The mixed martial arts world was a different place when Bellator MMA was founded in 2008. Elite XC was spending millions of dollars in an attempt to compete with the UFC. Strikeforce was developing its organization in California, and the WEC was thriving as the home for the smaller weight classes. There wasn't much room for Bellator to succeed as a major MMA promotion.
Five years later Elite XC, Strikeforce, and the WEC no longer exist, but Bellator is still growing. In January, it began broadcasting on Spike TV, which is the network that partnered with the UFC during its rise to prominence. And now it appears that this Spike TV deal is doing the same for Bellator.
"I think the thing that's been different, or what has kinda stuck out in my mind, is the consumer connectivity - people are watching," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said. "For example, last week, between the original run and then the replay that ran afterwards, we were over a million people. The week before, the original run plus the after run was over a million people. And just the comments, the social media interaction. Will Brooks never fought here in any kind of show of any significance, and he's trending worldwide during his fight on Twitter. That's big; that means that we're reaching consumers in a big way."
Bellator had over a year to prepare for its move to Spike TV, and it appears the promotion made the best of it. Of course, it helps that its fighters have been putting on a show thus far in 2013.
"I thought Michael Chandler's performance in the first show kinda sent a loud and clear message to people: hey, this is one of the best lightweights on earth," Rebney said. "I thought [Pat] Curran looked great in his first fight. I love the way King Mo [Muhammed Lawal] came out. He came out and looked sharp and his timing was great. There was no ring-rust. Those are the things that jump out. It's just the recognition of the brand that's really leaping out. It's all happening. You can see it happening."
Rebney is right to be encouraged by his promotion's growth. His organization is thriving in a business that has swallowed up Elite XC, Strikeforce and Pride in the past six years. Bellator's slow and steady growth plan has built a stable promotion that is establishing itself as a contender in the MMA market. Rebney appears to believe that Bellator could compete with the UFC in the future, but he's being patient.
"What I would say is that I'm cognizant of how much time the UFC has had in the game, and so everything I did with the business model and everything I planned out has come to fruition in the timeframe that I believed it would," Rebney said. "So you know, look, I think that everything we've done, we've approached it as a marathon, not a sprint. So we don't ever go, 'Here, let's throw millions of dollars at this and try to see if it'll work.' It's all strategic, and it's all been planned out businesswise."
"This is a very hyper-competitive business, arguably, in either the entertainment or sports arena, probably the most competitive business that there is," Rebney continued. "You don't get into this business if you don't have a very hardcore competitive fire. I never got into this early and said to myself, 'Gosh, I hope we can be number two.' That was never the thought process. But I was also very realistic about the timing, the planning, the business model and everything else. So I'm cognizant of where we are now. I recognize that we're the number two organization in the world."
Rebney understands where the organization is right now, but he's focused on developing stars for the future. He believes that is the key to Bellator's growth. That's why bringing in struggling free agent stars like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson probably won't happen. Rebney noted that Bellator will only pursue released stars who are still in the prime of their careers and could conceivably be among the top fighters in their weight classes.
"What the other failed organizations have is that you're never going to build out your brand on the backs of failed stars from another organization," Rebney said. "It just doesn't work like that. The UFC are smart businesspeople. They don't release people who they can still monetize and build their business with. They wouldn't release them if there was still value to the UFC. So I've always looked at it with kind of a twisted eye when I've seen these organizations go out and spend a ton of money on a guy who was just released from the UFC. You think to yourself, 'Well, they wouldn't be releasing him if they thought he could become a world champion or could still generate revenue for their company.'"
Instead, Bellator would rather focus on developing young stars, much like it has with Curran and Chandler. Rebney values fighters who could become the foundation of the organization for the next few years. That's why Bellator aggressively pursued Brooks for the current lightweight tournament.
However, even with all of the positives surrounding Bellator right now, there are still some issues. The Eddie Alvarez contract dispute is constantly in the news, and there are questions about the depth of the organization's heavier divisions. It's also unknown when the long-anticipated women's 125-pound tournament will take place. Rebney stated that it should take place either this summer or in the fall, but he made no promises.
Regardless, it's clear that Bellator is climbing the ladder in the MMA industry. By teaming up with Spike TV, maintaining a patient business plan, and developing its stars, Bellator is definitely a force to be reckoned with in this sport.
Derek Ciapala has been following MMA for 20 years. He has been published on GatewayMMA.com, UltimateApocalypse.com and multiple other websites. You can check him out on Facebook or on Twitter @dciapala.