A lot happened this week, but one of the more interesting stories we snoozed on was Viacom purchasing Bellator. Having a lot of implications for MMA and MMA on television as a whole, we were lucky enough to pick the brain of Sean Malone, editor of Inside The Cage MMA, for his input on how the move will change MMA and sports media.
2011 may very well go down in history as the biggest year for mixed martial arts (MMA). Despite the sports ever-growing popularity mainstream acceptance has been slow to come for a sport that uniformed politicians have labeled “barbaric” and “human cockfighting.” However, it seems that the winds of change are beginning to blow in favor of MMA as this year has seen some legitimate gains in mainstream acceptance. The most recent example of this change came this week as media conglomerate Viacom announced that they had purchased a majority stake in the Chicago-based MMA promotion Bellator. Granted, to the casual MMA observer the UFC is the only game in town and while there is no doubting the fact that the Las Vegas-based powerhouse is the number one global MMA promotion, many mid-tier MMA promotions are beginning to make measurable gains in the burgeoning marketplace. This is why the news of Viacom’s purchase of Bellator is such a big deal; it begins to dispel the myth that the UFC is the only game in town.
Make no mistake; the UFC is still the preeminent MMA promotion in the world. If we were to play a word association game the UFC would be to MMA what Band-Aid is to adhesive bandages. The UFC’s grip on the MMA marketplace has reached unfathomable levels this year as the made two game changing power moves in 2011. The first, and probably most surprising, was the UFC’s acquisition of its biggest competitor Strikeforce this past spring. There were many, including myself, who felt that on any given night Strikeforce could have given the UFC a run for its money in terms of action inside the cage. Apparently, UFC President Dana White and company felt the same way which is why they purchased the finically hemorrhaging promotion. Since the acquisition, the UFC has not-so-subtlety began siphoning the top-tier Strikeforce talent leaving the promotion with a cast of unrecognizable young fighters. Of course, this move has led to some individuals wondering aloud if the UFC was becoming a monopoly. These fears reached a fevered pitch when the UFC announced a landmark deal with the FOX Network that will bring MMA to broadcast television in November.
When the UFC acquired Strikeforce this year Bellator suddenly found themselves as the number two domestic MMA promotion. But while Bellator may now be second fiddle behind only the UFC/Strikeforce the gap between the two may as well be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Undaunted, Bellator has slowly become a viable upstart promotion. Possessing neither the recognition nor the finances of the UFC, Bellator has carved a niche for itself amount the most die-hard of MMA fans with their eight-man seasonal tournaments that guarantee MMA on a weekly basis for large portions of the year. That reliability coupled with a string of exciting fights seemingly on every show. But all that has seemed like it has been for naught as Bellator has been plagued with some of the worst broadcast deals in the sport. Stops on ESPN Deported, FOX Sports Net, and its current home on MTV2 have given many people fits trying to even locate the channels Bellator is broadcast on. But that is all going to change here in the very near future with Viacom providing some much needed exposure for Bellator.
Viacom is not exactly a stranger to MMA. After all, they own Showtime which broadcasts Strikeforce and M-1 Global cards as well as owning Bellator’s current broadcast partner MTV2. But this fails to mention Viacom’s biggest contribution to modern day MMA in the form of Spike TV. Spike TV has enjoyed prosperity as a result of its contract with the UFC that saw the creation of the popular reality series The Ultimate Fighter. To hear the UFC tell it, the success of that show saved the UFC from the brink of financial ruin. However, the relationship between Spike TV and the UFC has soured over the course of contract negotiation this year prior to the UFC jumping to FOX. With MMA firmly entrenched in the DNA of Spike TV it was clear that they were looking at Bellator to fill the void that will be left in 2012 by the UFC. Viacom’s purchase ensures that not only do they have a viable MMA promotion to fill the needs of their networks, most importantly, Spike TV. In fact, the announcement has already been made that Bellator will find itself on Spike in 2013. The UFC and Spike still have a contract in place through 2012 to show archived UFC fights.
But aside from the immediate beneficial impact to Bellator, Viacom’s investment in MMA gives hope to other smaller promotions that they too can compete and be financially viable despite the 800-lbs gorilla that is the UFC. We are beginning to see an increasing comfort in major networks and MMA. With MMA incredibly popular in the coveted 18-34 male demographic more and more networks are seeing MMA as a way to attract advertisers. This is the real story here. With Viacom, FOX, and HDNet making significant investments in showcasing MMA on their airwaves the sport will continue to gain momentum in the public conscious and with that comes widespread acceptance. MMA has long-battled a stigma of being “too violent” for mainstream consumption and when major networks begin to actively market the sport to the casual sports fan the sport of mixed martial arts as a whole, the fighters, the fans, the promoters all reap the benefits.