This Saturday, Bellator enters the pay-per-view market again, a revenue stream almost exclusive to the UFC within the mixed martial arts genre. With a price tag of $49.99, Bellator 180 is the promotion’s second PPV offering. Their pay-per-view debut was headlined by Rampage vs. Lawal in 2014, generating roughly 100,000 buys, which was considered a moderate success. While the Viacom-owned group had its share of ups and downs, fans tune into Spike TV to see Bellator’s often over-the-top fight cards. Even some of the organization’s disastrous moments, including backyard brawler “Dada 5000” going into cardiac arrest from lack of cardio condition following a bout with the late Kimbo Slice, set ratings records for Spike.
Undoubtedly, if Bellator is going to obtain a piece of the MMA piece that is almost completely dominated by the UFC, Viacom is smart to market their MMA brand as something different from the product that Dana White promotes. Elaborate entrances and even side show type bouts can give Bellator events that are perceived as something more than just UFC lite.
However, the pay-per-view market is a completely different aspect of the fight business. Casual fans will tune into television events because there’s no extra cost to take a peek at the side show bouts. While it’s in some ways a smart business move to promote oddity contests to boost interest in an event, it’s imperative to have a solid under card of legitimate athletes that can deliver quality performances for the bulk of the show. Could you imagine the mutiny if fans paid for the Dada/Kimbo debacle?
Generally, pay-per-view is the way to maximize profits for a sports or entertainment product that consumers have followed, but is that the best path for Bellator?
The cost to broadcast a live PPV event is what keeps a slew of independent professional wrestling shows or regional MMA events from diluting the distribution channel. It’s not cheap to run an event at Madison Square Garden either. Granted, Viacom is a billion dollar company so while Bellator’s future as an entity is stable, its endeavor into pay-per-view has yet to be determined. Even a media conglomerate as massive as Viacom, with its dozens of multinational platforms, won’t continuously lose money on a particular venture. Considering the networks under its umbrella, Viacom has no reason to try to shoehorn its MMA show onto pay-per-view if it’s not a profitable situation. Obviously, Bellator CEO, Scott Coker, who is the former president of the now-defunct Strike Force group, realizes that if this MSG show is a success, it gives his organization more credibility. Nobody wants to promote a product as, “the minor leagues of MMA.”
But, is it better financially to put super cards on Spike TV that draw record ratings and generate substantial add revenue?
The key to success for this MSG event is simple, give fans a reason to pay $50 to watch it. The key match-ups that were promoted ahead of this show include the return of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko, and a MMA grudge match that brewed for years. Fedor, the humble Russian that many consider the greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport, returns to fight in the United States for the first time in seven years. After three consecutive losses for the fighter that had never tapped or suffered a KO previously, many speculated that his career fight ended. He fought and won three times outside of America to rebound from the defeats before he retired in 2012. In 2015, he returned to Japan to fight for Rizin, the modern day spin off of Pride, and defeated a kick boxer with just two previous MMA bouts. Last year, “The Last Emperor” fought in his home country, winning a controversial decision against Fabio Maldonado.
The major criticism toward Fedor, an athlete that represents himself well, was that he dodged top level competition later in his career. Some pointed to Fedor’s management team as possibly delaying negotiations with the UFC in the past in an attempt to protect their most profitable fighter. That is another discussion for another time, but the point is, since his comeback, it’s tough to gauge the level that Fedor fights at today. An inexperienced kick boxer, and a possible hometown decision doesn’t make for highlights or promotional tools. At 40, Emelianenko is near the twilight of his career, but that could actually be the most marketable tool that Bellator has right now. Sure, Fedor isn’t the same dynamic competitor that he was in his prime, but this pay-per-view gives fans the chance to see him step into the cage for perhaps the final time.
On the flip side, the status of Fedor is really only known to diehard MMA fans, and the most credible opponent he had in the United States was several years ago when he was defeated in a contest with Dan Henderson. In New York, Fedor will be challenged by former UFC grappler, Matt Mitrione. The former New York Giant has a less than impressive MMA record of 11-5, and during his time in the UFC, was only successful against lower-tier competition. However, he has a two fight win streak ahead of the biggest fight of his career and an impressive win could elevate his status within the sport. I will pick Fedor to win this bout, but it really depends how the bout unfolds that will determine the reaction it receives from the viewing audience. If Fedor dominates, the impression will be that he beat a UFC scrub without any signature wins on his record. If Mitrione overwhelms Emelianenko early, it could lead to a flat conclusion, as it’s disappointing to see an aging legend’s skills diminish. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, more so pointing out the potential pitfalls of his match-up. The best case scenario in terms of quality is a close fight that the fans enjoy watching.
The main event will settle the grudge between Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva, but I have to ask, is that truly an effective selling point?
Sonnen, the former UFC contender, somehow talked his way into much higher status than his skills justified and manufactured this rivalry with Silva to create a big money fight after he failed to win the UFC Middleweight title. Sonnen failed multiple drug tests, testing positive for steroids in both post-fight and random drug tests. He was fired from the UFC in 2014 and works more often currently as an analyst for a variety of media outlets than fighting. He lost his Bellator debut against Tito Ortiz earlier this year in a fight that many questioned if the bout was fixed because of how Ortiz won.
Wandereli is a global icon in MMA, but the argument could certainly be made that he should’ve stopped competing several years ago. The brutal bouts he had in Brazil and Japan early in his career took a toll on his body. His epic slug fest with Brain Stann at the Saitama Super Arean, the venue that hosted Pride events, was the opportunity for a perfect conclusion to his career in 2013. The following year, Silva refused to take a random drug test prior to his scheduled bout with Sonnen in the UFC. As a result, he was initially banned entirely, but that was overturned in 2015. Silva’s lawyers explained that his refusal to take the random test was because he doesn’t read English and didn’t want to provide a sample without understanding the process. If that’s a valid excuse or not is anyone’s guess. The ban was reduced to three years and Silva became eligible to fight again last month. After claiming that the Ultimate Fighting Championship fixed fights, an accusation that wasn’t taken lightly because the sport is regulated by the state athletic commissions, Silva apologized for the “miscommunication” and was released from his Zuffa contract. It was certainly a bizarre finish to his UFC career, especially considering that the exposure the organization provided him introduced “the axe murder” to a new audience.
So, is a grudge from years ago between two fighters with diminished popularity really a worthy main event for a Madison Square Garden pay-per-view? Silva is 40 years old and hasn’t competed in four years. Sonnen took a nearly four year hiatus from the sport because of suspensions from failed drug tests. When he debuted for Bellator, he was submitted by Tito Ortiz within 2 minutes of the first round. Again, is there really interest in this “rivalry” from five years ago in the UFC?
It’s very possible that a decent number of novice MMA fans will buy this event to see the score settled. More people than I thought tuned in to watch Rampage and King Mo square off so it’s certainly possible that this MSG card sells. However, with the aging legends like Fedor and Wandereli, and their mostly irrelevant opponents, do either of the fights at the top of the card seem like they will provide epic performances? The under card bouts should deliver quality action, including the MMA debut of the highly-touted prospect Aaron Pico. But, pay-per-view is about reaching the casual fans and it remains to be seen if the names at the top of this card will sell. Keep in mind, Rampage Jackson, who headlined the company’s original pay-per-view event, is much more well known in the United States than Fedor. Either way, it will be interesting to see who wins and if the event draws pay-per-view numbers.
Until next week
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