Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Dazn is the exclusive streaming partner of Bellator MMA. You can sign up here and live stream 100+ fight nights a year.
When the Ultimate Fighting Championship returned from a near-two month hiatus caused by COVID-19, its first card back was loaded up to satiate pent-up desire. There were two title fights, an intriguing showdown between knockout sluggers Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, as well as major names like Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Fabricio Werdum and Michelle Waterson on the prelims. It was a great lineup for mixed martial arts fans missing out on the sport.
This approach by the UFC is not an unfamiliar one. When Major League Baseball returns, it will do so with the New York Yankees and their prized free agent acquisition Gerrit Cole against the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals and three time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. The NBA’s first night will feature LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s natural for a sports league to want to maximize interest in its return.
Bellator MMA returns this Friday as well. In contrast, however, to some of these other promotions, Bellator will do so in a significantly more subdued manner. No Bellator fighter has competed in over five months so presumably there are plenty of fights that can be made immediately. However, its television return is headlined by Ricky Bandejas against Sergio Pettis, with Jordan Mein and Aaron Pico probably being the biggest additional names on the card. It’s a striking contrast to what other outfits are doing.
This is also not an accident. It is a reflection of the present uncertainty that faces the Scott Coker-helmed league. Notably absent in the initial announcement of Bellator’s return was any mention of Dazn. Bellator and Dazn only confirmed that the show would be on the streaming platform a week later, three days in advance of the show. As of Tuesday evening, the show was not highlighted on the subscription-based website and Dazn was not mentioned on the Bellator site as a platform for viewing the show.
Dazn has been Bellator’s greatest financial asset, significantly improving the company’s bottom line and upping its talent budget. With Dazn struggling financially, rumors had swirled that the partnership would soon come to an end. It still exists for the time being, but the rollout of this show suggests there are still issues that need to be worked out.
The question is what Bellator does next. If the promotion and Dazn can get back on the same page, Bellator can start producing premier events for the platform. If, on the other hand, Bellator needs to line up a new partner, it makes more sense to hold the big guns back to entice a network like Showtime to reach a deal. Of course, in the current economic climate, it’s not an ideal time to secure lucrative financial commitments. Any potential future partner is likely playing the better hand in trying to work out a deal.
Compounding Bellator’s problems is the money that they have devoted to enhancing their talent roster. Those high-profile signings and re-signings in recent years were made with the expectation they would have Dazn money to pay for them. With live gate income gone and Dazn in a precarious situation, Bellator in the near future could be there solely to provide programming for Paramount Network. That’s a problem given Paramount doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the priority for Viacom that it once was at Spike TV’s peak.
If there is a potential positive that could emerge as Bellator undergoes fundamental change, it’s the opportunity for it to better hone in on an identity for fans and television partners. In its early days, Bellator was built around its tournaments. Coker dumped the majority of tournaments, but never really replaced them with an alternative focus. With Dazn, Bellator has just been putting on shows to fulfill contracts. The volume of shows meant there wasn’t any particular prestige or individuality to most of the events.
A shift in partners could lead to a change in promotional tactics. For example, when Showtime was involved with MMA in the past, like with boxing, it clearly differentiated between high-end major events (EliteXC/Strikeforce/Showtime Championship Boxing) and lesser prestige events (Sho XC/Strikeforce Challengers/ShoBox). This differentiation could work to reestablish the strength of Bellator’s top events by ensuring five top notch bout offerings every major show. The smaller events could then serve to focus on the up-and-coming talent, giving an identity for fighters at different levels.
Moving back to a traditional television outlet could also put Bellator in the position of benefitting from cross promotion rather than having to sell a streaming platform while not being promoted much itself. Bellator could use a shake up and a reintroduction and that might be possible in the coming months.
While there are potential upsides to Bellator’s current predicament, make no mistake: this is a precarious time period for the company. MMA outfits have gone down much more often with whimpers rather than bangs, downsizing and offering up weaker, less expensive cards before throwing in the towel altogether. For those rooting for Bellator’s success, they should hope that the coming weeks are a transition period towards a renewed future direction. A rosier prognosis is far from assured.
Editor’s note: This column was modified at 8:37 p.m. ET to reflect the announcement that Bellator 242 will air Friday on DAZN..
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.