Batten down the hatches. The 2010 mixed martial arts schedule just got even busier.
The Bellator Fighting Championship, which created buzz this year with a tournament format primarily aimed at the Latino market during its 12-event first season, will return next year for seasons two and three.
Bellator's plans will add 24 events to a calendar that already includes a full slate of Ultimate Fighting Championship events, an aggressive Strikeforce programming schedule and monthly fight cards from World Extreme Cagefighting.
This time, however, Bellator will expand into the English-speaking marketplace. While season one aired exclusively on the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, the next two 12-week seasons will air in various forms on FOX Sports Net and NBC, while switching its Spanish outlet to Telemundo.
"The time is right," said Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney. "Even though our broadcasts aired in Spanish last season, English-speaking mixed martial arts fans tuned in. We're still reaching out to our Spanish audience with Telemundo, but it's time to bring our product to the entire MMA world."
Similar to the spring season, Bellator will run a weekly series of events in venues across the country. Fight cards are slated to run live on Thursday nights on FOX Sports Net, though scheduling conflicts with local pro and college sports teams are expected to bump some air times into tape-delay mode on various affiliates.
An edited 30-minute highlight package will air late Saturdays on NBC, with the exact time varying from market to market, similar to Strikeforce's old timeslot on the network. A one-hour program based off each show will air on Telemundo from midnight to 1 a.m. local time Saturdays.
While Bellator may not have been a box-office success in season one, it stood out among the cluttered mixed martial arts landscape by producing a compelling product. A series of tournaments produced the company's first four champions – middleweight Hector Lombard, welterweight champion Lyman Good, lightweight Eddie Alvarez and featherweight Joe Soto.
Along the way, the fights produced buzz-worthy moments, such as a series of highlight-reel knockouts that caught fire on YouTube and a June 5 tussle between Diego Garijo and Saad Awad that deserves mention on the list of the year's best matches.
The combination of potential and a product that delivered got FOX Sports Net – which has previously aired tapes of PRIDE, the International Fight League and Elite XC – to take a chance on live Bellator broadcasts.
"We're thrilled to bring Bellator's brand of MMA to our viewers," stated David Sussin, Fox Sports Net's vice president of programming. "We believe the quality of the events and the passion of these fighters will resonate with our audience."
The second Bellator series, which begins April 8, will feature tournaments to designate No. 1 contenders for each divisional champion. Rebney anticipates that each Bellator champion will compete in a non-title fight during season two. Plans aren't finalized for season three, which begins on Aug. 12, but Rebney said a women's tournament is among the ideas under discussion.
"We're tossing around some ideas that could mix things up," said Rebney. "That would include some form of a women's tournament."
In the interim, Bellator's champions aren't sitting on the sidelines. Alvarez will fight Katsunori Kikuno in Japan on a DREAM card in October. Meanwhile, Soto ran his record to 8-0 with a first-round submission win over Mike Christensen in Lemoore, Calif., two weeks ago.
"We don't follow the boxing model of promotion, where you build up artificial unbeaten records," said Rebney, who has previous live broadcast event experience with the old Sugar Ray Leonard boxing series on ESPN2. "If a fighter has a 26-1 record, does that really matter if they haven't beaten anyone good? The Lakers lost some games in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they're not the real NBA champions. So we'll let our fighters go out there and fight the best fights they can put together. The fans win when they get to see champions fight."