Wall Street Journal reporter Lee Hawkins recently sat down with Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney to talk about the growth of Bellator, where it's headed, where the sport of mixed martial arts is headed and what challenges remain for the Bellator brand to succeed.
Look, Rebney is clearly a bright guy. His personal lexicon always tells me he's got a healthy appreciation for numbers and being cognizant of financial realities. And the success of Bellator is in no uncertain terms a boon for the sport of MMA.
All that said, Hawkins either took this assignment unwittingly or did not do his homework or both.
MMA's audience has some overlap with boxing, but not much. That MMA is slowly supplanting boxing as the dominant combat sport in North America or at least the combat sport of choice is true. But it's not drawing away the core boxing audience. Boxing fans aren't leaving their sport for MMA, at least not many of them. MMA's audience is much more a crossover of the professional wrestling crowd (much to my personal dismay) and a new segment of fight fans who were never fight fans before. The assertion that MMA's market share is growing at boxing's expense is mistaking causation for correlation.
And while Bellator being on MTV2 is certainly intriguing, the challenges are even greater for the brand at this level. First, non-UFC MMA tends to trend toward older audiences, something the MTV2 platform doesn't readily offer. If the play by Bellator is to be on Spike if and when the UFC jumps for NBC, then ok, that's smart. But if the strategy is to milk an audience that isn't really there, well, use your imagination.
Third, the piece doesn't mention Strikeforce. After the UFC, there isn't much MMA market share left. After UFC and Strikeforce, the pickings are even slimmer. The easiest explanation for this from my vantage point is traffic. We cover Bellator because, again, the promotion puts on meaningful and exciting fights. But if we were concerned with manpower resources and had to make a choice to not cover it to prioritize for the bigger leagues, we would. And that's important because with this new MTV2 deal, Bellator is going head-to-head with Strikeforce.
Everyone in MMA is so sensitive and naturally cheer leads any sort of effort that being a critical voice often results in angry emails or general ostracism. But at some point, we have to be candid with the challenges, institutional roadblocks and actually ask, "can this work?". So, can Bellator work? Maybe, but I don't like the odds in this fight.