Interview with BFC CEO Rebney

January 6, 2009

2008 may have been a year of historic growth for MMA, but in terms of the competitive landscape it remains a virtual UFC monopoly.  EliteXC’s spectacular failure last fall, despite a historic network television deal and a number of marquee fighters, begs the question:  Can a viable competitor emerge?  Can the market sustain another national promotion over the long-term?

Bjorn Rebney, co-founder and co-owner of Bellator Fighting Championships, announced to some fanfare last month, believes his new promotion will be the exception to UFC’s rule.  The key, he believes, is product differentiation.  Unlike EliteXC, whose leaders openly criticized the UFC and aimed to challenge its supremacy, Bellator has taken precisely the opposite approach.  “There is no need to change the material aspects of the game established by the UFC,” says Rebney.  “Our goal is to duplicate many of the things they offer but fill in some of the blanks that consumers are missing.”

The missing elements, he claims, are a “sense of legitimate objectivity,” which he says is found in boxing but not in MMA.  Bellator is not offering “a stale reality format” but a tournament that shows “an aspect of the game that is more pleasurable to watch.   We let the fighters compete, track them and ultimately the best fighter wins.”

Bellator will premiere on Saturday, April 14 on ESPN Deportes and will be shown and each two-hour broadcast will be shown over 12 successive weeks.   There will be four weight classes – feather, light, welter and middle weight, with eight fighters in each weight class.  To win, a fighter will have to prevail in three fights over a three month period.  The purse structure – which Rebney believes is another key differentiator for Bellator – is as follows:

  • $10K for the first fight with a $15K bonus for the winner.
  • $25K for the second/ $25K bonus
  • $40K/$60K for the third.

Rebney believes these “fatter” incentives, plus the chance to fight on national television three times in three months, will also allow the fighters to attract more lucrative sponsorships.  And unlike the UFC, which has strict exclusivity restrictions, Bellator fighters will free to sign with whomever they choose.

Rebney also believes he can learn from EliteXC’s mistakes.  “It was glaringly obvious,” he says, “that there was a lack of focus on promotion of legitimate world class talent.   Pay per view revenues are the #1 growth driver in this business, and fighters like Kimbo don’t sell pay per views.”  From a production and promotion standpoint, Rebney plans to take a lesson from ABC Sports legend Roone Arledge’s playbook.  “What’s missing,” he says, “is legitimate storytelling.  Who are they?  Why are they competing?”  He cites CNBC’s piece on Rich Franklin as a benchmark for his production.

Rebney acknowledges that, despite an impressive sports pedigree, he and co-founder Brad Epstein lack any direct experience in MMA.  And he does not disagree with Frank Shamrock’s statement to that experience is essential to the success of any promotion.  In response he has recruited a team including former King of the Cage fighters Matt Stansell and Jeff Clark.  “They’ve fought inside the cage and have worked on the promotional end, promoting and managing fighters,” he says.

Thanks to their efforts, Bellator has signed “a good number” of fighters from Japan, Brazil, Russia, the U.S. and Western Europe, including 155 pounder Eddie Alvarez and light heavyweight Dave Herman.  “UFC’s done a terrific job,” says Rebney, “but the fact that highly talented fighters like Eddie, who are charismatic, articulate and dedicated, are available is a misstep that we’ve been able to capitalize on.”

Despite the slowdown in bank lending that has impacted virtually every industry, Rebney claims that Bellator has met all of its capital requirements for its inaugural tournament, having raised money from “hedge funds”.  He declined to provide any further specifics.

Plans beyond the tournament are sketchy at this point, though Rebney does expect to bring back champions to fight in what he describes as “special events”.  Given the recent track record of UFC’s competitors, it would seem Bellator’s “one tournament at a time” approach is probably best.

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