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Editorial: All eyes are on ‘Pitbull’ vs. McKee, but how many eyes is that actually?

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Jordan Breen looks at Bellator MMA’s huge Patricio Pitbull vs. A.J. McKee title fight and the promotion’s standing in the sport.

Open workout at The Forum for the Bellator 263 $1 million featherweight title fight between AJ McKee and champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire
Patricio Pitbull and AJ McKee at Bellator 263 open workouts.
Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

A reigning two-division champion, the best fighter in Bellator MMA history. A dynamic 26-year-old prospect with a perfect 17-0 professional record. The Bellator featherweight championship and $1 million at stake. What fight fan wouldn’t want to see this? That is not the most important question, however. When Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire risks his 145-pound gold against undefeated A.J. McKee, the more pressing issue will be “Who is actually going to see it?”

This Saturday night presents us not just with a brilliant, hotly anticipated showdown between Freire and McKee in the Bellator MMA featherweight tournament final, a potential “Fight of the Year” with rich stakes involved, but an anomalous MMA moment, as Bellator 263 goes up against the UFC Vegas 33 card. Bellator MMA and the UFC running events on the same day, even head-to-head in primetime, is nothing new and has happened a multitude of times. What is unique, however, is that for a change, Bellator has, by enormous measure, the most relevant and exciting fight of the weekend, on top of boasting a top-to-bottom card that is considerably more appealing and worthwhile compared to the UFC’s flaccid offering.

In the past, when Bellator has gone head-up against the UFC in these situations, the UFC’s vastly superior roster and infinitely larger brand visibility has allowed them to put on more successful offerings simply due to its promotional depth, forcing Bellator to rely on MMA stars of yesteryear, usually those that the UFC helped create many moons ago. Even when Bellator has been able to put its best foot forward by combining those stars of the 2000’s and 2010’s with its homegrown talent and strong champions, the UFC’s commanding aforementioned advantages created an environment where, at best, the most ardent MMA fans would be focusing on the UFC and toggling back to Bellator for the bits and bobs that appealed to them. This time around, the UFC Vegas 33 card, questionably headlined by a middleweight contest between Uriah Hall and Sean Strickland of all things, is positively anemic, while even beyond the tantalizing Pitbull-McKee main event, Bellator 263 is still chock full of noteworthy prospects – from where else, Dagestan – in Usman Nurmagomedov, Islam Mamedov and Khasan Magomedsharipov, who flex a combined pro record of 36-1-1. While this is not to say that there is nothing on the UFC bill worth watching, this is clearly the biggest edge Bellator has ever enjoyed over the ironclad top promotion in the world when running directly opposite on the same evening.

This all seems like a grand chance for Bellator to showcase its all-time greatest champion, who owns virtually every meaningful record in the company’s history, against the homegrown talent it has nurtured from the ground up over the last six years, whom it views as its future. The problem is that since moving its broadcasts to Showtime earlier this year, viewership numbers have been less than stellar to say the least. The promotion’s debut on the premium cable channel this past April with Bellator 255 drew an average of roughly 125,000 viewers with no UFC opposition, peaking at 167,000 viewers for the main event between Freire and Emmanuel Sanchez in its tournament semifinal. For comparison, a week later, ONE Championship’s offering on TNT drew an average of 196,000 viewers.

Now, within a week of the broadcast, the Bellator 255 card had amassed 407,000 views on Youtube, which helps to bolster its dismal linear television rating and we still don’t know the totality of its over-the-top streaming numbers. That said, keep in mind that Bellator 255 was offered for free on Youtube and several other streaming services, including Showtime and its app itself, without requiring any subscription as a bid to drum up interest. I think it’s only logical to assume that not every human being who watched via any of these platforms instantly ran to sign up to see future Bellator MMA events, thus it’s no surprise that the company and Showtime have been reticent to release any viewing numbers since then, linear or otherwise. Rest assured that if ratings for Bellator 255 or any subsequent events constituted anything worth bragging about, we would have said numbers.

Worse, exhibiting arguably the most consistently dismaying trait of Bellator’s current product, there was virtually no buzz beyond the hardest of hardcore fans for Freire-McKee until Thursday’s prefight press conference, where McKee did his best Conor McGregor circa 2015 impression by snatching Pitbull’s title belt and causing a skirmish after both men traded barbs about one another’s families. While every bit helps and these trite, calculated ruckuses still play well in the MMA space, to what extent will it legitimately, tangibly bolster viewership for the fight? Bellator has a uniquely powerful opportunity in front of itself, but it’s one that will put the company’s ability to garner a wider audience without the use of UFC retreads to the test, in the face of its long-running inability to successfully market its own brand and those of its native fighters.

It goes without saying that if any fight fan could only watch one MMA bout this weekend, anything other than Pitbull-McKee is an absurd answer. However, in an era with so many ways to watch the sport, there’s also an overwhelming amount of the sport to watch, which has drastically re-calibrated the old binary understanding of MMA’s audience in terms of “hardcores” and “casuals.” It used to be as simple as the notion that hardcore fans would consume every UFC event start to finish and any other relevant promotion’s content, and casuals would simply tune in for major events with stars they recognized. Now, the MMA audience exists on a spectrum; while there are still plenty of fans who gobble up any and all fights they can see, many are more selective when it comes to live viewership and there is a notable population of still well-informed, dedicated fans who are now content to rely on social media play-by-plays, highlight packages and animated gifs as it suits them. Even if it stands to reason that UFC Vegas 33 will hover around the basement mark for the promotion’s ratings, it remains to be seen whether or not, given these conditions, if Bellator can actually capitalize and get fans hovering in the middle of the spectrum, the nouveau pick-and-choose audience, to tune in live for its biggest fight this year.

Saturday night, everyone should be watching Pitbull-McKee. I will be, you will be. It’s a fight that deserves and demands it, between two athletes who more than are worthy of the spotlight and a grander profile. But, no matter what the outcome is, it will still ring hollow and represent a squandered opportunity if the promotion can’t bridge the gap and entice an audience that doesn’t make its product regular appointment viewing. If Pitbull-McKee is the fight to determine Bellator’s immediate future, both at featherweight and at large, the promotion needs to prove that said future isn’t just a grim repetition of its recent shortcomings, especially with, for once, an actual advantage over the UFC.