Strikeforce and Showtime Networks have agreed to a three-year broadcast deal that will see mixed martial arts return to the premium pay channel by April.
The much-coveted deal, which has been quietly negotiated since December, proposes up to 16 live events per year from the popular San Jose, Calif., promotion, insiders have told Sherdog.com. The agreement also opens the door for four primetime specials on CBS, which owns the Showtime channels and had much success with MMA though EliteXC in a Saturday night primetime slot.
Sherdog.com has learned that the first Strikeforce event under the new arrangement will likely take place on April 11.
CBS Primetime Senior Executive Vice President Kelly Kahl would not comment on any potential timetable to springboard MMA back onto the major network, though it is widely believed that CBS’s interest in the sport remains steadfast.
CBS enjoyed strong ratings with the three live EliteXC “Saturday Night Fights” installments it hosted in 2008 with peak audiences in the six million viewers range. The network also saw substantial gains in its Saturday primetime slot with the coveted young male demographics, including a 127-percent rise in men 18-49 and a whopping 271-percent jump in men 18-34 for the first event on May 31.
A follow-up event on July 26 fell 43 percent in viewership without stars Gina Carano and Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson to anchor the card but rebounded back up to 4.84 million viewers during its Oct. 4 affair, which saw the iconic Slice fall in 15 seconds to last-minute replacement Seth Petruzelli.
However, the much-troubled EliteXC promotion, owned by the Los Angeles corporation Pro Elite, closed its doors on Oct. 20 buried underneath nearly $55 million in debt, with upwards of a reported $20 million of that owed to Showtime.
Understandably, CBS executives were said to have been gun-shy inking a new deal with another MMA outlet. But the burgeoning relationship with Showtime and Scott Coker, who owns and operates Strikeforce with other investors, is being viewed as the first step in bringing the fast-growing sport back to the masses.
Coker, who has cultivated a fervent kickboxing fan base in the South Bay area since 1985 and promoted California’s first regulated MMA event at San Jose’s HP Pavilion in March 2006 before a record 18,265 spectators, was said to have been selected for his “irreproachable” reputation in the combat sports arena. It is said Coker bested four to five other outlets that bid on the deal as well. The UFC, as well as various incarnations organized by Pro Elite executives in the wake of its stalling, also threw their hats in the ring.
As part of an assets purchase deal announced by Strikeforce on Thursday, Coker and company have acquired rights to Pro Elite’s video library and other past footage. The ShoXC brand may still prove viable with the deal, although it appears the EliteXC name will no longer be used.
At this time, it appears no Pro Elite employees will take positions with the Strikeforce organization., though Pro Elite still holds ownership of other promotions, including King of the Cage helmed by longtime MMA promoter Terry Trebilcock, who was also identified as in the running for the Showtime deal.
In addition, Strikeforce has also acquired “some” of the reported 100-plus fighter contracts that were left in limbo as Pro Elite attempted to salvage its debt.
EliteXC’s marquee fighters, like Carano, Ferguson and former EliteXC middleweight champion Robbie Lawler among others, are being approached by Strikeforce to re-negotiate contracts with Pro Elite that have been deemed non-transferrable without time-consuming litigation.
Many are expected to want more lucrative deals, especially in light of the unintended layoffs that have occurred with Pro Elite’s inactivity.
Sherdog.com has learned that Lawler was under heavy consideration to coach opposite Brit Michael Bisping on the currently taping ninth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but UFC brass had to pass up the power-punching Iowan when his contract obligations could not be untangled.
Lawler’s manager, Monte Cox, would not confirm or deny his client’s consideration for the high-profile position, and it looks positive that Lawler will re-sign a fresh contract with Strikeforce.
“We respect Strikeforce and we believe Scott Coker does a great job,” said Cox. “Robbie would like to continue fighting for him on Showtime and CBS.”
Carano, who was voted among Yahoo’s Top-10 Women of the Year alongside Hilary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, is also said to be in renegotiations with Strikeforce.
The 26-year-old “American Gladiators” star appeared in a nationwide Pepsi commercial alongside Bruce Lee during the Super Bowl last Sunday, but netted only $25,000 for her victory over Kelly Kobold-Gavin in October.
"Gina has nothing but the highest regard for Scott Coker and the Strikeforce organization and looks forward to meeting with them soon to discuss the future of women's MMA," said Carano's agent, Matt Walker, of the Wasserman Group.
Though various negotiations for key fighters seem imminent over the next few weeks, Coker has sewn up a monstrous opportunity to bring his promotion into the major leagues of the sport.
“We all know what he’s really buying,” said a source familiar with the negotiations. “Though it’s only the library and other assets on paper, Strikeforce is really getting its product onto Showtime and CBS.”
Note: This article was updated at 8:00 p.m. EST with info that the agreement proposes up to 16 live events per year.