Bellator’s European Fight Series, which is entering it's second season, will kick off this weekend in Dublin, and later this year, will take to the SSE Wembley Arena when former rugby player James Haskell will enter into the cage for the first time. Together, the events form an ongoing strategy as the MMA promotion gears up to cement its place in the minds of the sport’s fans on this side of the Atlantic.
MMA, which has gained a growing popularity in the last decade, has no shortage of fans in Europe, but up until now that fanbase has been served regularly by late-night matches beamed over from the USA. It may not have dampened the passion of those hardcore fans, but Bellator’s European Fight Series seeks to change things for those bleary-eyed die-hards and show the sport to a wider section of the population in the process.
“That was the whole raison d’etre for Bellator Europe as an organisation,” David Green, Head of Bellator Europe, told Sport Industry Group. “That group is massively underserved whilst still having a huge amount of talent and fanbase. We’re sort of stuck watching MMA out of our time zone and picking up scraps here and there with the odd show coming across.
“The whole point of Bellator Europe was to bring big shows into the market, but at the same time grow the local talent base and actually provide an outlet for them. We’re seeing that in its clearest form in Dublin - the amount of fighters coming out of there now is in double digits, and that maybe wasn’t there two years ago. And at the same time we’re bringing in big stars, in the right time zone at the right time.”
Bringing in the big names is a time honoured tactic for promoting a sport. Bellator has no shortage of big names from within the MMA world, like Cris Cyborg with her 1.1 million-strong following on Instagram. The signing of former England rugby star James Haskell has captured media attention, too - both for the novelty of the switch and for the level of interest in seeing him enter the cage.
Green points out that Bellator Europe’s focus is on unearthing new talent from European cities as much as it is about capturing the attention of the media, but he does admit sprinkling some stardust into the promotion’s events doesn’t hurt.
“You’d probably be surprised at the talent we’re bringing through ourselves,” said Green, “but at the same time we’ve got our own stars; MMA legends already in the roster. So we can have that flexibility to sign someone like James Haskell, which we’re very excited about, and we’ve seen that it’s already been exciting for the public.
“The fight game’s always been about personalities and people will get behind them if they bring something different. You look at the likes of Tyson Fury in boxing: the jury’s out if he’s the best boxer in the world, but he’s definitely got a huge huge fan base and we’re delighted we’ve got that same sort of X factor in MMA.”
The personalities of sport stars - just like with any athlete in the social media age - is becoming of greater importance for anyone promoting a fight, a match, or a tournament. There is some evidence to suggest that there is a growing trend of fans supporting athletes over clubs, and that those fans will even switch their allegiances if their favourite star changes sides in a sport.
With its individual nature as well as its penchant for creating drama, combat sports like boxing and MMA are well-placed to take advantage of the sporting public’s desire to follow personalities.
But the rise of the social media influencer has made the concept of ‘celebrity’ that little bit more fluid. An MMA star like UFC’s Conor McGregor might not look out of place in the gossip pages of the newspapers, but the public’s interest in fitness and wellbeing means many are looking to athletes for lifestyle inspiration, adding a new demographic of fitness fans to the combat sport base.
“That element has come from nowhere,” says Green. “Some of the MMA fighters have an unusual approach to their sport, whether that be a plant-based diet or mindfulness classes - things that you might not normally expect from a fighter.
“It comes from that area of general wellbeing, and it feels a lot more of a lifestyle than, perhaps, you get with team sports. That’s helping to spread the message. You’re seeing things like MMA training classes in gyms around the country being attended by people who have no interest in fighting."
Growing a fanbase for a sport like MMA - one that has been banned in many countries in its history, having recently been legalised in Vietnam in February 2020 - will rely on more than marketing fights to fans of pure combat sport. The lifestyle of the fighters as well as the fast-paced, social media friendly nature of the bouts play their roles, as does Bellator’s TV rights deals with Channel 5 and Sky Sports in the UK, creating a network for the sport across free-to-air and subscription-based broadcasters.
“The broadcast deal is a huge part of the offering,” said Green. “Media is going in many different ways these days, but it’s still important that we’ve got a free to air offering and other linear options as well.
“2019 was about trying to set up a platform and it was really important for us to have the Channel 5 coverage and that reach at prime time across the country. And we also had the Sky deal which gives us a different platform and an outlet for our international shows.
“They look after different things. If you’re an established sport with an established fanbase that’s been there forever, you can maybe put it on a subscription channel completely. But with something like MMA, we’re very proud of our product and we stand by it, but there’s such a huge amount of potential still there and we know that not everybody has seen it. So to have it on Channel 5, that’s helped in getting eyeballs on it from people who maybe didn’t know they liked MMA yet.
“At the same time, Sky Sports played a very important role. It wasn’t just Sky’s broadcast of the events, but it was also getting on Sky Sports News as an item really helped legitimise the sport, seeing it alongside other sports or after a Premier League manager’s news
As Bellator Europe continues its assault on the hearts and minds of the European public, it is also putting in place free-to-air and premium products with its broadcast partners, adding an extra level of diversity to its offering.
It has also signed its first European partner in William Hill as it builds its presence on these shores and looks to further differentiate itself from UFC.
“Whilst we’re both doing the same thing, I think we’ve got our own flavour,” said Green. “People are appreciating what we’re trying to do: helping local fighters and bringing in the big stars.
“People want two strong players in the market, and I’d like to think we were one of them.”