The UFC has long been the dominant brand in Mixed Martial Arts, but their supremacy appears like it will be challenged as Bellator Fighting Championships have also secured a regular mainstream television slot and backed by the prodigious clout of owners Viacom have set out to scoop up free agents and stop their prize talents being poached by the big dog.
With the back room moves that have resulted in the UFC putting more than half of their events out, free to view on FOX affiliated channels and opening up Spike TV as a mainstream platform for Bellator, we can easily see the current contractual love triangle between the UFC, Eddie Alvarez and Bellator as the first shot in a war for MMA dominance.
Now, I’ve never hidden the fact that before I was an MMA fan, I was a fan of pro wrestling and this situation puts me in mind of the turn of events that led to the most compelling period in that form of entertainment’s history.
Lets set the scene. After spending a decade solidifying their dominance and consuming lesser competitors, the long term top dog enters a period of stagnation with older stars retiring, picking their matches and/or falling out with the company and leaving.
Now, of their competitors, there is only one significant domestic opponent left, a company which has long seemed a little bit… shall we say parochial? This company has however established a reputation for putting on quality matches, booking consistently and generally doing its job well, even if the production values, marketing reach and star power aren’t quite there.
What happens when that underdog competitor gains some momentum, gets a backer with enough finance and clout to equal and perhaps even exceed the long term market leader?
Then my friends, we have a competition and has history and entry level economic theory has shown us, this leads to great things for everyone involved, except perhaps the stress levels of the higher management of the rival companies.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of pro wrestling in the 90s and MMA now will see that I’m drawing parallels between the then WWF and the modern UFC and the one time Jim Crocket Promotions, later better known as WCW and Bellator.
Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy – I don’t expect Bellator to poach Georges St-Pierre from the UFC anytime soon (or, ever…) in the way that WCW drew Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger and later Kevin Nash and Scott Hall from the WWF and with the differs business models and broadcast arrangements on show, the competition isn’t as direct as it was during the Monday Night Wars.
Back in the 90s, WCW and the WWF competed over TV ratings for directly opposing cable TV shows, with monthly pay per view but rates as a secondary way of keeping score. Of course, Bellator and the UFC aren’t directly competing at any point as UFC events invariably take place on Saturdays while Bellator have settled on Thursdays.
It’s also worth noting that Bellator don’t (yet) offer the PPVs which make up about a third of the UFC’s output and remains their major source of income and that the respective reach of Spike TV is different to the UFC’s various televisual homes (FOX being more widely available, FX and Fuel TV less so) which makes a direct comparison of viewer numbers pointless.
However, the point is that all of a sudden, Bellator have the financial clout and sheer visibility to actually offer a serious alternative for fighters and fans.
It’s simple economics that when one organisation controls a whole industry (or the whole top strata of an industry) then those who work in that industry and consume its output have greatly diminished choice.
In MMA terms, this meant that if you want to watch MMA then the UFC was the only easy thing to find and if you were a fighter who wanted to succeed at the highest level and perhaps retire with enough money saved to REALLY retire, you pretty much had to take what the UFC were offering.
Now however, it’s perfectly viable for fans (in the United States at least) to watch a live MMA card every week on their home TV and have the word ‘Ultimate’ never be uttered.
Similarly, UFC fighters coming to the end of their contract will be able to dangle the possibility of Bellator being a more attractive prospect to bump up their deals. It also allows free agents who’ve built their name in other, less monied promotions a degree of choice.
Market economics dictates that increased competition (defined as an increased number of choices for both consumers, supplies and employees, and when accompanied by a relatively level playing field in terms of consumer information) causes wages to rise, prices to fall and quality to increase.
Say that at some point the UFC and Bellator start running live events in direct opposition. At that point, the pressure will be on for both companies to put on a tangibly BETTER show than their rival. Hence, quality should increase.
Say that at some point, both companies are running pay per views. Now, folks can only afford so many pay per views in a month and if choosing whether to buy the UFC or Bellator offering this month, price might come into the equation as much as the perceived quality of the card. Thus, prices should drop for consumers and the same should apply to live events.
Last year, Bellator’s Middleweight champion, Hector Lombard‘s contract expired and he moved to the brighter lights of the UFC almost as a matter of course. Recently, former Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez has come to a similar point, yet Bellator feel strong enough in their position to challenge whether the UFC have offered Alvarez a superior contract. Thus far, judges have ruled in favour of Bellator but this twisted case has a way to run yet.
That news has been swiftly followed by UFC Hall of Famer, Randy Couture has signed a multi-year contract with Bellator and Spike to coach on their new reality TV show which has to be seen as a major commitment as Randy isn’t cheap…
I’m not saying that Bellator are currently or soon to be on a level with the UFC, as a promotion on a cable channel who has never ran a pay per view can hardly compare for clout or opportunity with a company on network TV running over a dozen pay over views a year. The point is, their reach is improving exponentially and the weight of their backing cannot be disputed. That potentially makes things very interesting.
In a very real sense, and more as a statement of future intent than an immediate feeling that they can go toe to toe with the UFC, Bellator have drawn a line in the sand and made a “just bring it” motion towards the UFC.
All of this may amount to nothing and they may end up as just another ‘next big thing’ that squared off with the UFC and ended up sleeping with the fishes but if Bellator can continue to bring quality, profitable events and appear more like a credible alternative to the UFC in the eyes of fans, sponsors and fighters then the MMA marketplace could be about to experience some of its most exciting and competitive times to date.
If you’re not down with that, I’ve got two words for you…