Five years ago this week, MMATorch published an interview with Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney conducted by Rich Hansen…
Bellator Fighting Championships begins their sixth season this Friday night on MTV2, and their final year on the network as they move to Spike TV beginning in 2013. Ahead of this week’s debut, Bellator chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney spoke with MMATorch’s Rich Hansen to discuss a wide variety of subjects regarding the upcoming season and Bellator’s future with new parent company Viacom. In part one of this multi-part transcript, Rebney discusses the upcoming season, MTV2 ratings, Spike TV expectations, delayed Spike debut, and running Friday nights as opposed to Saturdays this year.
Rich Hansen: Is this the busiest you’ve ever been?
Bjorn Rebney: It’s right up there. I’m always crazy busy; it never seems to stop, which is kind of cool. I don’t know if it’s the busiest but it’s awfully close. Today, it’s coming up on 6 o’clock, I’ve had four literal sit-down meetings and at least three different calls that have kind of come in between the meetings. There’s a lot going on. It’s exciting as can be, I’ve got no complaints at all, but boy, it does take up your days. I have not been doing a lot of working out which is bumming me out substantially, but that’s part of the gig.
RH: Give us a preview of the upcoming season, which will be season six for Bellator. Which divisions are you running tournaments, and who are some fighters who viewers might not be completely aware of that they should keep their eye on?
BR: Wow. Season six is just stacked. The thing I’m most proud of – of anything that we’ve been able to accomplish as an organization – is just the qualitative level of the fighters that are now fighting underneath this banner. It’s just crazy when you look at from today, kicking off on Friday, March 9 in Hammond, Ind. at Harrah’s, at the Horseshoe, compared to what we did two and three years ago. You look at our 145 lb. division – and that’s the division we’re kicking off with next Friday night – the Ronnie Mann’s of the world, Pat Curran vs. Joe Warren for the world title, the return of Daniel Strauss, Marlon Sandro, that division is just stacked for us. Patricio “Pitbull” who’s not even in the tournament and is waiting for his title fight, getting the last pieces of his hand back together in terms of the healing process. 135 lb. division will have a tournament going on with us. I’ve said it a few times, and everybody’s entitled to disagree, but I think our 135 lb. tournament that we did last season was surely amongst the strongest in the history of mixed martial arts. We’ve got 155 going on again with the likes of “Pitbull”, Turloni’s coming in, Hawn’s coming down from 170 lbs. [Welterweight] is going to have a tournament going on as well. Brian Foster is coming over, he’s coming in off two wins in the UFC, he had a medical situation that he got cleared up. 185 lbs. has a tournament going on, and we’ve just completely retooled our 185 lb. division. I’m really excited about what’s going on at 185. When people see the 185 lb. tournament, they’re going to see a lot of the maturation and growth that we had at 135 lbs. You look at some of these guys: Brian Rogers coming in and coming back, he’s just a beast and he probably put on the best fight I’ve ever seen against Alexander Shlemenko. Maiquel Falcao’s coming in off of a win in the UFC; his Harris fight in the UFC wasn’t anything to write home about, but if you’ve tracked this guy out of Brazil, which I have for the last two and a half years, he’s just a monster. He’s like Brazil’s version of Hector Lombard. There’s so much meat on the bone at 185, it’s just stacked. Each division you look at, any one of the eight guys can win it. It’s just crazy exciting for me.
RH: A couple of years ago when you were being preempted in a lot of markets on Fox Sports Net, running on tape delay more often than not with some events not even broadcast due to local and regional sporting obligations, what did you think the chances were of Bellator winding up with a media conglomerate like Viacom and being in 100 million homes by 2013?
BR: As crazy as this might sound coming out of my mouth, I thought the chances were quite good. As I’ve said many times, this is a marathon. To build something like this, a company of this size, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think one of the huge reasons behind the failures that we’ve seen of many organizations in mixed martial arts is that they perceive it as a quick fix. They think that there’s a magic bottle that they can pull the cork off of and a genie’s going to jump out and everything’s going to work out beautifully because they’re going to do 400,000 buys on pay-per-view. It just doesn’t work like that; it’s a slow maturation process. It takes a lot of development, it takes a lot of understanding of the drivers in this particular business space. We were preempted, we were on FSN, we were shown late, they would show reruns of baseball games that had taken place years previously; but, as I was doing it, I could see the contact development, I could see the production development and improvement, I could see what was happening from a recruiting and signing perspective of fighters, and we were hitting the mark in terms of the numbers that we had projected we would do. The worst thing that you could do when you’re in a position to have investors is to promise them “X” and deliver them [less than] “X.” If you’re in a position business-wise where you say ‘look, it’s going to take this amount of investment from you to make this work,” and you actually hit the numbers you projected you were going to hit – regardless of whether you were profitable or not profitable – you’re in a good position. And we did that. I saw some of the openings that were happening in the entertainment industry, I saw what I perceived to be an opportunity with Viacom and MTV networks, and so I was pretty confident in where it would go. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but knowing what I knew and being where I was in the business I was pretty comfortable in terms of where we would end up.
RH: UFC ratings on Fuel TV are much higher than anything else on Fuel TV, but much lower than they have been on Spike TV. There’s a pretty direct correlation when you look at Spike TV’s ratings for replay UFC programming, that the correlation is there between network carriage and total viewership. With you being one year away from being on Spike TV – which is a proven commodity – what are your expectations for ratings when you debut on Spike next year?
BR: I’ve kind of made it a point to never get in the business of projecting what I think we’ll do ratings-wise. The reason for that is that there’s a lot of intangibles and unknowns regarding nights, promotion, etc. What I can tell you is that I’m tremendously confident that we’ve got the greatest television partner that has ever been in the MMA space and the greatest television partner that exists in the MMA space. Their knowledge and their expertise, their connectivity to our demographic, to MMA fans and MMA viewers, is unparalleled in this space. When you look at the numbers that Spike is doing currently with replay programming of events that have taken place a year and sometimes longer than a year ago, and you compare that to live event programming on other networks in the MMA space, you see that Spike TV has an amazing amount of connectivity, an amazing amount of traction with MMA fans. So it’s a very, very exciting place to be going. It was a place I was heavily focused on for a long period of time, and like I said I think it’s the best partner you could ever hope to have for a televised perspective in terms of running a mixed martial arts promotion. What we’ll do ultimately in ten months when we transition to Spike and when we’re doing all our tournaments there and all our shoulder programming, the best ofs, the greatest moments, the greatest knockouts, potential reality programming, remains to be seen, but you could not have a better business dynamic for achieving success than what we’ve got.
RH: Were you disappointed or maybe not surprised that Zuffa chose not to buy back their library which – should they have done that – would have allowed you to be on Spike in 2012?
BR: I wasn’t surprised, it’s a very, very competitive industry. The entirety of the entertainment business is competitive. Television is a fiercely competitive business; mixed martial arts is an incredibly competitive business. I think, based on what Spike was able to achieve for the UFC from 2005 to the end of that relationship, there’s probably no one that is more keenly aware of the power of Spike network than the ownership of the UFC. So it doesn’t surprise me at all, I think. There are all business decisions that people make; and those are very smart people who have accomplished a great deal and built a very powerful company that has a tremendous valuation that I believe at last count that was over a billion dollars. People forget that there’s a lot of brands out there in the sporting world – brands like Manchester United, brands like the Dallas Cowboys, brands like the New York Yankees – that don’t have a billion plus valuation. They obviously understand the business quite well, and much of that business was built as a result of the partnership with Spike.
RH: Looking back at the last year on MTV2, ratings were all over the place. They seemed to average around 200,000, but they were as high as 300,000, as low as 110,000, any theory to explain why they were all over the map like that?
BR: I don’t have a particular theory; I have kind of a general perception – which is why I’ve made it a practice to never plant the flag in the sand and defend it right or wrong – I’ve always taken a perception that you’ve got to be pretty malleable in this space in terms of what’s going on around you. We were running on Saturday nights, and when you look at the Saturday nights we were running, in the fall we were running up against major college football, in the spring we were running up against major college basketball. There were major boxing events from a pay-per-view perspective, there were major UFC events from a pay-per-view perspective. There was an awful lot pulling at the eyeballs of our target. So a decision was made sitting down at the Spike offices to make a move to Friday nights. I think from a continuity perspective in terms of reaching viewers, Saturday nights presented a lot of hurdles; and we’ll see going into Friday nights how Friday nights work for us. And still, this is an evolutionary process, so we’ll see how it works over the next ten months, we’ve got 25 events coming up before Thanksgiving, and then we’ll make the big jump ten months from now.
RH: Next year are you going to be on Friday nights? Or is that still to be determined?
BR: It looks like right now as if Friday nights will be the night, but I always try to not put that flag in the sand. I could say Friday nights right now, something could happen, and we could look at an opportunity or window and say ‘my god, there’s an incredible lead in and a great piece of programming that didn’t exist previously.’ Our venue partners could say to us, ‘hey, we’re looking to really explode and expand upon our ability to draw a young male demo to the casino’ on whatever night it would be, Thursdays, or Wednesdays, whatever, and that could generate a change direction. One of the things that always kind of impresses me about some of the major, major sports leagues is, both in the US and international markets, there’s a certain degree of malleability to what they do. They change, they adapt, they move, they welcome new ideas and concepts, they embrace good platforms. That’s something I’ve tried very hard to model ourselves after. It looks like Friday nights will be good to us now, but we’ll see; I’ll talk to you again after 25 more events and see what’s going on in the landscape.
Check back later this week for part two!