Now that Scott Coker has taken the reigns, he's (vaguely) indicated that changes are on the horizon, such as that Bellator's tournament format will still exist but be much less prominent and the event cycle will be more consistent rather than seasonal.
In your opinion, what other changes would you like to see instituted or considered to thrust Bellator into a more formidable second-place position in MMA?
Patrick Wyman: I see two interconnected changes as being essential to any project of renewal and reform. First, they have to become more athlete-friendly. By the end of Rebney's tenure, fighters were bad-mouthing the organization both on and off the record, even during the company's first PPV event (Bjorn, dick-riding ass, etc.). There are a number of different pieces that led to the decline of those relationships, but the biggest one is their contract structure. Bellator took the exploitative, restrictive, and downright awful contracts common in MMA and somehow made them even worse, and once fighters figured that out - largely through the Alvarez situation - it bled down into Bellator's ability to keep its fighters happy.
More importantly, the constant brawling over awful contracts and the litigious means that Rebney consistently used to ensure enforcement ruined his relationships with fighters and managers, and put a huge crimp in the formerly-constant flow of talented young prospects into the organization. The last two big-name prospects they signed were Darrion Caldwell and Bubba Jenkins, and in both cases they were signed before the full details of the Alvarez situation came to light.
Fixing that relationship through less restrictive and fairer contracts has to be Coker's top priority. Everything in MMA promoting starts with finding and nurturing good talent, and Bellator will die an unmourned death if it doesn't right the ship.
Anton Tabuena: I just hope they don't scrap the tournaments entirely, because I want to see Super Hluk, The Sequel with Kimbo Slice, Minowaman, James Thompson, Tito Ortiz, Mirko Cro Cop, Satoshi Ishii, Cheick Kongo, and Bobby Lashley.
Zane Simon: One of the big things to me would be a fine tuning of their prelim fights and fighters. I know that they often brought on whatever local guys were around for one-off card filler, but that often meant that Bellator prelims were something of a running joke in the MMA community as they contained horrible mismatches, fighters who were terribly out of shape, and in some cases, hardly looked like they could put on a competitive fight. Bellator has a lot of good fighters, and for all their contract problems, they have continued to bring in some decent talent. But they need to stop cutting it with the bottom of the barrel, as it ends up reflecting really poorly on the organization and their better fighters.
I think it's one of the biggest reasons that their best talent has had trouble getting more respect from fans and media. It's hard to take a champion seriously when half his division is fighting at a demonstrably lower level than the best regional promotions, even if the top 10-15 fighters are generally quite decent.
Connor Ruebusch: I know you asked about "other changes," but I'm most interested in Coker's assertion that the tournament format will become less prominent. I personally think that's a fantastic idea. Keep the tournaments as a central theme of the organization, but don't force top fighters to go through the tournaments just to earn a shot at the title. That way you not only protect your own interests by avoiding fluke losses for top fighters, but you avoid the shadiness that Bellator was becoming known for under Rebney, by which I mean the fact that Bellator would find underhanded ways to skirt the tournament format anyway, which illegitimized their whole structure. If you establish from the get-go of Coker's tenure that fighters don't have to win a tournament to get a title shot, then you won't have fans complaining when you jump a guy to the front of the line.
I think the tournament format would be great if they took some cues from the model of the old Pride GPs. Shogun made his name in a GP, but after that he wasn't compelled to win any more tournaments to reassert his status as a top fighter. Winning the GP is what made him a top fighter, and his whole career since has been a result of that one fantastic run. This has been the case for several fighters in Bellator. Curran made his name in the tournaments, and it now seems fair that he should never have to go through a tournament again. Frodo Khasbulaev was built by the tournament system, but he's so good that it would be a waste of his talent to force him into it once more.
The tournaments are great because they build stars. Running through 3 opponents in quick succession is a great way to sell someone as a legitimate top fighter. You just shouldn't have to start all over again if you lose to the champion upon making it to the top of the pile.
Paul Gift: My short, short version: whatever changes Coker needs to make so that Bellator can become the most effective competitive force possible in both markets, output and input. I have much more faith in him than Rebney. Sometimes founders have a difficult time being open to any and all options for future success as it's hard to shake their initial vision, which is what makes being able to throw them out nice for investors.
Pinkberry isn't the clear #2 in their market, but ever since knock off yogurt shops started appearing on every street corner, it's like they're tinkering and trying something new every time I go in there. Look to Pinkberry, Bellator! Be open to new flavors, toppings, and methods of serving your product.
P.S. Would it not be funny if Coker took the UFC's money and now turns around and sues them for possible antitrust violations?
Kid Nate: I want to see Coker bring his proven ability to promote fights as events and build fighters into stars to Bellator. He has a knack for ID'ing fighters that resonate with the public and finding good fights that bring out the best in the abilities.
Plus he's not a thug or an a-hole -- that will be a big plus.
John Nash: If it was up to me first order of business would probably be to change the name, which has next to no value right now. (If you don't believe me check the web traffic Bellator generates.) So a re-branding is in order. I've suggested just calling it SPIKE MMA in the past and haven't heard anything better.
The next step would be to improve relations between the promotion and the fighters, managers, and camps. Based on the amount of positive things fighters and managers have said in private to me about Coker, hiring him is a great first step. The next step I would recommend is telling those same fighters and managers that from now on there could be no more than one extension added to a contract for winning a tournament or title. No more accumulating extensions. Hopefully they could go a step further and start offering contracts closer to what Strikeforce offered, with six-month matching periods and a maximum duration of five years instead of the "in perpetuity" we see in most MMA contracts.
In fact, they should also ask the UFC and others to agree to follow some sort of common contract guidelines. And if the UFC refused, well I think Paul might have the right idea about filing a lawsuit, because there can't be an actual competitive market if all the top fighters are locked up under the current contract restrictions.
As for the product, I'm hoping Coker can implement many of the ideas he had for Strikeforce but wasn't able to do before that got bought. If they can line up the right fighters than they can do one or two Grand Prix style tournaments every year. Start holding annual themed events, like a four-man one-night tournament or a JMMA show with a ring and maybe using Japanese rules. Since Glory is also on SPIKE, they could do a mixed Dynamite!! style kickboxing-mma event. Hell, if Mo and Rampage really want to box put them in the ring for a show, or get Frank Shamrock and Sakuraba to have legends catch wrestling match. Also make a call to Paul Heyman is see if he's still available to help with those fighter promotional packages they had talked about. All of these are ideas that won't only attract fan attention but also hopefully help make stars.
All in all Bellator doesn't have the top ranked talent that Strikeforce had so the number one priority for me would be to make it FUN. To capture that old "What-The-Hell-Am-I-Watching" feeling you got when you first started watching MMA.
Connor Ruebusch: In the name of FUN, how about guest commentators and analysts? The highlight of every FNF show is Teddy Atlas goofily strutting around the ring, throwing punches and slipping imaginary counters in his three-piece suit. Let's get some notable trainers and fighters in the booth to bolster the already excellent commentary team of Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock.
Brent Brookhouse: John hit some of my keys. Especially with tournaments. Still be the promotion that does tournaments, but don't do 2-4 simultaneous mediocre tournaments, do one blowout every 6 months or something and put your champion in it. There's always this great fear of "but what if the champion loses in the tournament?" So what?! Book him against the guy he fought for the title, or have the title be up for grabs all tournament long. I think it'd be hilarious if a champion lost in the first round, the guy who beat him lost in the second and the guy who beat that guy ended up as the champion. Be interesting. That's the key. I'm sorry but tournaments filled with guys who don't seem "high level" doesn't build up your brand and it doesn't necessarily do anything for the winner when they didn't have a legitimate field to have to battle through.
That's what made the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix so good (and it did fantastic web traffic, a flawed but still decent measurement of interest). It was intriguing and felt important. When you run tournament after tournament, many of which have weak fields, then you take a "special format" and turn it into just a mess of "oh, this again?"
I also would run big flashy main events regardless of title implications. Tito vs. Rampage seemed so dumb when it was booked in large part because Bellator sold itself as such a serious promotion. All of a sudden it was tied to these two aging, fallen fighters who were going to appear on pro wrestling shows...etc. It just felt like you took this place that was "where everyone earns everything" and you said "oh, and these guys too." When your promotion is weird and different, Tito vs. Rampage is a thing that you can pull off. Hell, Bellator has already changed enough that they were able to pull off the Thompson vs. Prindle fight with a ridiculous promo and get people hooked and buzzing about it.
Kyle McLachlan: I'm just intrigued to see what Bellator does.If they go with freak show fights, it'll be fun, but will mean the UFC have got nothing to worry about. But that's fine, Viacom might feel they can make a healthy return without competing for the top spot.
If Bellator starts signing up the best prospects, I'll be be torn. As a fan I want to see the fighters have a chance to make money in the long run, but selfishly I want to see the best fight the best in the short term. It pains me to see the 'Pitbulls', Pat Curran, Daniel Straus, Eddie Alvarez, Frodo, Michael Chandler and Douglas Lima not fighting the best in the world, and as a fan of the sport I want to see a lot of match ups that I'm not going to be able to see. I'm with the comments above; Bellators top 5 of most of their divisions is excellent, but their divisions have little depth.
One thing Bellator could do, and I'm sure this won't necessarily be popular, is to get a division the UFC doesn't have, so at least there's one area they won't be unfavorably be compared to the UFC in. As it stands, no one considers Bellator's champs the actual champions. Again, this might mean nothing in the business scheme of things, it might just be something the 'hardcore' fans care about or notice.
But in terms of things I'd like to see as a fan, I'd be more than happy to see Bellator take the reigns of the men's straw-weight division. I'd forgive them for 'freak show'/veterans match ups in the higher weight classes if they did that.
It seems highly, highly unlikely that any crossovers with WSOF can happen because of them being on different networks, but given Scott Cokers track record I'm sure he'll do his best to get in a variety of talent to make for some interesting match ups.
All in all, I'm genuinely intrigued to see Bellator develop from here on.
Dallas Winston: My quick reaction to some of the thoughtful suggestions above: there are certain improvements that would be obviously and unequivocally lucrative, such as adding depth and bolstering the preliminary-card roster. I'm not denigrating those ideas whatsoever but they should simply be an ongoing priority for any and every fight promotion. I think Bellator has made gradual and promising strides in these facets. Initially, and I'm talking 2009-2010 here, the prelims started out as "must-skip TV" but took a noticeable jump in prestige this year.
And the importance of "roster depth" cannot possibly be overstated -- the UFC's hefty advantage in roster depth is the biggest cannon in their arsenal, as it's the ideal band-aid for the last-minute changes, injuries and withdrawals that have plagued many of Bellator's premiere events and match ups. There was a time when we'd quip that Bellator (and the UFC at times) was following the lineup from Smoogy and Leland Roling's epic "MMA Scouting Report" by acquiring lesser-pronounced or inevitably still-lurking prospects from the global talent pool.
As far as my personal choices, I have none that haven't been mentioned, so I'll reinforce a few. Since the UFC oddly continues to shy away from them, tournaments will remain a powerful niche and differentiator. Stemming from the timelessly epic Pride GP's, the excitement of high-level tournaments are, in my opinion, the most attractive lure in the Bellator tackle box. Perhaps realizing this, they've either tried to over-capitalize on tournaments or lost the sizzle of them by making them repetitive and average. So I couldn't agree more with the concept of constructing one big mother of a tournament with the most marketable, popular and elite talent they have, i.e. applying prioritizing quality over quantity.
Looking back at Coker's Strikeforce tenure, I believe an essential key to success was their strategic allegiance with DREAM. Gil Melendez wasn't authenticated as a top talent until they brought in Shinya Aoki and set the stage for rematches with Mitsuhiro Ishida and Tatsuya Kawajiri. Unfortunately, considering the extent to which global talent has been scattered since Pride closed, there isn't really an obvious target to partner with now. Stateside, either RFA or WSOF are the best choices while ONE FC seems like the only possible overseas organization -- while more access to and interchangeability of fighters is always a good thing, none of those options have the clout that DREAM did back in the day (as of now). That leaves the idea of co-promoting with Glory, which would be brilliant. Not only for the Dynamite!!-esque feel of hybrid kickboxing/MMA matches, but because a few Glory competitors might just be willing to lace up the little gloves again (Sergei Kharitonov, Melvin Manhoef, etc.).
That being said, the avenues to increased talent seems to be split between up-and-comers, who lack immediate name-recognition but have a tremendous upside, and veterans -- such as Tito Ortiz, Rampage, Cheick Kongo and even James Thompson -- who are familiar names with a tangible (or even imminent) ceiling.
To summarize, Bellator should try to fill every hole that's currently missing in modern MMA, and, maybe it's just me, but the UFC seems to be leaving more openings by devouring the market. Of course the nostalgia of Pride creeps in yet again as an example -- more meaningful tournaments, whether focused on chiseling the hierarchy of a premiere division or for entertainment/shits and giggles, appears to be the best bang for the buck. Everyone seems to be open to or clamoring for a looser and more honest environment -- one in which every fighter doesn't have to be carried in on an amazing, heart-wrenching story, or be billed as elite or on the cusp of being elite, such as the refreshing manner in which Bellator marketed the Thompson-Prindle affair. Some fights/tournaments should have significant ramifications on the division or world rankings, some should be intended to please us through the promise of violence or the uneasy curiosity of super-fights and legends matches. Both pathways have pros and cons -- remember, many ridiculed the moribund Pride organization for their "freakshow" penchant -- and I hope they can find the right balance.