HISCOE: Bellator and PFL tournaments show the format can work, but stars matter more

By Michael Hiscoe, Managing Editor

Both Bellator and the PFL ran shows this weekend. Both promotions presented shows under a similar format but with very different approaches.

Bellator has spent 2018 playing out a Heavyweight Grand Prix – a nod to the old open-weight tournaments held in Pride that fans remember so fondly. With the exception of finalist Fedor Emelianenko and first-round loser King Mo, every fighter was once a name attraction in UFC. Bellator ran back to back shows on Friday and Saturday, headlining each show with a semi-final matchup.

Meanwhile, PFL ran a show Saturday night that also aired on national cable, but was met with far less coverage and fan enthusiasm. Similar to Bellator, the PFL tournaments feature several former UFC competitors, but without the name value of the Bellator cast.

Ratings for all three shows aren’t in as of this writing, but based on Google data, there was far more interest in Bellator’s offering than PFL’s.

Tournaments can be helpful

What’s great about tournaments is that they help manage expectations. Fans can look at a bracket and speculate on how it might play out and with good presentation and communication from the promotion, is easy to follow. The structure is almost reassuring in a landscape where championships and title matches are made and unmade on a whim over at UFC. It’s an understandable format that is familiar to fans of conventional sports and provides an accessible entry point for potential new fans.

The problem is that the format alone isn’t enough to sell fans on a promotion. At the end of the day, stars are necessary. Right now, Bellator has them, and PFL doesn’t – simply put.

In theory, a star can be made through the tournament format, and that is true to an extent. Bellator made names of Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez through their tournaments. Having buzz worthy, must-see fights didn’t hurt either. But for every Chandler and Alvarez there was a Karl Amoussou or Rick Hawn, who didn’t gain any star power after going through a tournament.

PFL’s current structure is quite rigid in that competitors are required to enter and win tournaments in order to make the most money. Non-tournament matches exist but are only used as under card filler. So PFL finds themselves in a similar predicament as the old Bellator regime. When a potential money making fight presents itself, the promotion either has to (a) pray that a tournament works out in a certain way so the match can be made, or (b), mortgage the credibility of the structure you have created and make the fight anyway. Neither is an appealing option for fans or promoters.

Tournaments can be part of the package, not the only offering

That’s why Scott Coker and Bellator is mainly getting it right with the Grand Prix. It’s a hook to keep fans interested in the product and provides a narrative that will play out over the course of the year, but the promotion’s fate isn’t dependent on the outcome of the tournament. Once the tournament is over, they can make the fights that make sense.

Bellator also has the luxury of having a relatively star-studded field for their Heavyweight Grand Prix. That said, this cast doesn’t come cheap and PFL’s million dollar grand prize wouldn’t cover three fights for many of the Bellator competitors, let alone a field of eight.

Tournaments are a great way to find out who the best fighter is, but at the end of the day, it’s still the names that count.

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