The news Viacom has purchased an ownership stake in the Bellator mixed martial arts promotion is great news for the sport. Viacom, the parent company of Spike TV and MTV2, is a deep-pocketed media empire that also owns Paramount Pictures and shares ownership with CBS and Showtime.
When the fourth-largest media conglomerate in the world buys in, it means the sport is here to stay.
Viacom knows just how valuable MMA programming can be after six years of airing UFC content on Spike TV. The decision to invest in Bellator indicates that Viacom brass are believers in the long-term viability of the sport.
Bellator has been airing on MTV2 since March of this year. Ratings have been up and down, primarily due to MTV2's questionable decision to air the events on Saturday nights, competing head-to-head with the UFC, Strikeforce and NCAA college football.
The promotion will continue to air on MTV2 for 14 more months as Spike TV's rights to the UFC archive extend through 2012 and preclude the station's airing competing MMA product during that time. Viacom's decision to invest in Bellator means they can survive another couple of seasons on MTV2 while they wait to move to Spike TV.
"As we realized that our relationship with UFC was likely to come to an end, our Viacom mergers and acquisitions folks, and us, started to have conversations with MTV2 about getting invested in a mixed martial arts promotion and become owners as opposed to renters. You're building value in something that you own, and you own it for the long term. You're not in a constant state of negotiation." Spike TV president Kevin Kay told USA TODAY.
Bellator has always been an exceptionally far-sighted promotion compared to the usual grandiose schemers who enter the sport. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has been careful to avoid directly challenging the UFC or positioning Bellator as a direct competitor to MMA's alpha dog. He's also taken the organization's goals much more piecemeal.
Unlike the IFL, Affliction, the World Fighting Alliance (WFA), EliteXC and Strikeforce, Bellator has avoided the wrath of UFC president Dana White. All of those promotions came out of the gate making brash claims and announcing plans to compete head-to-head with UFC for headlining fighters, major television deals and pay-per-view customers.
Rebney has instead played a more patient game with the long-term goal always in sight. The Viacom deal confirms the validity of his strategy and ensures MMA will have a functioning business ecosystem for the foreseeable future. With Bellator and UFC both partnered-up with major U.S. media conglomerates (the UFC has a deal with Fox), mixed martial arts is guaranteed continued exposure, promotion and revenue.
Viacom's decision means fighters who cannot come to terms with UFC will have an alternative option. Viacom's decision means millions of fans will continue to get high quality MMA programming for free on Spike TV. Most of all, Viacom's decision means Bellator won't be going anywhere for some time.
What this means for Bellator's biggest stars, fighters like lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez, is less clear. The checks will continue to clear and Alvarez, et al won't face the nightmare lived by Japanese stars like Kazushi Sakuraba who hasn't been paid for 2 years. While that's great news, it doesn't mean the promotion will be able to provide its biggest stars -- fighters like Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Ben Askren and Cole Konrad -- legitimate competition and big fights.
Alvarez spoke to USA TODAY and express excitement at the deal:
"They'll have a ton of more money to negotiate with. As long as I keep doing well and do what I'm supposed to do, the future looks bright."
"We both grew together. I'm sort of peaking in my career, and it seems like so is Bellator. ... I was with a lot of promotions that failed, that flopped, and this is actually working. Everything's coming to fruition."
The prospect of Alvarez and his peers at the top of Bellator remaining with the promotion long-term rather than moving up to UFC may be the one bit of frustrating news for fans. While everyone wants to see Alvarez tested against the very best of the division, it's just a reality of life fans can't get every match-up they fantasize about.
That's a very small trade to make for the long-term viability of the sport.
It's also good news for the UFC who can now honestly say they are anything but a monopoly in MMA. With Bellator backed up by Viacom's deep pockets, fighters now have at least two well-funded bidders for their services. While this may mean future bidding wars for champions and eventually competition on Pay-Per-View, that's much better than facing sanctions from the Federal Trade Commission.
Fight fans have a lot to look forward to.