Bellator’s Silver Linings Playbook

By: Todd Martin
Oct 31, 2013
Tito Ortiz and Quinton Jackson were originally booked for main event duty. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

As one of the few sports to rely on pay-per-view as a primary revenue stream, mixed martial arts faces a number of conundrums that others do not.

Short-term profits are often in open conflict with the long-term prospects for the sport. Pay-per-view fights make significantly more money than free-television bouts, but they limit the fan base for MMA. Abandoning meritocracy often means greater immediate profits, but it hurts long-term revenue by undermining the value of titles and consumer confidence in the integrity of the sport. Perhaps most paradoxically, free-television fights draw much larger viewing audiences than pay-per-view events while leaving fewer lasting memories in the minds of fight fans.

This was unquestionably part of the mentality behind Bellator MMA’s plans to run its first pay-per-view event. With the amount of money needed to secure the services of Tito Ortiz and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, it was exceedingly unlikely the organization could break even with Bellator 106 on Saturday in Long Beach, Calif. The MMA promotional graveyard is filled with tombstones of companies that lost their rear ends on pay-per-view. However, that does not mean there were not benefits to running such a show.

No event in Bellator history has received as much press as Bellator 106. None has even come close. Anticipation built for the first ever pay-per-view in a way that is difficult to replicate for a weekly television event. Jackson-Ortiz was the headliner, providing a matchup between two charismatic but past-their-prime fighters who were once among the sport’s biggest drawing cards. However, many seemed to miss that the rest of the card was the key to the whole show. Bellator was effectively betting that the main event would add a cache to the company brand that would then rub off on and provide additional star power to the rest of the roster moving forward.

To that end, Bellator 106 features the biggest fights the promotion has to offer. The champion of Bellator’s best division, featherweight Pat Curran, seeks to win his seventh straight bout against surging challenger Daniel Straus; the charismatic and talented Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal enters into a grudge rematch with the man who knocked him out with a spinning back fist, Emanuel Newton; and most important of all, Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez rematch the best bout in Bellator history -- a fight enhanced by the unique story of Bellator’s poster boy, Chandler, being pitted against the man who did legal battle with the promotion, Alvarez. It is the best lineup Bellator can put together.

Once Ortiz was forced to withdraw from the main event and the card moved to Spike TV, many labeled it a disaster for Bellator. Perhaps they are right. Spike has already sunk countless advertising dollars into promotion for the pay-per-view, along with countless advertising hours into promotion for Ortiz’s Punishment Athletics brand. However, maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Photo: Keith Mills

Chandler is front and center at Bellator 106.
Backed by the hook of a show that was originally planned for pay-per-view and the most loaded card in Bellator history, Bellator 106 has the opportunity to draw the most substantial audience ever for a Bellator event. It will not bring in PPV revenue, but it also will not need to pay for the services of Jackson and Ortiz. If the show does draw a significant number of people sampling Bellator for the first time -- a big if, to be sure -- the lineup will likely produce the sort of action that will encourage them to tune in again.

There is also the matter of prestige. If being attached to a pay-per-view date and a “Rampage”-Ortiz main event made the rest of the Bellator 106 fighters seem more important, it is unlikely that effect will be lost with the show being moved to free television. Chandler-Alvarez 2, the most anticipated fight for most hardcore fans, is now the actual headliner. Hopefully, it will make fans think of Chandler, Curran or Lawal as the sorts of fighters who can bear the weight of big shows. After all, they will be carrying the torch for plenty of Bellator events in the future.

Without the original plan for pay-per-view, it is unlikely Bellator would have stacked a card to this degree. Putting so many big fights on one show has left its fall season lacking in star power, but now that Bellator 106 is going forward on free television, it makes this one of the few destination events in the promotion’s history. MMA’s past has taught us that stacked cards at times can add up to more than the sum of their parts.

UFC 92 (Forrest Griffin-Rashad Evans, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira-Frank Mir and Jackson-Wanderlei Silva 3), UFC 100 (Mir-Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre-Thiago Alves and Michael Bisping-Dan Henderson) and UFC 129 (St. Pierre-Jake Shields, Jose Aldo-Mark Hominick and Randy Couture-Lyoto Machida) represent three of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s deepest cards as far as top-flight bouts are concerned. They all did tremendous business because the events became bigger than the individual fights.

Recently, Golden Boy Promotions and Mayweather Promotions took a similar tact and elected to supplement Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez with a highly attractive fight between Danny Garcia and Lucas Matthysse. It made Mayweather-Canelo seem like an even bigger event, and the show became the highest grossing attraction in the history of pay-per-view.

Bellator obviously is not in the same stratosphere as the UFC or Floyd Mayweather, but the same concept may apply: the originally proposed pay-per-view and deep card make Bellator 106 seem like a much bigger event than any Bellator offering before it. That is certainly Viacom’s hope, and anything less than Bellator’s highest rating on Spike TV would be a disappointment. The show does not have the benefit of an Impact Wrestling lead-in on a Thursday, but Saturdays are better than Fridays for fight cards, so long as the UFC is not promoting a show.

Best case scenario: Bellator draws the enhanced focus and prestige of a pay-per-view event with the larger audience of free television and without the fighter payroll of an Ortiz or “Rampage” Jackson card. It has been a rough public relations week for the company since Ortiz pulled out of Bellator 106, but everything may ultimately turn out for the best.

Of course, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney probably did not sleep well this week. There is still the matter of how that main event turns out.

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