A few weeks ago in this space, we discussed the need for a strong competitor to light a fire under UFC. Currently, UFC’s most potent competitor is the Viacom owned Bellator promotion lead by former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. But despite strong corporate ownership, a solid TV clearance, and continuing talent acquisitions, Bellator TV viewership continues to decline.
At this moment, Bellator is airing a tape-delayed show from Tel Aviv, Israel on Paramount Network. There is next to no buzz or interest in this show. The long tape delay doesn’t help, but realistically, there wouldn’t be much interest if it were live. Bellator 233, a week ago, headlined by John Salter and Costello van Steesis averaged 314,000 viewers, which is only about 20,000 viewers shy of the 2019 average.
Thru 13 events in 2019 #Bellator is averaging 333k viewers.
in 2018: 452k
in 2017: 696k
in 2016: 740k
in 2015: 755k
in 2014: 664k
in 2013: 761k
(Paramount/Spike TV viewership only and figures do not include +3 DVR ratings)
— Jed I. Goodman (@jedigoodman) November 11, 2019
The average Bellator viewership has declined year over year for four years straight and is half of what it was just two years ago. The decline is alarming as Bellator seems to be doing a lot right when it comes to their on-air presentation and in presenting unique experiences like the grand prix tournaments, but none of it is clicking with audiences. With UFC moving the majority of its content to ESPN+ this year, one would think that would create a gap in the market for MMA on cable TV that Bellator could fill. But that hasn’t been the case.
Bellator has developed a reputation for being the promotion that offers fun or freak-show fights (depending on your perspective) featuring aging former stars, but their peak viewership in 2015, featured only one such fight. Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock peaked at 2.4 million viewers, but the rest of the 2015 Bellator lineup comprised of Bellator mainstays of the time such as Will Brooks, Liam McGeary or Alexander Shlemenko.
Since then, Bellator has acquired big names from the past in Fedor Emelianenko, Rampage Jackson, and others while also picking up current fighters in the peaks of their careers like Rory MacDonald and Ryan Bader, but still, viewership continues to plummet.
One explanation could be viewer fatigue. UFC has flooded the landscape with near-weekly events, leaving little room for all but the most ardent of fans to consume any more MMA. But UFC had been running 40 plus events a year before the Bellator declines began.
It could also be possible that the deluge of past UFC fighters brought in after Coker took control in 2014 has turned off fans who see them as past their primes since they’re not in the UFC. It’s possible that the average viewer may not be able to differentiate between a Rory MacDonald and a Wanderlei Silva. When these UFC fighters come in and start beating the homegrown Bellator talent, it can create a perception of being the minor leagues.
Viacom purchased Bellator in late 2011 to fill the void that UFC was leaving on Spike TV when they left for Fox. When Spike transitioned to become Paramount Network, Bellator was still figured in as a key part of its lineup. But with ratings falling into the low six-figures, the cost of running an MMA promotion may not outweigh the low return. As a contrast, Paramount’s top-rated show, “Yellowstone,” averaged 5.1 million viewers for its second season which wrapped in September.
At the very least, Viacom may be best served to cut some of the big contracts they are likely paying former UFC fighters. If viewership is to remain low, Bellator may want to change its strategy and focus on developing its own fighters and try and create stars internally. This would likely mean the end of Coker as Bellator CEO.
Former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney was criticized for his rigid adherence to the old Bellator tournament structure, but perhaps several years of declining ratings under Coker’s “tentpole” strategy of several big events a year featuring former UFC stars have shown that Rebney’s format offers the week to week continuity that may be necessary to keep fans engaged in 2019.
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