It's been a little over a week since it was announced that Bjorn Rebney, founder and CEO of Bellator, was removed from his position as President and CEO and was replaced by Scott Coker. Overall I think this is a positive and exciting move. I thought Rebney was a good fit for Bellator for the time being, perhaps he could have stayed a bit longer. I thought he was building something decent over there, but now's as good of a time as any to move on. I also don't think Coker is the infallible fight promoter either. There's several reasons why he never caught on as a true figure in the sport.
MMA is in a strange place right now, with the glory days of Pride, the TUF boom, and Brock Lesnar firmly in the sport's rear view mirror there's a lot of challenges the sport faces as well as a lot of opportunities that are arising. Bellator occupies an interesting space in the MMA landscape, not only is it a number two promotion but they also have the backing of one of the most powerful media conglomerates on the planet. Not only does this potential backing give them an incredibly high ceiling as a promotion, but they've also shown over the past few years that they have a pretty high floor.
When Bellator 120 eclipsed the 100K buy mark on pay per view despite losing their main event they reached a pretty high demarkation point for success. They've shown that if done correctly they can draw a crowd on pay per view despite not having the planned main event and using stars with previously limited star appeal. They were able to put Rampage in a position where they could give him not only winnable fights but also fights that would give him some shine. They gave him an opponent where there's some interest, and they were able to build the rivalry through shoulder programming and promotion. This is a pretty big accomplishment considering they were basing all of this on a guy who was 0-3 to close out his UFC career. Given what I've read from industry insiders like Zach Arnold, 50K was the point where this PPV with a lost main event could be considered a success...and they doubled it.
Hiring Scott Coker signifies that Viacom and the bosses at Spike TV are willing to step up and put some muscle behind this product to create a product that can legitimately attempt to compete with the UFC. Given what I've seen out of the UFC so far this year...I'd say they could use some competition to keep them honest. I think Bellator could get to a place where they can do that. Due in no small part to the hubris and aggressive schedule pushed by Zuffa, they're already in a position where they can legitimately compete with them: Bellator 120 did roughly the same buy rate as UFC 174. On the head to head show in Connecticut, Bellator is booked in the bigger venue. It's conceivable that they can beat them in ratings and at the gate. Those are some pretty big wins right now, obviously the UFC is still number one and that's not changing anytime soon. However, that's not to say that things will always stay the same. So let's get to the Coker/Bellator relationship:
What I like:
- Coker's "fighter friendly" style. Fairly or unfairly, Rebney had a bad rap with fighters. Malki Kawa refused to work with Bellator (though his brother did so I'm unsure if that really matters), Glenn Robinson also had issues with Bellator as well. Reputations matter when you're number two. They don't have the luxury of being the best and the biggest. They can't get away with the same things the UFC did, fighters need to back the company. Not only do they have a larger than life personality running the show like Dana White, they also don't have the name association with the brand. For Bellator more than any company, the fighters are the brand. They need guys like Eddie Alvarez, Patricio Pitbull, and King Mo to have positive things to say about the company. Having a public and ugly law suit with your biggest name and having a main-eventer calling your chairman a "dick-rider" after the biggest fight in the company's history is bad for business. On top of that you have to give fighters who are free agents or under contract with another promotion that your company is a good place to be. There needs to be a reason why a fighter would turn down an extension with the UFC or WSOF and risk it at free agency. Scott Coker can help facilitate this.
- Coker's ties with certain fight camps. Lets be honest, in the modern MMA landscape we'll never witness something like Floyd leaving HBO for Showtime. The big names are generally going to stay with their promotions. The UFC isn't letting a sitting champ go. If Bellator wants to get big top end fighters they'll have to find them as prospects and develop them. Coker has fantastic relationships with Bay Area camps. From my experience in the fight game, which I readily admit is limited and only on a very small local scene, fighters tend to trust their coaches with their careers. If you've seen some of the deals they negotiated it becomes immediately obvious that no one with a formal education in negotiating or contract terminology was anywhere near this thing for the fighter. So I'd tend to believe that this isn't just a local phenomena. Bellator needs fight camps, especially the big ones, to have a positive view of the promotion. Ideally, there's camps that will nudge a promising young fighter in Bellator's direction. Scott Coker can help with this in ways that Bjorn Rebney simply can't.
- Coker's ability to build names and fighters. Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, Josh Thomson, Nick Diaz, Tyron Woodley, Jacare Souza, Miesha Tate, Cris Cyborg, Daniel Cormier, Bigfoot Silva, Alistair Overeem and Gina Carano were all Strikeforce vets. Not only does Coker have an eye for talent he can build a name that people will care about. Now, I know that Zuffa would have you think Womens MMA didn't get big until the UFC discovered Ronda Rousey in the depths of nowhere and turned her into the biggest star in MMA...but she's another Coker Creation®. Bellator has a pretty good roster, Dave Rickels, Patricio Pitbull, Patricky Pitbull, Douglas Lima, Rick Hawn, Alexander Shlemenko, Marcus Galvao, Emanuel Newton, Daniel Straus, Eduardo Dantas, Joe Warren, Pat Curran, Mike Chandler, Will Brooks, Eddie Alvarez, and Andrey Koreshkov are all very very good fighters. Part of the issue is that no one knows who these dudes are and there's a narrative that anyone outside of the UFC sucks. Sure Dantas might be good, but he just beats cans! Discerning fight fans know that this isn't the case. Enter Coker: it's becoming increasingly obvious that most MMA fans can't properly discern levels of talent. Coker can match make and build these guys in a way such that they can resonate with fans and get the recognition they deserve as top fighters. After a certain point you can just say "this guy is the best (enter weight class) in the world" and have a compelling argument with the right match making, which could be huge with them.
- The media's general fondness of Scott Coker. The media never seemed to particularly care for Bjorn Rebney. Quite a bit of this is his fault, they tried, but it just didn't work out. Scott Coker, on the other hand, can at least give you that big event feel. He's been gone for a while and hasn't had any serious control over an organization in quite sometime. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. He's been out of the picture for a while and he's the hot new topic. More on this later, but if he can keep the media attention he'll get on the first card he promotes as well as the next season debut, this can give Bellator the coverage that it deserves. When Bellator events are covered like big happenings, they tend to deliver. I think the added coverage at places like the SBN Suite of sites, Junkie, Bleacher Report, Sherdog, and other sites will wind up giving Bellator more eyeballs. I'm not calling anyone in the media a hack or a shill, but Bellator's media coverage was pretty woeful. Outside of the occasional BE video and live thread, Luke Thomas' picks, and Rebney on Beatdown...not a lot of regular coverage for Bellator cards. Now, to what extent this was Bellator or Rebney's fault is debatable, but what isn't debatable is that Coker will bring more positive media coverage.
- Fan Appeal. I think Rebney got a raw deal with the fans. If you go to an event and talk to him he was a pretty decent dude. Now I'm sure the fighters that have issues with him have their reasons, but when I went to an event he was nice to me. Now I fully understand that plenty of awful people have recorded instances of being nice to others so this doesn't absolve him of previous accusations of wrongdoing, but he was nice to me and the fans that were sitting by me. He introduced me to the ring girls, signed my program, and chatted with me for a few minutes. He's also certainly more competent than anyone is willing to give him credit for. That being said, none of that really matters. Fans didn't like him and the negative image was baked in, and it wasn't going away. C'est La Vie, a change needed to be made in that department.
That being said, there's a reason why I'm still skeptical about this move. There's a lot of reasons why Coker's Strikeforce ultimately got bought out by the UFC. His promotion was by no means perfect. There's also talk about changes at Bellator that I'm unsure need to be made at this moment.
- The Tournament: I agree changes need to be made with the tourney system, but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. There still are a large contingent of MMA fans that like tournaments, and even without the tourney gimmick there's benefits. The Bellator tournament is pretty underrated. Winning three fights in four months against even slightly above average talent is hard. Dealing with the nagging injuries throughout the tournament and staying on weight for four months with limited time for a camp is difficult. I'm sure there's ranked guys in the UFC that would struggle through an eight man tournament. Big cutters, injury prone guys, guys with reckless styles...all those guys struggle in the tournaments. Even the nagging injuries, dudes that break their hands dudes that just get banged up in fights...all those dudes struggle in Bellator Tournaments. Winning a Bellator tourney is a pretty significant accomplishment, anyone who does is a pretty good fighter. Not necessarily elite, but if you can win a Tournament you're legit. Obviously there's logistical issues, and the elephant in the room (well what about the seven dudes that don't win) but I think the tournament has value. I also think that Bellator needs something, however minor to distinguish them from the UFC.
- Poor free agency decisions. I'm all for fighters getting paid, but at a certain point you have to control costs. Scott Coker had a nasty habit of paying guys double what they'd get anywhere else. There's only one UFC (for now) and unless you're making UFC money on pay per view, through Fox, sponsorships or at the gate...it's hard to pay a guy like Jake Shields 250K a fight. It appears as if Viacom is opening the wallet. They'll try to sign big names, and soon. I'm sure that the Zuffa will match a lot of these but some of them they won't. So you're left with overpaying guys past what Zuffa is willing to pay or paying a guy too much that they're willing to get rid of. Neither is an ideal situation, I understand that sacrifices must be made and sometimes you need to take two steps back to take one step forward but this could lead to a lot of debt. Bellator hasn't shown the ability to draw much of a live gate outside of a few strongholds and I'm unsure how much money Spike makes off of this or how financially committed they are. Zuffa has degraded the UFC's product to the level where they can see some realistic competition from Bellator, so it's conceivable that they're willing to go all in. However, they could just want inexpensive programming that sells good ad time. Either way, something to keep an eye on.
- "I'll get back to you in a couple of weeks." We all know that Dana White is the king of falsehoods and empty promises, how many number one contender matches have failed to materialize? How many lies have they told to increase their negotiating leverage? Look at the rankings and you know how seriously Zuffa and Dana White take misinformation. However, most MMA fans will just take it at face value. The fans that get their MMA news from UFC tonight instead of a fine source like Bloody Elbow or MMA Fighting, probably don't retain information that "this guy is supposed to get a title shot" much longer than two weeks and that's fine. The point is, that direct and forceful misinformation is typically better received that honest vacillation.
- We're still unsure how much power Coker really has. Kevin Kay has clearly done his homework on MMA and has an idea of what he wants. That being said he's a busy dude...Spike TV doesn't just run itself. Does he know what he wants and thinks Coker is the guy to give it to him? Or does he just want a kinder gentler machine gun hand? Does he want a charismatic well liked figure head? Or does he trust Scott Coker to take him where he wants this thing to go like Lorenzo Fertitta trusted Dana White?
Of course all of these issues could be worked out and turn out to be for naught, but I think they're worth consideration. I'd like to close with some suggestions.
- If Bellator plans on thinning the main card roster and slowing down events, I think they should put the tournaments on the prelims. One, no one cares about Bellator tournaments...adding tournaments at least gets the people who care about tourneys. Two, that adds some significance to the prelims, there's actually something that matters here. While I would avoid giving a title shot to tourney winners, I would put some promotional significance on the prelim tourney. Also the finals give you a nice opener for main cards while they build their rosters. Finally, tournaments allow young prospects way to get a lot of experience quickly, and get some quick cash if they win. Again, this requires some re-working, but if you lighten up the tourney contracts and stagger the payments 5/5, 15/15, 30/30 in addition to a 100K grand prize, that's a pretty attractive payday for a top young prospect. This sort of complements Coker's positive relationship with big fight camps. If you're a Pedro Munhoz or a Misrad Bektic in a couple of months you can get noticed and some good cash, for MMA anyways.
- Co-promoting. I know that if Bellator co-promotes with World Series of Fighting, Bellator has more to lose than WSOF. However, I also think they have more to gain. As I've mentioned before, something to distinguish themselves from the UFC. Something big and different. A co-promotion with WSOF is a unique thing. For starters, I think there's a lot more hardcore fans than people think there are. There's not a single hardcore fan that won't be interested in this, they can also catch the typical casual fans that Bellator usually catches. WSOF does a lot of things that Bellator doesn't want to be associated with. They're okay with being the island of misfit toys, it almost appears that their ultimate goal is to be the number two promotion. There's a lot of value in having your top fighters beat a Jon Fitch, Yushin Okami, or Melvin Guillard. However, there's also a downside in signing them. Co-promotion allows you to reap the potential benefits without many of the potential downsides. Besides, who isn't excited for the prospect of Dantas/Moraes?
- Ditch some of the lesser venues, but keep the mid tiers. There's plenty of mid-sized metropolises that the UFC isn't likely to visit anytime soon, and cities that they certainly don't plan on coming back to. Cities like Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, Huntsville, Salt Lake City, Fresno, Knoxville, Oklahoma City, Fargo, Richmond, and Charlotte aren't the largest cities but for the most part there isn't a whole lot going on there. A big Bellator card once every other year, if timed correctly, has the chance to be the biggest thing in town. As the number two promotion Bellator also has an obligation to the sport. These are cities with fan bases that need to be cultivated and need live events. If they're not going to Thackerville, Oklahoma anytime soon I'm okay with that. But there's plenty of cities that won't get a big UFC event that need big live MMA events.
- Shoulder Programming. There's a growing hypothesis that Bellator doesn't so much get a lot of MMA fans but more that people who watch Spike TV also like MMA. I would agree with this in larger part, and just because the TUF-style reality show format has been beaten to death doesn't mean that other shoulder programming can't work. When they did the Unrivaled programs for Rampage and Mo they did pretty well in ratings. I think it's safe to say that MMA shoulder programming can work on Spike. I'd like to see them try their hands with a variety of different formats for shoulder programming. It sounds like they're moving to a one show a month or a four shows every three months format, which I think is the right move...but there's value in being there week after week with consistent programming. I think shoulder programming is the answer to that. Maybe a documentary series on martial arts like human weapon or some 24/7-esque shows about their fighters or a big fight coming up. I've also heard Helwani suggest that they do one Glory event and one Bellator event a month. I think that's a pretty good idea. Weekly shoulder programming to keep the interest in the events and build brand awareness. Honestly, if you'll watch Bar Master or Ink Master why would't you watch a documentary series on martial arts or MMA? Could a show that goes inside certain fight camps or talks about a martial art such as Krav Maga or Sambo really not draw people in? I think it'd do well if they tinkered with it enough and I hope that they do.
In closing, I think this is overall a good move. There's a lot of good that can come from this, I think this is easily the biggest story of the second half of 2014. I hope that Bellator can prove a worthy competitor, Zuffa's product has gotten a bit stale. I still like combat sports, but I'm in the mood for something fresh. Here's to hoping Bellator provides that.