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Roundtable: Where did Bellator go wrong?


Bellator MMA as we know it is over. Long live Bellator MMA?

On Monday, one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets became official: The Bellator brand now belongs to the PFL. What this means for the long-term prospects of Bellator — for many years considered to be the No. 2 promotion in all of MMA — remains to be seen, but for the time being fans can dream of matchups featuring the biggest names from both rosters as well as how this acquisition might shake up combat sports.

What can be said for certain is that, warts and all, Bellator as we know it is no more. MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, Shaun Al-Shatti, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew got together to discuss why Bellator’s current run has come to an end and what it means for the future of the business.

Lucas Noonan, Bellator MMA

What went wrong with Bellator MMA and how did it come to this?

Marrocco: In the most basic terms, not enough people watched the product. If Bellator had drawn strong enough ratings, it would be salvaged by the powers that be at Paramount. In a broader sense, Bellator is a casualty of a rapidly shifting media landscape, which is a nice way of saying large media conglomerates are finding it harder to make money with all the competition for eyeballs and cash not as free as it once was. Paramount is in A LOT of debt, and it must trim the fat by offloading underperforming assets like Showtime Sports.

From a promotional perspective, veteran observers of the sport could probably write a book about all the missteps Bellator has made over the years. That it was able to survive far longer than most is a testament to Scott Coker and co.’s abilities. But at the end of the day, Coker’s original plan — to build new stars by leveraging aging ones — ran out of steam, and just when they needed more cash to compete for stars that could interest fans, the belts started tightening at corporate. Such is life for content producers under the umbrella of these conglomerates. Bellator repeatedly did itself no favors, but it was also caught up in a larger wave. And, it must be said, it was also competing against the UFC, a promotion with more resources, brand awareness, and talent than anyone in the space.

Martin: In a strange way, Bellator’s route to survive for the past 15 years likely also led to the promotion’s downfall.

Just three years after launching, Bellator sold to Viacom, which later turned into Paramount, and thus they became part of the bigger corporate structure at a massive, publicly traded company. If there’s one thing everybody should know about corporations, it’s that the bottom line is all that really matters. Bellator never really became a revenue producer, so that immediately makes them expendable.

Paramount has been in cost-cutting mode for the past year, so it’s no real surprise that the company saw Bellator as an asset they could dump off the books. The deal with PFL was all stock, no cash, so that should explain right away how much Bellator was costing Paramount with no telling when the promotion might — if ever — become profitable.

It was also under the Paramount umbrella that Bellator bounced around just about every network from Spike TV, to the Paramount Network, to CBS Sports Network, to Showtime. If Bellator was a ratings success, Paramount would have never moved the shows around like they were playing broadcast whack-a-mole.

If not for Paramount, it’s hard to imagine Bellator would have stuck around for the better part of two decades. But it’s also impossible to think that a huge company like that would continue to eat losses without eventually demanding a win. It turns out the only attainable victory was handing Bellator over to the PFL.

Al-Shatti: That bizarre broadcast journey Damon just mentioned cannot be understated. Bellator was at its hottest when consistency and simplicity were guarantees. When it was the plucky twice-a-month product on a familiar MMA home like Spike TV, Bellator may not always have been appointment viewing, but it was still a widely available commodity the fan base knew how to find anytime they were jonesing for some Friday night fisticuffs.

At some point, that changed. Bellator wound up moving through so many different days and platforms and iterations — Bellator on DAZN, remember that? — that eventually the routine the fan base had with its product eroded beyond repair. You could feel it.

Combine that with the familiar refrains repeated for more than a decade — a generally confusing name, a gloomy gray aesthetic, iffy at best promotion, the circular cage — and eventually Bellator started feeling like it was forever running a race it had already lost. That sucks, especially when you consider that as of this past Friday, it’s roster was by far the most talent-rich any non-UFC promotion has had since the glory days of Strikeforce.

Lee: I don’t know if this Bellator chapter closing is so much about what the promotion did rather than what it could never do. And that’s escape the shadow of the UFC.

Simply put, the UFC brand is unassailable in the eyes of the majority of most sports fans, and even on Bellator’s best day, it was — at best — viewed as an alternative to the biggest of big shows. Bellator 120 did a strong pay-per-view number? Hey, wasn’t that show carried by former UFC stars Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz? A.J. McKee completes a dream run through the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix? Yeah, but could he compete inside the octagon? Even the greatest fight in Bellator history, the first meeting between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez, had to share the spotlight with another all-time classic when Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua fought on the same night at the same time.

There was simply no way for the good ship Bellator to escape the UFC’s orbit, no matter what they tried to distinguish themselves. Legends clashes, tournaments out the wazoo, freak show fights, prospect showcases — some of these ideas may have created the occasional popularity spike, but it’s a spike that had no chance of even scratching the firm ceiling established by Dana White and co.

Don’t get me wrong, Bellator did plenty to hinder itself even under the best of circumstances, but with a large section of fans choosing to dedicate their time to one promotion and one promotion only, it was always only a matter of time until the second-place club closed its doors.

Meshew: It’s very simple: Bellator failed because it’s entire brand was being UFC, but worse.

“Hey, would you like to watch the exact same concept and product, only with worse production and one-tenth of the number of fighters? Do I have the promotion for you!”

I’m not joking. Bellator had many failings that may have been terminal, but the one that ultimately mattered the most was that off-brand only works for necessities, not luxuries. When Bellator first started, they were running seasons and a tournament structure. It had failings, but it was an identity that was unique to them. Then they got rid of that and just became the lesser version of the UFC. That’s not going to build a fan base when the market is dominated by one entity.

Now if PFL can just learn from that mistake, maybe the can survive, but they way things seem, I’m not so sure. I guess we’ll find out.

Cooper Neill, PFL

What does PFL acquiring Bellator mean for the MMA landscape?

Marrocco: More competition is always good for the sport and good for the fighters.

For the sport, it won’t have much effect in the near term. Bellator will limp along for at least another eight events, per the PFL, so there will be just about as much MMA to watch for fans. There will be an influx of Bellator talent facing off with PFL fighters, so that has the potential to revitalize the latter and hopefully make for exciting matchups. For fighters, it means there is one less buyer in the market, which makes it tougher when they need to negotiate. It also seems likely that, whatever the PFL says about keeping everything status quo, a lot of fighters will be on thinner ice when it comes to keeping them in the fold.

Martin: Better fights, but less options for fighters.

It’s completely understandable that the initial reaction would be excitement to play fantasy matchmaker, especially with the PFL already promoting plans to put all of its champions against their counterparts in Bellator for a pay-per-view showdown in 2024. That’s a lot of fun and should produce some very interesting matchups.

The negative side of Bellator going away is that it eliminates a potential landing spot for fighters seeking to test free agency. Competition between promoters leads to bigger and better paydays for the athletes, and that’s something that drastically needs to increase to put MMA on somewhat equal footing with other major sports like football and basketball. Remember, when Kayla Harrison tested free agency two years ago, she had offers from every major promotion and ultimately returned to the PFL, which paid her around $1 million per fight as a result.

Think about it this way — in the NFL, players have the chance to negotiate with 32 teams during free agency. The best MMA fighters in the world now only have two truly viable options available in the United States, and the UFC and PFL can’t sign everybody. Like it or not, that’s a problem.

Lee: In the short term, this is going to be a ton of fun for fans.

Even if only 25 percent of what Donn Davis is planning comes to fruition, we’re still going to get a handful of superb matchups and likely at least a few loaded cards in 2024. Cris Cyborg vs. Kayla Harrison? Gotta happen. A champion vs. champion card featuring this year’s PFL tournament winners facing the likes of Vadim Nemkov, Usman Nurmagomedov, and Patricio Pitbull? Yes, please! Some of the veteran names in the PFL — I’m looking at you, Anthony Pettis — being freed from the tournament format to compete in more suitable Bellator one-off fights? Why not?

The PFL has made a number of splashy signings over the past year with little clarity as to how exactly those signings will be utilized (will Francis Ngannou and Jake Paul ever actually compete in the SmartCage?), so it’s somewhat comforting that fans can at least see the logical threads emerging from the PFL-Bellator partnership. For the fighters, it’s unclear if having a bigger alternative to the UFC is better than having more alternatives, but that’s the reality of the situation now, and sadly, one senses that their needs will be pushed to the background as usual when the dust settles on this new deal.

Meshew: It’s less than ideal. As the others above have noted, there will be some more fun fights at the expense of negotiating power for the fighters. But what concerns me more is not the next couple of years, but what happens in five?

PFL is not profitable. Bellator was not profitable. Historically, merging two unprofitable entities doesn’t suddenly turn them into viable businesses. PFL not taking on debt to acquire Bellator is smart, but this whole thing is still a long way off from being a real business. Right now, PFL is a startup, burning cash on the promise of a big payoff down the line. But eventually, you need to prove that payoff is real. Investment isn’t infinite, and if the PFL can’t prove its worth in the next couple of years, the money is going to run dry, at which point we’ll be looking at another failed MMA promotion and MMA fighters will really be running out of options.

Al-Shatti: Look, if you’re one of the 25 best librarians in North America, and only three libraries in North America pay good money to hire the best librarians, you’re in an objectively worse spot if that third option suddenly stops bidding for everyone’s services.

PFL executives can proclaim the death of one of MMA’s Big 3 as a victory for the athletes all they want, but to put it simply, that doesn’t change the reality Steven kicked us off with: More competition — not less — is always good for the sport and its fighters.


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