It has been a question for several years in the fight sport world. Is the market big enough in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts for more than one viable professional brand to exist alongside the UFC, or is it like professional football, where the NFL is king no matter what the market size and those who come along to share the pie get the pie thrown back in their face.
Many have come along to challenge, some with short but popular runs like the IFL and ProElite, many others with quick hit and miss challenges that spend large sums and never deliver anything. Others, like the WEC and Strikeforce, find their regional niche and eventually get swallowed up by the UFC dollars and muscle, well run promotions that cannot get to the next level without the partnership. All through the time, the UFC experience continues to mature and move out, now with its first network TV deal coming in a few weeks, an opportunity that some think will move the UFC, if not the sport, more into the “mainstream.” Whether that is a blessing or a curse for the UFC remains to be seen. However one prospect that has emerged recently is the still pushing nature of the Bellator Championship series, which has cultivated young up and coming fighters in its own events, packaged in mid-sized venues, and promoted regionally with the help of Fox Sports and other cable outlets. Bellator has been consistent with its brand and messaging, and has put on quality events that have caught the attention of fans.
Recently, Bellator seized an opportunity created when the UFC left Spike TV, which had been a key part of the brand growth with their co-partnership on “The Ultimate Fighter,” to take a position with Spike. That move, to a network of savvy marketers who know how to package, promote and deliver the MMA product to a make demo, will be a big test to see if the sport of professional MMA is finally ready for an alternative to the UFC production. Spike knows the sport, and the sport knows Spike, and Bellator presents an intriguing and affordable opportunity for television.
As a brand in MMA, Bellator has developed a good reputation. As a business they have shown they have a niche and a good business plan and can grow what they have created, not at the expense of the UFC but as a compliment to the UFC. Whether the UFC can create enough white noise with programming on Fox or with partners to disrupt the Bellator plan remains to be seen. The promoters have found a way to deliver quality and consistency, and maybe with Spike can create a few more household names. If that leads to growth it is good for the sport, and some healthy competition could keep the UFC brand moving along even stronger.
Now if fans aren’t driven to a Ballator Spike relationship what does that say about the sport of MMA? maybe it means its still too soon for a still growing sport to be big enough with the casual fan to support two professional brands. Maybe it says the fans want UFC and not anything else on a large scale? Maybe it says that the “secret sauce” that made the UFC Spike relationship such a good one doesn’t mix in the chemistry of Spike and another brand in the sport. All of that will be revealed over time, but for now it is worth noting the growth Bellator has taken on, and what that could mean for the sport, is a step no others have been able to achieve for more than a few months, and it will be worth following to see what fight they will have as a brand. Healthy competition is not a bad thing.