End of year report: Bellator

As WHOA TV’s end of year report series draws to a close, Bellator remains one of the leading promotions who have not yet been evaluated. The US promotion have had some landmark moments this year including being involved with the rebranding of Spike TV to Paramount Network, setting up the Heavyweight World Grand Prix and making a deal with the streaming service DAZN. Bellator held 22 shows across North America and Europe, two of which were part of the recent back to back nights of events in Hawaii which gave the promotion bragging rights over the UFC for being the first major promotion to hold significant events in the state.

Attention to detail

The turn of the year saw the Viacom owned promotion move homes on US TV as Spike TV was taken off of the air and replaced by Paramount Network. Changing broadcast partners is never easy for any promotion to handle as MMA fans are creatures of habit so it essential to give fans plenty of notice about the change and make sure that they know where to find the product. The move to Paramount Network hasn’t been as successful as Bellator would have hoped with many US fans wondering if Bellator is a good fit for the TV audience that the network is trying to hit.

Due to the change of networks and the desire to give production a fresh feel, Jay Glazier and Jenn Brown were brought on board to host the desk and provide backstage interviews respectively. This helped make shows come across as bigger sporting events and the updated graphics package were slick and a welcome update. This did, however, lead to complaints from fans as the pacing of shows could be painful to sit through at times. There were occasions where only one fight was shown during the first hour of a broadcast that wouldn’t have kept casual fans or the general public’s attention if they were channel hopping. This needs to be improved for next year to make the viewing experience more enjoyable.

June saw the announcement of a five year, nine figure distribution deal with online streaming service DAZN that Bellator president Scott Coker called a game changer for the company. The deal involved shows being simulcast on Paramount Network and DAZN whilst seven events per year will be exclusive to DAZN. These exclusive events are some of Bellator’s biggest shows which means that the number of eyeballs on the product could well be reduced as it isn’t on cable television. This is the trade off that Bellator were willing to make though, with the company deciding that the cash for the deal was worth more than the increased potential audience. They have already used some of that cash to strike big money deals with Lyoto Machida, Vitaly Minakov and a plethora of European talent which will help to add to the quality of future events.

Social Development

One of the main ways that the company pushed the move to Paramount Network was to say that it was the home of the Heavyweight World Grand Prix. This tournament was filled with some of the biggest names that Bellator has and would be used to crown the first Heavyweight Champion since 2014. These matchups provided some fun fights that got fans talking and is an intriguing way to crown a new champion but it feels as though the tournament has been going on forever. With the tournament looking to be wrapped up in January of next year, it would be great if the upcoming Welterweight World Grand Prix could take place over a quicker timeframe.

Another big step forward for the promotion this year was the release of the new Bellator app which meant that every event’s prelims could be streamed for free all around the world. These fights were previously blacked out in different countries so this welcome change meant that more viewers could access part of the Bellator product.

The end of the year also saw the promotion send Bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell down to Japan to compete against Kyoji Horiguchi for the RIZIN Bantamweight title. This move benefitted both promotions and both fighters so it will be interesting to see if Scott Coker looks to extend this idea to his other fighters next year if no suitable matchups are available within the company. It’s always fun to see champions from different promotions clash and it’s interesting when promotional barriers are removed so the company should be applauded for thinking outside of the box.

Attendance

With the majority of the events taking place in the US and with Bellator not publicly releasing ticket sales, it is hard to make a definitive judgement about attendance. On television, arenas have always looked pretty full although it is impossible to tell which tickets have been bought and which were given out as concessions. The landmark Bellator 200 show took place inside Wembley arena and although it was mostly full, there were areas of empty seats towards the back of the arena.

Progress

One of Bellator’s biggest areas of progress over 2018 has been the increase of ‘big’ fights booked as well as the additional number of signings made to improve the overall quality and depth of the roster. The prelim cards have really improved during the year with more recognisable names appearing on them and fights such as MacDonald v Lima, Fedor v Mir, Mousasi v MacDonald and Primus v Chandler felt like fights that couldn’t be missed. These fights were up there with some of the best that any promotion in the world could put on.

However, the company took a step back when it came to TV ratings in the US. According to MMA Payout, the viewership for 2018 was 428,000 compared to the 2017 average of 614,000. Only four of the events this year cleared 500,000 viewers which would have been disappointing for the promotion considering the number of big and high quality fights that have taken place.

Fights cards being shown via tape delay has continued to be a problem for fans on both sides of the Atlantic. In this day and age, all sporting events should be able to be viewed live which hasn’t been the case with Bellator. The DAZN deal in the US has helped with this recently although the big title fight between Patricio Pitbull and Emmanuel Sanchez was still shown after the event had taken place so it was extremely hard for fans to miss online spoilers. The situation in the UK has been even worse with fans often having to wait at least 24 hours to view the action. Bellator showed the Mousasi v MacDonald card live on Channel 5 but was infamously interrupted by Peppa Pig in the early hours which meant that the main event never got to air. The lack of a live broadcast deal has majorly held the company back in the UK.

Overall Mark B

Bellator have had a good year and have put on some of the biggest fights and cards in their history during 2018. The new financial backing from DAZN should give them even more resources to compete with the UFC to sign the biggest names in the sport. With the UFC putting on so many events, it’s always going to be hard for other US promotions to gain traction and stand out but Bellator have achieved this on many occasions over the year.

Next year, it will be interesting to see if the company’s willingness to send stars to compete on other promotion’s cards continues, as well as seeing which other free agents Bellator will pursue. Young prospects such as Aaron Pico and AJ McKee will be expected to take another step up and add to the number of fighters that Bellator can claim to be the best in that weight class, regardless of promotion.

The progress of Bellator Europe and the impact it has on the European scene will be fascinating to monitor next year. A UK TV deal announcement should also be on its way in the coming weeks with Channel 5 being the rumoured front runner after a deal with BT Sport broke down earlier this month due to the UFC returning to the channel.

 

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