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Volume 20 No. 42
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Bellator, Spike TV fight for slice of mixed martial arts audience

Spike TV’s latest effort to rebuild its MMA franchise following the departure of the UFC is a reality show that aims to reproduce the network’s UFC success while cultivating a brand closely identified with the channel.

Set to debut this summer, “Fight Master: Bellator MMA” bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Ultimate Fighter,” the flagship program on Spike that resurrected the UFC in 2005. The new show, like the UFC’s, features up-and-coming fighters battling their way through a tournament for a $100,000 prize and a chance to compete in the main promotion.

But Spike aims to set “Fight Master” apart by allowing fighters to choose from one of four MMA coaches, including former UFC champion Randy Couture, in a twist reminiscent of NBC’s “The Voice.” The show also emphasizes training and personal histories over the frat-house rowdiness sometimes seen on “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Spike scored a coup with Couture, who originally approached the channel to promote another reality show. Spike took advantage of the opening to discuss “Fight Master,” and Couture signed on last April. The show also has Bertram van Munster, co-creator of CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” as executive producer.

That kind of mutual benefit is what Viacom, Spike’s parent company, had in mind when it purchased Bellator for a reported $50 million in October 2011. Spike didn’t want to repeat its experience with the UFC, said Kevin Kay, president of Spike. Spike lost the UFC when it signed a reported seven-year, $700 million deal with Fox in August 2011.

“For us, it was like we had helped them build this enormous business that went from them having to pay their way on Spike and being in debt, to a point where they had a valuation of $2 billion,” Kay said. “We thought if this is going to come to an end, the next time around we’re going to do it a different way.”

“Look what Spike was able to do with the UFC as a renter. My discussion with them was, ‘Imagine what you could do as an owner.’”
Bjorn Rebney,
Bellator Chairman and CEO
Bellator was founded in 2008 by Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney, a former Steinberg Moorad & Dunn lawyer who later promoted fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. Rebney kept the company alive as he watched several ambitious MMA promoters flame out or be bought by UFC parent company Zuffa. With the UFC ready to abandon Spike in 2011, Rebney pitched Bellator as offering all the flexibility in production and marketing that the UFC didn’t.

“Look what Spike was able to do with the UFC as a renter,” Rebney said. “My discussion with them was, ‘Imagine what you could do as an owner.’”
One uncomfortable facet of the UFC-Spike deal was advertising. While Spike controlled TV ads, the UFC controlled rights in the arena. Spike would run ads for Miller Lite while the UFC displayed Bud Light ads in the cage. Buying Bellator relieved Spike of that worry, and Spike brought Bellator major advertisers, including Dave & Buster’s and DirecTV, as well as Miller Lite.

The new alliance began in earnest this year, after Bellator spent 2012 on Viacom-owned MTV2 due to a clause in the UFC’s expiring agreement that prevented Spike from airing other MMA programs for a year. Spike hopes “Fight Master” will boost ratings for its Bellator programming, which thus far have predictably fallen short of what the UFC produced for the channel.

The Jan. 17 debut of “Bellator MMA Live,” the promoter’s Thursday night fight show, had 938,000 average viewers and earned a 0.7 rating among the male 18-34 demographic. In comparison, Spike’s final season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which ended in December 2011, earned an average of 1.5 million viewers, and UFC’s live finale on Spike averaged 2.4 million viewers.

Still, Bellator’s initial ratings nearly tripled the promotion’s best ratings on MTV2.

Kay and Rebney continue to tweak the show to take advantage of the lead-in from live pro wrestling series “TNA Impact,” much as Spike led into the original season of “The Ultimate Fighter” with “WWE Raw.” Bellator’s intro skips an ad break and moves quickly into a fight following the end of “TNA Impact.”

Bellator is expanding into digital media as well with a second-screen sports app, created by Omnigon in partnership with Spike, featuring real-time stats by CompuStrike. The app, used in conjunction with “Bellator MMA Live,” allows viewers to vote on which fighter is winning a round as it happens, with the vote results announced on-air. The app for Apple devices was heavily promoted during its debut Feb. 28, a night when Bellator saw its best post-debut performance with 901,000 average viewers.

Rebney looks to Viacom’s media acumen to give the promotion even more of a boost.

“They’re our partner,” he said, “so they’re looking at that future with an eye toward how Bellator is going to play into it.”

Andrew Westney is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.