Imagine the “click-clack” of a roller coaster’s chains as it steadily ascends forward. Curiosity blends with anticipation as your body tilts upwards and faces the stars. The first hill comes into view and anxious laugher muffles out an inaudible safety message. The coaster finally reaches the hill top and just then, it stops.
This is the annual journey Bellator fans endure when the promotion goes on hiatus. Much like major professional sports, Bellator operates in a seasonal format where tournaments lasting three months are followed by long periods of inactivity. With a business model aimed at giving the UFC a run for their money, gaps in their broadcast schedule stunt the company’s growth and allows fans to look for ulterior sources of entertainment.
With alternatives to the UFC limited, is Bellator making the right choice in splitting their seasons?
As SciFighting summarized last month, Bellator doesn’t need to sell out arenas to make a profit. They are backed by Viacom, a company that owns Paramount Pictures, MTV films, and various cable channels. By putting on a decent show, they continue to grow the brand while securing a share of Viacom’s advertising revenue.
The problem is that once Bellator achieves respectable ratings, the season winds down.
Take Bellator season nine, which ran Sept. 7 through Nov. 9, as an example. The finale peaked at over one million viewers, with the majority watching Alexander Shlemenko knock out Doug Marshall in the first round.
The season premier, however, drew lackluster numbers. Only 437,000 tuned in to Bellator 98, with 660,000 watching Bellator 99 a week later, according to the Nielsen TV ratings. Granted, one has to consider what precedes the telecast. Fox example, an audience watching TNA Impact Wrestling will be less likely to change the channel than a crowd watching Cops. Also keep in mind that fans may have tuned out altogether with a month-long gap between live events.
All the momentum they built stopped following Shlemenko’s victory. Bellator season ten doesn’t begin until January 2014 and the UFC is taking full advantage.
In what Dana White is calling ‘the biggest fight we’ve ever had,’ UFC 168 features middleweight champion Chris Weidman facing Anderson Silva and a rematch between The Ultimate Fighter 18 coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. The Dec. 28 pay-per-view is sandwiched between this weekend’s UFC on Fox 9 and next month’s Fight Night Singapore.
Meanwhile, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and his fighters sit on their hands.
What fans love about Bellator is that it’s not the UFC. It pushes sport over spectacle by utilizing a tournament format that fairly determines top contenders. Established names like Tito Ortiz and Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson bring experience and a fan base that can only help the promotion grow. What Rebney must decide is how to utilize these tools when his fighters aren’t in the ring.
If extending tournaments isn’t an option, then promoting the brand during the off season is the answer. Planning a pay-per-view is out of the question, as the Bellator 106 buy rate suggests. And the return of Fight Masters: Bellator MMA, which debuted during the summer and did fairly well in its inaugural run, has not been discussed openly.
With every missed opportunity, every weekend Bellator doesn’t put their name out there, the UFC thrives. Until Rebney finds consistency in the schedule, and fighters willing to stick around, Bellator’s roller coaster ride to success will stop short of the top.