Now add the Chicago and Los Angeles-based Bellator Fighting Championship to the list of MMA companies with a growing presence on television, and dreams of MMA supremacy.
Bellator, Latin for “Warrior,” recently locked up a deal to broadcast Season 2 and 3 of its innovative show on FOX Sports Net, NBC and Telemundo. The combination of the three networks means Bellator will be available in more than 250 million homes, when season 2 kicks off on April 8. Prior to the blockbuster deal, Bellator was only available on ESPN Deportes.
For Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, a longtime boxing and television promoter, and athlete himself, his company is presenting a revolutionary change in mixed martial arts.
“We are the only mixed martial arts organization where fighters compete to become champion,” Rebney told HispanicBusiness.com. “We are a purely objective company where fighters control their own destiny.
We are very much like March Madness.”
Rebney is making a not-so-subtle reference to MMA’s most popular company, the UFC, which has successfully marketed itself as the premiere MMA organization in the world.
But like professional wrestling, the UFC uses old-fashioned Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey tactics to draw people to the shows. UFC’s fighters go by the handles of “Rampage,” the “Iceman,” and “The Natural,” and promotion of the fights is usually as much about personality as it is about the sport.
In fact, UFC’s popularity can largely be traced back to the success of its “Real World,” style reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” which placed aspiring UFC fighters in the same house competing for a contract.
While it’s a formula that works, Bellator’s appeal is its purity and similarities to tournament-style athletics.
During Season 1, Bellator crowned four champions, Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Joe Soto and Lyman Good.
The athletes earn progressively more money as they advance through each tournament stage: $25,000 for round one, $50,000 for round two and $100,000 for winning the tournament – for a total of $175,000.
“As long as you win, you will dictate what your future will hold, how much money you will make, and how quickly you will reach championship level,” Rebney said.
But while Bellator emphasizes traditional competition in its marketing, it is not without its own behind-the-scenes story lines and drama.
“We spend weeks tracking fighters at home, learning about their families, their fears, desires and dreams, as opposed to a reality show, where guys are doing a lot of crazy things in a house,” Rebney said. “(With Bellator), you get a truer picture of how people live their lives.”
If Rebney, 44, sounds like he is a bit confident about his business adventure it might be because he is no novice to the game of promotion.
A former sports agent, he worked for the famed Leigh Steinberg, the real life inspiration for the Jerry Maguire movie.
From 1993 to 1997, Rebney represented Oscar de la Hoya, among other star athletes. He also partnered with Sugar Ray Leonard, where the two co-promoted Sugar Ray Leonard Presents Friday Night Fights.
As CEO and president of the company, Rebney managed business ventures, including the television deal with ESPN2. Under his direction, the company promoted 45 nationally and internationally televised events.
But the two had an ugly falling out over business direction in 2004. Leonard started work on the failed NBC show, “The Contender,” and Rebney turned his sights to mixed martial arts.
Armed with a law degree from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, Rebney also knows what it’s like to be an athlete. He started for Ohio State University as a running back. He is also trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
His involvement sparked an affinity for mixed martial arts. For years he watched the events and attended many UFC shows.
With his sports background and love for MMA, in 2005, he decided to start Bellator.
He partnered with a group of investors and launched the company.”
“As a privately held company, we don’t disclose our financials, but it takes a multimillion-dollar commitment to successfully launch and build a brand in the Mixed Martial Arts business,” Rebney said.
Earlier this year, the multimillion-dollar clothing apparel company Affliction folded its MMA company because of deep financial losses.
Rebney believes he brings the right combination of interest, experience and connections to be successful in MMA.
“I have surrounded myself with people who have great experience,” Rebney said. “I am very fortunate to have a very good team around me.”
Pop culture is also on his side.
MMA is everywhere. Its images pop up on clothing, energy drinks, nightclubs advertisements, T-shirts, posters. It’s cool to be in to MMA.
Rebney said he is still a fan of boxing, but that it skews to an older audience, and MMA is the future if fighting.
“The mixed martial arts industry as a whole has a stranglehold on the most advertiser-friendly demographic in the marketplace,” Rebney said.