Back in August after the UFC announced that it had inked an historic deal with Fox, one of the major questions rooted from the news was whether Bellator Fighting Championships, now the assumed #2 promotion in the landscape of MMA after Zuffa acquired Strikeforce, would replace the UFC on Spike TV. In the months leading up to the deal, rumors circulated that Spike TV executives were seen at Bellator's events, and those rumors were confirmed after the UFC/Fox deal by a number of media outlets. Bellator champions Joe Warren and Eddie Alvarez have been involved in promoting future Bellator events on Spike TV professional wrestling programs. The assumptions weren't without proof. Spike TV was toying with the idea all along.
Now, a report from MMAJunkie.com's Dann Stupp confirms what many of us already knew. Viacom, Spike TV and MTV2's parent company, is keen to the idea of moving Bellator to Spike TV. According to the report, a source stated, "It's going to happen. It's not 'if' but 'when.' Throw 'if' out the window. The only question is if it's next year or the year after."
A deal seems clear cut considering Viacom owns both MTV2 and Spike TV, but the UFC still has the ability to thwart Bellator's efforts to make the transition. It isn't without its own consequences however:
While Spike TV no longer will air live UFC events after this year, its existing contract allows it to air the UFC library (including past events, former "TUF" seasons, "UFC Unleashed" episodes and specialty programming) in 2012. However, as long as Spike TV has the rights to the content, it can't air programming - including live events - from other organizations, such as Bellator, until 2013.
However, the UFC could purchase and reclaim the library if it can reach a deal with Spike TV.
"If they made a decent offer, we'd probably sell," one Viacom source said. "Spike's preference next year is to have Bellator on air."
The dilemma is a question of priorities. Is the UFC truly worried about being counter-programmed by Spike TV? Or are they more worried about Bellator shifting to Spike TV, taking advantage of casual fans who can't tell the difference, and gaining some traction?
Spike TV is in an unique situation. The UFC could hurt Spike TV's chances of airing Bellator events next year, but the benefits of doing that aren't great. Casual fans won't see Spike TV as losing its spot as a destination for MMA viewing because they will still air UFC programming. They can air re-runs and old events year-round, pulling away viewers who aren't keen to the UFC's schedule.
Thoughts on what the UFC should do after the fold...
It's an interesting dilemma, one that is rooted on one factor -- the UFC's brand power. It's strange talking about the UFC's own brand power hurting itself, but that's the situation they're in right now. Spike TV could use it to diminish Zuffa's bottom line next year. The question becomes whether the UFC believes it will be affected greatly by counter programming.
We could assume that's the case, but I find it hard to believe that Spike TV's stance that fans won't know the difference sticks. Re-runs on Spike TV have outperformed live UFC events on Versus. That's the basis for their theory. FX isn't Versus. It's in way more homes, on basic cable, and receives higher ratings than even Spike TV. The UFC now has the backing of Fox's marketing machine and network of channels. The only kink in all of this is that it is presumed that the rights deal is cable exclusive. FX won't be able to use the UFC's footage to promote The Ultimate Fighter and live events on the channel next year. That problem leans me toward the UFC paying the cash to reclaim the library.
Spike TV wants to air Bellator next year however, leading some fans to theorize that Spike TV may just give up the library rights in order to move forward. If the UFC can transition most of its fanbase over to the Fox family of networks, Spike TV is only acting as another means for the UFC to saturate the market with its brand name. In my mind, the UFC will sit on their cards and let Spike TV sweat it out. With Fox behind them and a larger cable platform in FX, why buy into the notion that this is a serious situation? If they wait, some of Bellator's hot commodities will be free agents by the end of the next year anyways. Then, who will have the last laugh?