2019 has already proven a busy year for Viacom-owned mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation Bellator.
The launch of the new Bellator European series has given its British and Irish fanbase the chance to see the best MMA talent on home soil for the first time.
The inaugural event took place in Newcastle in February, the first of a minimum of six UK and European Bellator events this year to be broadcast live, prime time, on free-to-air UK broadcaster Channel 5.
A further, first of its kind, agreement with satellite pay-tv broadcaster Sky Sports has also been confirmed, covering a minimum of 20 US and international Bellator events.
During an eventful few weeks, Bellator MMA President Scott Coker met with Sport Industry Group at Viacom’s London office to discuss the sport’s focus on the UK market and why the recent broadcast deals could act as a “watershed moment for Bellator.”
What has made the European market such a target for Bellator?
When I first came on-board with Bellator four years ago, Viacom made it very clear that we are not a US company. We are a worldwide company and eventually we’ll build this as a worldwide brand. That’s part of the mission.
Bob Bakish, Viacom CEO, had said we want to expand internationally, to create a series around the world.
The European series is the first step. We’ve worked our way over the last couple of years, with one-off fights here and there, holding events in London, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Budapest and Tel Aviv.
The number one priority was to get live fights here (in the UK), as we have so many fans in this market and knew that we would eventually be doing this European series.
To me it comes down to the tremendous amount of talent here in the UK, Ireland and across Europe. there wasn’t the calibre of fighters here, I don’t think there would be as much interest, so we want to develop a talent bubble here.
Why were the linear TV deals so important?
We had a deal with Channel 5 and 5Spike UK, but to now have Channel 5 say, “we’re going to support it and create a series, give you 6-8 fights a year and a prime-time inventory,” that’s a big statement about Viacom’s commitment towards mixed martial arts.
There’s going to be some dramatic changes in the landscape for MMA, starting with Channel 5. They are part of the Viacom family and Bellator is owned 100% by Viacom, which has tremendous reach.
Having started with Newcastle, we are looking forward to bringing several events to the UK, hosting world class MMA events on prime-time here in the UK.
The beauty is that if you are a fight fan in the UK, you now don’t have to wait until 3am to watch your MMA product. This works for the fans and the fighter pool, who can get fights all over the world with worldwide TV distribution.
Last year you signed a multi-year distribution agreement with OTT platform DAZN. How is that serving Bellator so far?
I thought it was a good fit, because I’m confident we’ll get some new subscribers, a younger fan viewership. When they (DAZN) approached us, they said that it was part of the future.
For instance, I still love watching sports on my big screen tv, however, the younger generation absorb media differently. My kids don’t watch media the same way I watch media. I’ll talk to my son and sometimes have no idea what he’s talking about, with social this and digital that. Technology changes so quickly.
However, break it down and we have 15 fights a year on Paramount Network and then seven fights on DAZN, which is 22 fights a year, not including the European series we are starting.
I don’t think we could have streamed all 22 fights on DAZN and likewise I don’t think broadcasting them all on linear TV is the answer.
I think it’s a good supplement to what we are doing and their commitment to Bellator financially is a great piece of business for the company.
What do you think has been the most significant move you’ve made over the 10 years of your existence?
It’s a tremendous time to be in the Bellator business and has been a great ride in getting to this point. For instance, last year we had record ratings for Bellator worldwide and aired in 160 countries around the world.
I think the European expansion and global expansion is the pivot point, a game changer. To be live on prime time Channel 5, UK fans are really going to appreciate having mixed martial arts not just at 3am in the morning.
Additionally, the heavyweight tournament that we just finished in the US in Los Angeles is another game changer. It received great international appeal, with a lot of blue-chip sponsors coming on board, as well as tremendous ratings, which is not easy to achieve in television these days.
What’s your position on crossover events, with boxers taking on MMA athletes, for example?
I don’t think it’s fair that the mixed martial artist always has to crossover to boxing rules, like McGregor against Mayweather, or Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Mayweather. Floyd’s saying, “I’ll fight you, but you have to fight in boxing.”
I’m telling you now, if it was a fight with no rules, Conor would destroy Mayweather, as it’s a case of more weapons to deal with. We should do it the other way. Yes, you are a great boxer, but come fight in the cage. It’s hard to punch when on your back.
It’s really two different sports. Take AJ (Anthony Joshua), an amazing physical athlete. First time I met him, I thought this is what it must have been like to meet a young Cassius Clay. However, have someone leg-kicking him and taking him down, can he do it when he’s never trained like that? He could, but it would take time to master.
The crossover will happen from time to time, and we would welcome any boxer to come and fight our heavyweight champ by our rules in MMA.
Over this 25-year evolution, this new martial art has formed and is the future of combat sports. What’s being taught inside the martial arts schools today? It’s mixed martial arts.
Last year saw Bellator sign-up reality TV star Aaron Chalmers to the Bellator 200 event at Wembley. What’s the thinking behind having a crossover celebrity on the roster?
He’s not a gimmick fighter that we put in just for ratings. He is a guy who can really fight. How much time and energy he spends on growing his martial arts ability is up to him, but people underestimate that the kid can really fight.
If you saw Aaron’s fight at Wembley last summer, he gets caught and I thought, “okay now we will see how gutsy this kid is.” He fought back like a tiger and submitted the guy, so he’s crossing over and becoming a real MMA.
This your 34th year in the fight business, what would be considered a success for Bellator in 2019?
It’s simple. You’ve got to do three things in this business. Have great ratings, or streaming numbers. You have to put bums on seats. Finally, you must grow the brand. You can achieve all that by having great fighters and putting on great fights.
You’ve said in the past of your desire to host fights in Rome’s Colosseum, or a US show for the troops on a military carrier deck. How close are you to securing such a unique venue?
I believe that one of these will happen in 2019.
Being on an active carrier is going to be tricky, in terms of the clearance and the logistics of getting all our gear out there and making a show. It’s going to be challenging, but I’m willing to do it. It might be somewhere off the coast in the sea of Japan.
I grew up in South Korea, where the military was very present. My father was in the import/export business after two years in military service, so we always had access to the base.
Anytime a USO show came to town, I remember the Bob Hope-type shows of the day, with all the soldiers present. That always stuck in my mind.
To do a fight on the deck of an active aircraft carrier for soldiers/sailors watching, would make for a great spectacle. It’s such a good give-back for the military.
The Colosseum is also monumental goal. We did a show in Rome and the Government Federation that handles the Colosseum attended. However, as you can imagine, there are so many steps to go through.
Maybe we could do a fight right in-front of the Colosseum. Wouldn’t that be amazing? 2,000 years-ago they were there doing it, and now we are back. We’ve just got to figure out how we’d do it.