Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney: This Sport Speaks For Itself

(Bjorn Rebney with Bellator Middleweight Champion Hector Lombard. Courtesy of Bellator.)

Bjorn Rebney didn’t make his decision to launch a mixed martial arts promotion lightly.

“I always say to people, every time I go to the dentist and I sit down in the chair, the stuff he does looks remarkably simple,” says Rebney, “but I never do it myself because I’m not a dentist.”

But the CEO of Bellator Fighting Championship did have years of experience in the fight business, having worked with legendary boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard. That’s why he believes that half way through Bellator’s second season, his upstart MMA league is positioned for long-term success.

“There were a lot of people who opportunistically jumped into this space; ‘Well I know the young male demo!’ There’s a huge collection of drivers that go into the slight potential that you have in this space to be successful economically,” says Rebney. The promoter rattles off a list of complex variables like sponsorship procurement, the dynamics of structuring venue deals, the ability to work with multiple athletic commissions simultaneously, fighter recruitment and contract negotiations, structuring deals for domestic and international television broadcast, marketing, publicity and licensing.

“There’s so many pieces to this that the people at the organizations that have come and gone didn’t understand and/or they came from a place of success, whether it be t-shirts or comic books or gambling where they thought, ‘Well I know this, how difficult can this be?’ It is difficult,” he says. “It is very difficult and if it wasn’t difficult everybody would be doing it.”

Launched in 2009, Bellator immediately differentiated itself by using a 12-week tournament format which took the guesswork out of matchmaking and allowed stars to emerge based on the strength of their performances alone. “I think those are substantial points of difference and I think we will draw an audience and it will help us crossover and clear up some of that ambiguity that people have that the UFC and MMA are interchangeable,” he says.

Rebney continues, saying that, “the players that have come in and failed miserably and are now gone is that there was no recognizable point of difference that gave people any kind of an option or a choice. And where many of those groups tried to establish a point of difference that gave people any kind of an option or a choice, they tried to establish a point of difference that was a detriment to the sport. In other words, if you’re point of difference is a team concept, which is about counterintuitive for mixed martial arts as any conceivable marketing concept you can put together, fighters walking out of the mouths of dragons and girls dancing on poles, those are counterintuitive negatives to the sport.”

Bellator also solved a riddle that has proved vexing for every MMA promotion; network television. The first season saw the crowning of divisional champions at 145, 155, 170, and 185 pounds on ESPN Deportes. Highlights of fight-finished strikes and submissions went viral after being posted on YouTube and the flurry of spinning backfists, flying knees and reverse inverted triangles created a buzz for the upstart promotion.

But when Bellator Fighting Championship’s second season kicked off on April 8, 2010 in Hollywood, Fla., it marked the end of a nearly 10-month hiatus.

“We will never go down, we will never go dark for that kind of period ever again,” says Bjorn Rebney. According to the promoter, Bellator needed the time to parlay the successes of the first season into deals that would ensure long-term growth.

In those 10 months, Bellator inked a deal with Fox Sports Net to air its live Thursday-night shows on regional FSN channels and came to agreements with NBC and Telemundo to deliver weekly highlight shows. The season one announcing team of ESPN’s Jon Anik and fighter, actor, and FIGHT! contributor Jason Chambers was replaced by Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith and the promotion signed an impressive collection of free agent veterans and up-and-coming prospects to fill out its second season tourneys.

The winners of those tournaments will challenge Bellator’s current champs in season three, during which the promotion will likely crown champions at 135, 205, heavyweight, and a yet-to-be-determined women’s weight class. The promotion also signed gaming website Ultimate Bet as a signature sponsor and partnered with Everlast to provide Bellator’s circular cage as well as training equipment, training and competition gear, and Bellator-branded merchandise. The promotion announced every deal and signing in a steady trickle of press releases for months leading up to the start of the season, generating conversation among hardcore fans even when there were no fights to discuss.

Though the company has struggled to sell tickets to some of its sparsely attended events, Bellator doesn’t rely as heavily on gate receipts as other promotions, opting instead to produce high-quality events for television in smaller venues such as the Chicago Theater, Boston’s Wang Theatre and Nokia Theater in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex and the Mohegan Sun, Seminole Hard Rock, and Kansas City Live! casinos.

Bellator made waves last year by offering relatively large purses to relatively unknown fighters, with tournament winners guaranteed $175,000 over the course of three wins. But Rebney says that’s part of the strategy, not a spendthrift play to get attention. “Ultimately, if you’re doing it right, your money should be going into your production, your fighters and your marketing,” he says. “The other aspects of it should be on just as much of a shoe string that you can possibly do because ultimately the thing that’s going to move the brand forward is the qualitative level of the events and the qualitative level of the production and the fights.”

According to MMAJunkie fighter compensation has been scaled back to a $100,000 maximum take for tournament winners, but Bellator’s pay scale still exceeds what a fighter would likely make in his first few fights with any of the major organizations excluding Fight of the Night bonuses. With strong ratings in FSN markets reported following April’s season two debut, Rebney is confident that Bellator is riding a wave that has yet to crest.

“In the growth curve of sports and sports entertainment vehicles, this is in its infancy. Its track record to date is spectacular for a sport in its infancy. It exceeds the growth curve of any major sport I can think of including basketball baseball and football,” he says. According to Rebney, that’s because the product has an undeniable appeal.

“Nine out of 10 MMA fights whether they’re on a barn show or a nationally televised or a pay-per-view, they’re exciting and entertaining and magic to watch. One out of 10 boxing events are that way,” he says. “This sport speaks for itself.”

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