go $44 million in the hole the next four years.
Promotions were going belly up all over the place. Elite XC was putting on great shows in the U.S. and had a network television contract, but was hemorrhaging money. The International Fight League was on its last legs. Affliction came and went in about 12 fast-paced, tumultuous months.
Strikeforce was battling to be noticed. Japanese promotions were on the verge of collapse.
The UFC found success in the wake of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but by no means was MMA regarded as a mainstream sport in 2008. Even now, four years later, it’s still not mainstream. Yes, the UFC is worth over $1 billion and it has its own network-television deal on Fox. Even White, though, would tell you that the UFC has a long way to go to be regarded as mainstream.
Rebney entered the scene in 2008. If he were looking for a way to drop a million or 20, he couldn’t have found a better place. He was convinced Bellator would succeed where others had failed.
“I don’t get into things without goals that are pretty lofty,” Rebney said. “I always looked at this and had a pretty clear vision of where we could go and where our format could take us. As crazy as it sounds, even going back to 2009 when we were getting ready to go, we had a vision where we could end up. And at that time, the Utopian pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was, ‘Would there ever be the potential to be aligned with Spike?’ ”
But four years after coming up with the idea and three years after launching its first season on ESPN Deportes, Bellator is a legitimate player in the mixed martial arts space.
It’s owned by Viacom, one of the most powerful companies in the world. It has landed that coveted television contract with Spike. And it has consistently put on outstanding cards on TV.
Week after week, Bellator is an MMA fan’s dream, filled with action shows and elite fighters.
It’s not the UFC – and Rebney is the first to admit that – but he’s not embarrassed to tell anyone what he does for a living.
“There were some times when we first started this thing that there were some pretty significant hurdles to clear,” Rebney said. “Even when there were rough times and whatnot, though, I believed in what we were doing and the way we were moving this product.”
The biggest thing Rebney did correctly, other than convincing a powerful and well-heeled company like Viacom to invest in his modest little start-up, was to not try to be the UFC.
Though the essence of both is that they promote mixed martial arts fight cards, Rebney came up with a tournament format that he believed in from the beginning and has refused to abandon. Even more significantly, though, is that Bellator did not try to sign a slew of former UFC fighters to build its roster.
That’s been a method that so many promoters have tried through the years. And while having a somewhat recognizable name on a card might help garner a bit of attention, it’s not going to make the difference between success and failure.
And, at the same time, it creates the impression of a promotion as a retread, riding the coattails of someone else’s success.
“Spending $800,000 on a [former UFC heavyweight champion] Tim Sylvia, moves like that, just to get an ex-UFC guy on our roster, didn’t make sense to me,” Rebney said. “It seemed to me to be reckless spending. We’ve grown from within and created our own stars. We know them better than anyone and it’s been a great control mechanism in terms of [salary growth] in that we’re not paying a guy based upon what he did for anyone else.”
Instead, they’re paying the fighters who have performed for Bellator and have helped make the promotion one of the most exciting to watch.
It’s not particularly hard to put on a great fight card – Elite XC, the IFL and Affliction, among many others, were able to do so – but the trick is to put the great cards on and be able to sustain the business model.
Bellator isn’t getting a huge audience for its fights on MTV2 this year, averaging about a 10th of what the UFC is getting for “The Ultimate Fighter Live” on FX on the same night. But in 2013, all ties between Spike and the UFC are over and Bellator fights will appear on Spike.
Rebney calls Spike, “the guys who wrote the book on doing MMA on TV,” and said the alliance will greatly enhance Bellator’s stature. Spike is available in nearly 100 million cable homes and is familiar to MMA fans.
It would be insane to believe that Bellator could somehow overtake the UFC and became the sport’s domination promotion.
The UFC is too well-heeled and has too many brilliant people working for it for that to happen.
But there is clearly a place for another promotion that develops good fighters and puts on high-level, entertaining fights.
As crazy as it may have sounded in 2009 as it was kicking off on a Spanish-language television network in the middle of a dreary recession, the surprise now would be if Bellator were not around for the long haul.
It’s good and only getting better. Bellator, it seems, is here to stay.