It’s only been a few months since Scott Coker took over for Bjorn Rebney at Bellator and he’s already making waves in the industry that are rippling right into the UFC. Over a year and a half ago Eddie Alvarez was livid about Bellator’s refusal to release him from his contract. Instead demanding to “match” the UFC’s offer but by many accounts, without a PPV platform, Bellator simply couldn’t provide what the UFC could at that point in time. Given PPV at Bellator is still not on the immediate horizon and the numbers are still far and away what they are at the UFC, Coker did the right thing by letting Alvarez go. And boy, when he did, the UFC wasted no time in signing him up (literally 12 hours from the moment the news was announced).
But while some see his talent going to the UFC as a loss for Bellator, especially after a briefly exhaustive legal battle with Alvarez that settled last December, this is actually an immediate win-win for both organizations. It’s clear that Coker wants to streamline the promotion. That quality really does trump quantity. With the UFC’s current mass of fighters weighing in so high some fans are beginning to question just how the story line of an underdog transforming into a champion translates to such a broad cast of characters.
We’ve seen this recently with the loss of the hotly anticipated main event at UFC 178. Going from a potential rematch with the current Light Heavyweight champion, Jon Jones and the underdog that nearly took him out at UFC 169, Alexander Gustafsson to a last minute substitution for Daniel Cormier as the ‘new’ underdog. Say what you will about the media blunders at the press event in Las Vegas, the catastrophe turned a tin can into a pot of gold for the UFC. Wasting no time with the added drama of televised on and “off air” banter that only the most veteran fight fans could see was just wardrobe for a screen play. Then Jones injured himself during training and that was that.
Hot or cold, the air had been let out of that balloon and it seemed like even if you were going to the UFC 178 party it probably wasn’t going to be very fun. Even Demetrius Johnson came out on Twitter to cheer it’s “about time that UFC 178 gets a ‘real’ main event”. Not much time was left for the UFC to build a story around Johnson and Cariasao. So in the spirit of good sportsmanship Scott Coker throws the UFC a golden nugget. Enter, Eddie Alvarez and Donald Cerrone!
Say what you will about Cerrone but with Alvarez on the card the co-main event at UFC 178 just might outshine the main event by more than a small margin. Regardless of the actual outcome of the fight, the fact stands that there “is” a story there for fans of both promotions to follow. Now you might really be scratching your head wondering why Coker would make it so easy for the UFC to recover? The truth is, we aren’t entirely certain ourselves, but do see many advantages to his approach.
Trying to streamline an organization while holding disgruntled fighters hostage under contract is counter intuitive. In one move Coker has given Alvarez what he wants, the UFC what they need and Bellator what they’ve always wanted but never got. A true contender moving from their camp to the UFC. For whatever reason everyone missed the boat with Ben Askren. Sure, you might say he was “one dimensional” but he was a top dog at Bellator and he’d likely have made some impact at UFC. But even he didn’t have quite the fan base that Alvarez does. You could chalk it up to charisma, marketing prowess or pure unadulterated talent in the cage. For what ever reason, people want to see Alvarez succeed. And with this move, the organization once deemed the place where people’s careers go to die is now a birthing ground for tomorrow’s greatest talent.
It also shows that MMA is more than just UFC. And it shows this to fans from both sides. It will certainly take more than one example for this idea to cement in the minds of the casual observer but there’s more reason for Bellator to move with grace. Especially if they wish to continue attracting top talent. And just why would that top talent want to go there anyway? Because the stage and cast is smaller and that means it’s easier to be recognized.
The UFC under Dana White’s management has grown tremendously. And the there’s no lack of talent, by all means the UFC does have an elite roster of athletes. But now the talent list is so immense that what was once a symphony of diverse fighters has become white noise to the listener. Bellator may once have been the place where fighters go to retire, but the UFC by it’s sheer size alone is becoming the place where fighters go to be lost in obscurity.
To be fair, what the UFC is experiencing isn’t unlike any other businesses challenges when expanding to a global market. MMA is still very much in it’s infancy and the global demand for more events has made the management of each region’s cast of characters and contenders much more challenging than any one person could manage. That is why it is important to chose your battles or compartmentalize your story boards. The UFC must evolve it’s platform to ensure coherence with a global audience. Which could mean more tiers, more divisions, more titles. Or it could chose to limit it’s growth and refocus it’s efforts on story telling. A promotion must do just that: Promote!
Bellator may use MMA as a language to tell a story (or promote an event) but the platform used by Spike and Viacom is vastly different from that of the UFC. Sure the UFC does broadcast cable TV events through Fox but it’s never been their bread and butter and if the recent numbers on Fight Pass have shown anything it’s that the prime time “free to view” broadcast model just doesn’t work as well with UFC’s marketing and dramatic platforms.
Now Scott Coker is shedding weight and adding diversity by letting some fighters go while re-introducing a women’s division and eliminating the somewhat confusing tournament format. Since the platform for story telling across Spike TV’s programming network is a powerful tool and one that the producers seem committed to an executive like Coker (who’s no stranger to cinema and broadcast dramatic platforms himself) can speak the same language from the boardroom to the cage. By having less to manage he can focus on quality story telling and have a greater chance at capturing the audience’s attention.
From a business perspective investing in a storefront with one thousand loyal customers who spend consistently is a far more convincing story in the boardroom than 100,000 customers who spend erratically. And investment is exactly what Bellator needs to grow. No, we aren’t talking pure dollars and cents, though that always helps, it’s the investment of time and attention to detail that will create those loyal fans. What the UFC has now and in some ways might take for granted is likely just what Bellator wants. But they want it in a different way.
The best comparison one could make is that of Apple’s rise to consumer popularity over the past decade. Apple didn’t start out with the budgets that Microsoft, Sony, Samsung and many other competitors had. But they had creative talent and vision. And by limiting the scope of their product lines and focusing on quality and user experience, they made a more appealing consumer product. iTunes and the iPhone revolutionized the music industry and gave mobile computing a true consumer standard to beat. And they did this while everyone else was watching. Why didn’t anyone stop them? Because when a company gets big enough, and diversifies their platform more and more to accommodate growth it starts to get slow, very slow.
Now we aren’t saying anything like this has happened “yet” in MMA. But, if anyone is poised to do it right Bellator is and apparently with Scott Coker at the helm their chances have just improved by a significant margin. So next time you conclude that Bellator is just a feeder organization for the UFC and the UFC will never be challenged by anyone, just think back 10 measly years and remember what brand of phones and computers people were using. If you weren’t watching closely you might never have guessed how the market would unravel.