The Bellator Fighting Championships were labeled as being a "first of its kind" when it was first reported as a new promotion that would air on ESPN Deportes. The unique tagline came with the idea that the fighters would be pushed to the absolute limit of their physical abilities by fighting in divisonal tournaments while being only given, at the most, a month off between battles. While some of us within the MMA blogosphere felt that this could turn ugly if stars were suspended by the commission due to trauma, the gamble paid off for Bellator as they will see an end to their first season on Friday night with buzz circulating that the promotion will broadcast to English-speaking audiences in the fall.
For a first year promotion, Bellator has truly been a success story. Bellator took full advantage of having deep resources at their disposal by finding some of the best young talent out there that had yet to be sucked up by the Zuffa vacuum. Fighters like Joe Soto, Yahir Reyes, Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Jorge Masvidal, and Lyman Good were all fortunate enough to land in the upstart promotion. Alvarez, Masvidal, and Lombard are names that fans recognize, but they are only a small piece of the puzzle that makes up Bellator's success.
What has worked well for this promotion over the first season? We should probably ask the question as to what hasn't worked. For starters, Bellator has provided MMA fans with some of the most fantastic finishes we've seen in any promotion this year. Nick Pace's flying knee win over Collin Tebo, Chad Leonhardt knock out of Dan Keenan, Yahir Reyes' spinning backfist knockout, and Toby Imada's inverted triangle choke win over Jorge Masvidal were all impressive feats over the course of the season. They also brought in solid UFC veterans to help draw some ratings, and they began the process of potentially bringing in a women's division with fighters Jesse Aguilar, Rosi Sexton, and Kerry Vera.
Impressive finishes will help Bellator's appeal to the casual fanbase, but building future stars is the most important aspect to Bellator's future success. Joe Soto is the perfect example of a fighter that exceeded all expectations. Soto managed to enter the Bellator featherweight field at 4-0 and defeat three solid featherweight prospects including an upset win over highly-touted Wilson Reis. Furthermore, Toby Imada was also able to pull off an insane inverted triangle choke on another talented fighter in Jorge Masvidal and now will fight for the lightweight crown on Friday. Bellator has lucked out in having fighters of this caliber produce such exciting performances and go above and beyond what many fans expected out of them.
Bellator is now looking to expand their exposure. The promotion has hinted at the possibility of being aired on ESPN2 or even ESPN. Bellator will have English-speaking commentary in ESPN Live's Jon Anik and MMA fighter Jason Chambers, but it's unclear as to what network will air the events. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney discussed ratings and the potential move to MMAJunkie's Dann Stupp back in April:
Rebney said the shows, which airs on a 24-hour tape delay on ESPN's Spanish-language station, are doing solid ratings, even during second runs on its home at ESPN Deportes.
"Our [April 17] show (in Oklahoma) ran last week, and a replay 48 hours after the original broadcast did a 1.2 (household rating)," Rebney said. "That's a great number especially for a replay. Anything over a 1.0 is pretty strong."
Before this season even began, MMAjunkie.com heard from sources close to both ESPN and Bellator that any level of success could lead the shows from a spot on ESPN Deportes to a higher-profile slot on ESPN or ESPN2. Rebney hinted at such a move while discussing the ratings.
With a 1.2 rating on ESPN Deportes for a replay show, it's safe to say that the promotion has had unbelievable numbers for being on a Spanish-speaking sports station. This is surely a sign that Bellator is on the rise, and the stars they have produced this season can only help the promotion make a push for even higher ratings and a better chance for exposure on a more well-known network like ESPN.
Rebney has talked about the possibility that next season will continue to use the tournament format with contenders being determined in the same format with the winner taking on the title holder. This should work well as their title holders won't need to fight as often, ensuring that their top talent can draw fans to the bigger shows.
On a final note, there is one more driving force that I think needs to be brought up. Many fans believe the big time promotions like the UFC, WEC, DREAM, and Sengoku could potentially take these champions out of Bellator. While I believe this is a possibility, here's something to think about. While both Faber and Brown complained a bit about the payouts received at WEC 41, Joe Soto earned $175,000 in three fights over a 2-month period. He earned $75,000 in his first 2 fights in only a month. With payouts exceeding $100,000 in a short amount of time and the fact that Bellator is willing to quickly put fighters back into the mix, it should entice a lot of fighters to think about fighting for Bellator. If Bellator manages to break into the ESPN demographic, it'll also translate to better sponsorship dollars for fighters as well.
In the overall scheme of things, Bellator's success is great in terms of creating competition. Their 145 lb. division doesn't have the star power of the WEC, but Joe Soto did just manage to make more money than many of the current WEC's roster of featherweights. I don't think it'll create any competition soon, but if an ESPN deal works its way through the grapevine... it could become an option for many fighters. In any case, congratulations are in order to Bellator. Fantastic first season!