MMA fans should not kid themselves with talk about long-term plans when it comes to the relationship between Bellator and Spike. 2013 is a massively important year for the partnership. While ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports and MTV 2 don't have much by way of ratings expectations, Spike is a completely different animal -- even if they are a network without much by way of big draw programming.
The amount of effort that the network is willing to put into Bellator with specials focusing on past fights and new fighters shows that they want to get something legitimate out of their relationship with the promotion and, assuming realistic expectations, there is a fair chance they could be quite happy.
But networks don't waste time with programming that fails to come close to living up to what they expect. So now should be a time where Bellator is making sure that every bit of news about them is positive and will make MMA fans want to tune in and support them.
Which is why it makes no sense for Bjorn Rebney and Bellator to fight so hard to keep Eddie Alvarez on their roster when he does not want to be there.
This is not a discussion of legally right vs. legally wrong. It's simple PR.
The way that the story has spun over the last week has made Alvarez the sympathetic figure. He finished out his contract and wants to leave but Bellator exercised their right to match his contract. However, they can't really match the contract because Alvarez has a PPV bonus on the UFC deal which Rebney says they matched in case they do move into the PPV arena. But Bellator could put on the biggest fight they possibly could and would probably be lucky to draw 30,000 buys at anything over $15. While a lot of the old PPV deals gave fighters $1 per buy (2% at a $50 price) or even more than that, even a deal that gives him only half a percent (0.5%) of a bottom end 120,000 UFC PPV buys at $50 a piece would grant him an extra $30,000 for a fight, about 43% of what he gets for show money under the deal.
When Rebney says that they don't have to match "projections" in their deal -- meaning things like potential money to be made off PPV -- he isn't wrong. But that doesn't mean that fans won't feel for Eddie for wanting to go somewhere where he could, in theory, easily make more than an extra $100,000 per year if he's put on a few absolute low-end PPV cards with a lower than normal PPV percentage. While not something that will make him "rich" it is life altering money that could guarantee his family be in a good position when his short window as a fighter closes.
And, Bellator's rather despicable history of dealings with fighters does them no favors in terms of public sympathy in this situation. They've enforced matching clauses in the past with guys that they released from contracts without ever giving fights, so plenty of people already do think too highly of their dealings with fighters on an ethical level, regardless of the legality.
All they've really managed to do is set up a situation where no one is talking about the launch of the new season on Spike when they talk Bellator. They're only talking about Alvarez and his desire to leave and their attempts to retain him anyway. Nobody is talking about the show in under ten days with two title fights -- including one with the guy that beat Eddie -- and Babalu's first round bout in the 205 tournament. It's all about Alvarez.
There's also the bigger question of "why?"
Why does Bellator care that much about Alvarez? I've seen people talk about how he's one of their only true "superstars," but...is he really?
Let's look at his last four fights in the promotion - covering all of 2011 and 2012:
- Bellator 39 - Alvarez beats Pat Curran - 174,000 viewers - Of the 11 events held that season, 7 do more viewers than this title defense.
- Bellator 58 - Alvarez loses to Michael Chandler - 269,000 viewers - A very good rating, tied for the third biggest of the season. A good sign, right?
- Bellator 66 - Alvarez beats Shinya Aoki - 109,000 viewers - His next fight after the tremendous bout with Chandler is against a top rated fighter, one of the biggest possible fights Bellator could put on. And it barely breaks 100,000 viewers. Second to lowest viewership of the season for a show that people thought could have set a Bellator ratings record.
- Bellator 76 - Alvarez beats Patricky Freire - 175,000 viewers - Third biggest ratings of the season. Slightly above season average.
Rebney says that they have paid him over $900,000 so far and are waiting to give him a quarter million dollar signing bonus right now and pay him potentially $140,000 per fight ($70k show/$70k win)? Why? Where is the value?
He has not become a particularly bigger fighter or bigger draw over his time with Bellator. He has not made viewers tune-in in record numbers or even "way above average" numbers during his time with the promotion. That simply doesn't seem to be a value add that is worth the monetary commitment.
There's the argument that Spike offers tools to market him more effectively, but they have those tools for everyone, even the guys on the cards that have drawn better than him over the last several seasons, who cost a lot less. And the idea that extra marketing would make him a bigger star is all theoretical anyway and still dependent on his holding up his end of the bargain in the cage. Something that may not be as likely if his heart isn't in the fight.
So I suppose I'm just left unsure of why it is so important that Bellator suffer unnecessary PR hits, unnecessary attention being taken away from their season launch and unnecessary money being spent just to keep a single fighter. They've bulked up their roster, they use a format that should be good for development of homegrown stars, this is not a promotion that should be dependent on one or two individuals the way they were with big swings at guys like Roger Huerta, a disaster of a signing in its own right.
In the end it's not about legality, it's about business savvy on a PR and financial level. Keeping Eddie Alvarez isn't worth the hassle, it's time to let him go.