Pay-Per-Views and Paper Feuds

Bellator’s maiden voyage into the world of PPV is intriguing, if also a little doomed.

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There’s a great divide between the acronyms of MMA and PPV. It’s what sets the game’s greatest acronym—the UFC—apart from lesser organizations. The UFC is a pay-per-view driven business that has expanded into such things as broadcast television in its unyielding quest to take over the globe. Today, the UFC is a key cog on FOX and flagshipped on FOX Sports 1, a crowning achievement for a “fringe” sport that was still referred to as “human cockfighting” when Everlast’s “What It’s Like” was atop the rock charts (or, to cut the math out of it, as recently as 1998).

Even with the network advancements, it’s the PPVs that drive the promotion.

Bellator, on the other hand, is going in for the opposite tact. The tournament-based company that started out on the cable network ESPN Deportes—yet has since segued to the Viacom networks MTV2 and now the MMA propeller blade Spike TV—is hosting its very first PPV show on November 2 in Long Beach, California. The principals are familiar names: Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz, both former champions who helped push the UFC’s business model forward in their day. They are past glories, yes, but the hope is they’ve got enough “it factor” to move the PPV needle. They did not emerge from a tournament, which is Bellator’s structure.

They were brought in as attractions.

This feels like a lesson about to be learned. There are certain factors in play that make PPV complicated. It takes time and consistency to make your way into people’s disposable income. The UFC started with PPVs, so by now we expect to spend. We accept this, and it’s now part of our hardwiring. Bellator didn’t, so we don’t. To add an extra “payment” to the already pricey schedule is like getting hit with an unforeseen tax—only it’s an unforeseen tax we have the option of paying or not.
It doesn’t hurt that the UFC markets the hell out of most PPV cards. UFC cards feel like “events,” even on sadder ones where Randy Couture is fighting Mark Coleman in a headlining spot (UFC 109). The “past champions collide” motif has legs, so long as you create them. Whether or not Bellator will (or even can) create them is the question.

Bellator’s maiden voyage into the world of PPV is intriguing, if also a little doomed.

Everybody knows that the coattail factor in play for Bellator’s first PPV event is the elephant in the room. By having “Rampage” and the erstwhile “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” tangle long after they lost their steam, the old “UFC retread” hurdle might just be too much for some to try and clear. The UFC commands your dollar for the privilege of watching two dramas collide. Bellator is commanding your dollar to determine what’s left of those dramas. These are two very different premises from which to approach a fight.

The biggest challenge, though, is that the UFC has established itself as the pro league, like the NBA or NFL, and Bellator right now is still the USFL. That’s why, just as the USFL brought up its own stars like Herschel Walker and Steve Young back in the day, the real main event should be—and is in some people’s minds—the rematch between Eddie Alvarez and Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler.

Alvarez is fresh off of litigation in a tug-of-war between Bellator and the UFC for his rights—and it’s possible that this inaugural PPV is all about Alvarez and the verbiage in his UFC-dictated contract. Not that people care about that so much as the general history between the two. Alvarez has a loss to avenge. Chandler has a victory to back up, and he’s right now a legitimate top lightweight in any promotion. Alvarez and Chandler put on one of the best fights of 2011, and there’s nothing to say they won’t do it again. Each man gets hit more than is safe, which means more than plenty of fun.

This fight is, of course, PPV worthy. The Pat Curran-Daniel Strauss fight also showcases Bellator’s best. Just as Chandler is a top 155-pounder, Curran is one of the top featherweights in the world. Then there’s Muhammad Lawal, who gets a chance to avenge his promotional debut loss to Emanuel Newton. That’s compelling, too. Lawal is still a mountain of untapped potential. All of these are Bellator fights that would be coveted by the UFC. These are fights that could conceivably compete for the UFC dollar.

Will any of that translate into success on November 2? That’s the question. The Jackson-Ortiz fight is interesting in that it breaks an important barrier here. We are used to those names being associated with PPV. There’s a lingering perception that Ortiz and Jackson “cost money.” As for everyone else, since we’re being asked to pay for something that we normally get for free, these better pieces are the toughest to sell.

And, in a nutshell, that is just how complicated the world of PPV is.

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