Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney isn't to blame for Bellator's roller coaster ratings, but he might be the only person who can convince MTV2 that competing with the UFC on Saturdays is detrimental to the promotion's success.
In February, Bellator, the consensus #2 mixed martial arts promotion in North America in today's market, signed a three-year deal with MTV2 to air live events. Understandably, fans following the promotion became giddy with excitement. No longer would they have to wait for tape-delayed broadcasts or other fans in different markets to upload the events to the Internet. The deal guaranteed live events and easy accessibility with the hope that it would bring higher ratings and more revenue.
The initial numbers drew heavy criticism from the ignorant segments of the fanbase, mostly because comparisons were being made with the averages of other promotions on television. MTV2 doesn't have the pull or reach of Spike TV and it isn't a subscription-based network like Showtime, thus Bellator 35's 200,000 viewer debut was seen as a success for the network. It was a 83% increase in viewership in the 18-49 demographic for MTV2.
As the year has progressed however, those ratings haven't been steady. In fact, one could make the comparison that the ratings' trend is a roller coaster ride with no stability in sight. The culprit of Bellator's lows? The UFC.
From Bellator's debut with the network at Bellator 35 to their most recent event this past Saturday at Bellator 53, ten of those shows have fallen below the debut mark of 200,000 viewers. Of those ten events, five of those events went head-to-head with the UFC while one of the events shared a weekend:
|Bellator 53||103,000||UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard, NCAA Football|
|Bellator 50||114,000||UFC Fight Night 25|
|Bellator 41||132,000||Warren vs. Galvao, Freire vs. Reis|
|Bellator 38||150,000||UFC Fight Night 24|
|Bellator 51||158,000||UFC 135: Jackson vs. Jones|
|Bellator 37||173,000||UFC 128: Shogun vs. Jones|
|Bellator 39||174,000||LW Title: Alvarez vs. Curran|
|Bellator 43||182,000||Hieron vs. Hawn|
|Bellator 46||185,000||Same weekend as UFC on Versus|
|Bellator 42||199,000||LHW Semifinals|
The data includes all head-to-head match-ups with the UFC with the exception of Bellator 52. Not surprising, Bellator 46 is included on the list, which didn't go head-to-head, but shared a weekend with a UFC on Versus card. It was the lone Bellator event in a six-event stretch that dipped below the 200,000 mark. Even when they aren't on the same night, they can't win due to the media focus on the UFC.
I imagine many of you will look at this data and say "This won't matter once they move to Spike TV". You're wrong. It will matter, although the number will be inflated to an average more suitable for Spike TV's reach in the market. That move is still up in the air due to the chess game between the UFC and Spike TV over library rights. If the UFC won't buy back the library rights, Viacom, MTV2's parent company, can't move Bellator over to Spike TV. Spike TV can, however, counter program UFC events with their own library. From every indication, Dana White has no intention of buying back the library, thus Bellator will stay on MTV2 in 2012.
Bellator's uphill climb will only get steeper in the coming year. The UFC is increasing their event output to 34 events, plus adding live The Ultimate Fighter fights weekly on Friday nights for a majority of the weeks throughout the year. Where exactly does Bellator go if the historically prime spots for MMA are taken by the world's largest organization?
Sherdog.com's Jordan Breen suggested that any day but Saturday would suffice, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Friday night will be filled with The Ultimate Fighter live shows and HDNet's MMA programming, not to mention the fact that the male demographic on those nights is more prone to leaving the house over sitting in front of the television. Sunday nights have become mainstays for other professional sports. Sunday night football and baseball will take viewers away.
Breen later suggested Thursday. It shouldn't be a suggestion however. I think that's the best night for Bellator to stabilize their ratings' roller coaster. Limited competition from other sports, a late week time slot, and the move could easily transition to Spike TV if they move TNA wrestling to a new time or a new day. Attempting to move start times on Saturday, as Rebney stated to MMAJunkie radio back in February, isn't going to work, not when the UFC takes up the entire evening with Facebook prelims, Spike TV prelims, and then the pay-per-view.
Media coverage is another major issue, and it isn't going to get any better by publicly stating that media outlets need to give Bellator a fair share. It's absurd and delusional to think that every media site is going to devote equal time to both promotions, especially when every single shred of evidence points to the UFC being the more prominent brand. That's exactly why Bellator 46 saw a ratings' dip, and everything needs to be done to avoid those conflicts.
There are other minor issues like the fact that there is a very limited HD option for the shows. I don't get Epix HD, and there is a large number of fans out there who have no idea what it is or how to get it.
We can't blame CEO Bjorn Rebney here. Obviously, they are restricted to MTV2's decisions. The staff in charge of programming at MTV2 might be a group of college dropouts for all I know. According to these geniuses of the television world, Rob & Big marathons are worthy of the Thursday time slot and Bellator is stuck getting eviscerated in the ratings' game against the UFC on Saturdays. It's time to show MTV2 or their parent company, Viacom, the raw data and persuade them that the ratings will increase with a move. If they can't do that, Bellator may not make it to Spike TV in 2013.