Make no mistake about it: this is a pivotal year for Bellator MMA.
After finding its niche and cultivating a following with its tournament format and track record of delivering entertaining fights, the company is looking to take a step forward in 2013 as it moves to Spike TV. It has ramped up its marketing and promotional efforts heading into this season, which kicks off Thursday with a stacked card that includes a pair of exciting championship match-ups, and interest within the MMA community is at an all-time high.
But with that increased interest comes increased expectations.
Moving from MTV2 to a larger platform on Spike TV is a clear step in the right direction, as is slotting the weekly Thursday broadcasts after TNA Impact Wrestling. It’s a formula that initially worked well for the UFC when they debuted on the network following Monday Night Raw many years ago, and one that should produce an uptick in interest for the promotion right out of the gate.
But the biggest question heading into the year is whether or not Bellator will be able to sustain audience interest throughout Season 8 with a mix of recognizable, veteran names and promising, but relatively unknown up-and-comers?
As you would expect, the schedule is front loaded with the biggest names and brightest stars from the Bellator roster hitting the cage in the first two weeks. Thursday’s championship bouts — lightweight champ Michael Chandler defending against Rick Hawn, and featherweight title-holder Pat Curran facing off with Patricio (Pitbull) Freire — are as must-see as it gets under the Bellator banner, and the promotional debut of Muhammad (King Mo) Lawal the following week should bring a fair amount of eyes to both broadcasts.
While Weeks 1 and 2 will surely produce, the key to gauging Bellator’s success in their inaugural season on Spike TV will be how well they do in the ratings from Week 3 forward.
“Under 500,000 viewers is not good,” suggested veteran MMA journalist and ratings analyst Dave Meltzer when reached via email Tuesday evening. “650,000 would be expected. Opening to better than 800,000 would be good and over one million would be great. But it really depends more where they are in week three and four than what they open at. I’d rather see a low start and upward trajectory than a big start and weekly declines.”
Having an upward trajectory after these initial championship bouts and big-name debuts are off the books is going to be a Herculean task I’m afraid.
The third event of Season 8 features the quarter-final bouts from this year’s lightweight tournament. While they’re solid fights featuring names that are known to hardcore fans who have watched Bellator in the past, there isn’t a single fighter on the main card that a casual fight fan is going to recognize, and there are a finite number of viewers who are going to tune in from week-to-week simply because they want to see some live MMA action.
As much as there are championship fights slated for events further along on the calendar during the first season on Spike TV, the battle for the vacant middleweight title between Alexander Schlemenko and Maiquel Falcao or Christian (TonTon) M’Pumbu’s light-heavyweight title defence against Attila Veigh aren’t nearly as must-see as Thursday’s championship combo platter. The same goes for bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas’ meeting with Marcos Galvao.
Best case scenario: fans become captivated by the tournament concept, settle on their favourites in each bracket, and tune in on a weekly basis to see which fighters advance to the next round until tournament champions emerge.
But this isn’t Survivor or The Amazing Race where the same cast of hopefuls turns up every week. It will be a month between appearances for the opening round winners in each of the three Season 8 tournaments, and that’s provided they all come away from their bouts healthy enough to continue.
Are casual fans who like what they see out of Ben Saunders or Douglas Lima next week going to make sure they catch their semifinal match-ups four-to-six weeks later? I’m not sure they will.
There are other potential issues to keep an eye on as well.
While the move to Spike TV will surely bring in more first-time viewers and make the events more accessible to a larger audience overall, one issue that could present itself for long-time fans is the abundance of returnees Bellator is relying on as draws.
Take the lightweight tournament for example.
The eight-man field is made of up six fighters who have been through the tournament structure before — Lloyd Woodard, Dave Rickels, Alexander Sarnavskiy, Thiago Michel, Ricardo Tirloni, and Patricky Freire — and just two new additions, Will Brooks and Canadian Guillaume DeLorenzi.
As much as those tournament veterans have delivered some exciting moments inside the Bellator cage, how many times can you go to the well with the same collection of fighters who have already fallen short in the past?
It kind of feels like the Direct-to-DVD sequel of a solid movie where the biggest stars are nowhere to be found, the supporting cast has been bumped up to starring roles, and Brooks and DeLorenzi are the new members of the ensemble. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t like Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, or Step Up Revolution nearly as much as I enjoyed the original (yes, I’m admitting to liking Step up).
And it’s not as if Bellator will be bereft of competition on Thursday night either.
Airing at 10 p.m. on the East Coast, Bellator MMA Live goes head-to-head with Chicago Fire (NBC), Scandal (ABC), and Elementary (CBS). The 7 p.m. start time on the West Coast leaves it competing against George Strombolopoulos Tonight and Jeopardy in my house and fighting a losing battle against The Big Bang Theory once the second hour kicks off, especially on nights when Mrs. Kyte is at home.
Toss in the returning NHL and weekly NBA action, and Bellator could find itself as “PVR it for later” favourites this year.
There are reasons to be excited about Bellator’s move to Spike TV and the beginning of its Season 8 series of events, but expectations have to be kept in check. This is going to be a year full of growing pains for the latest chief rival of the UFC, and while there will surely a handful of high points, there are bound to be some lows moments too.
Which of those two comes out ahead will go a long way in determining whether 2013 becomes the year Bellator laid the foundation for future growth and success or fell short of expectations.