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03-21-2011, 04:50 AM
From MMATorch.com

Interviews
MMATORCH INTERVIEW: Bellator's Bjorn Rebney discusses new MTV2 TV deal, Strikeforce vs. Bellator, future of Bellator and more
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Dec 15, 2010 - 11:59:14 PM



By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief


Bellator Fighting Championships on Tuesday announced the next step in the company's evolution with a three year television deal with MTV2. The deal will bring 25 events from Bellator to the network in 2011, with two twelve week seasons and three monthly special events in between. Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney joined Torch Editor Jamie Penick on Tuesday's MMATorch Livecast at BlogTalkRadio.com/MMATorch for a 25 minute conversation to discuss the deal, what's in store for Bellator in 2011, Strikeforce and more.

JAMIE PENICK: Bjorn, thanks for joining us tonight, we're excited about the TV deal for 2011 and looking forward to Bellator's fourth season.

BJORN REBNEY: You and I both. It is a great day. You know, it's been a lot of work over the last five to six months. It's been a lot of plane flights and a lot of meetings and a lot of discussions, but you know it all came to fruition. We got to announce it today. It was exciting. I think it's an unbelievably magical fit for our brand and hits the right demo and reaches the right audience and it's just a spectacular partner to work with. We couldn't be more happy.

JAMIE PENICK: Can you detail for some of our listeners who maybe haven't heard the story yet or seen everything with it what 2011 is going to be like for Bellator on MTV2?

BJORN REBNEY: Well, it's going to be busy. I can tell you that. It's going to be 25 events in 2011. It's going to be two full 12-event seasons complemented by three specials, so starting in March we'll go March-April-May, we'll go every single week for three solid months with a 12-event season. Then after that 12-event season is finished up, we'll do a series of specials once a month so that the brand stays fresh and we stay in the eyes of fans of Bellator. And then we'll kick back up in September and go September-October-November for three months and slow it all down for the holidays and kick it back up again in 2012.

JAMIE PENICK: There were reports out that you guys were coming close to a deal with FX and Fox Sports overall to be on numerous platforms. Was there anything to those deals or was it always MTV2?

BJORN REBNEY: Well, what I can tell you is this — the focus of what we're trying to put together, the focus in terms of building the brand and taking everything that is Bellator to the next level, was always on the MTV Networks alliance, was always on putting something together with MTV2. We were having conversations with other groups, we were having good substantive conversations with other groups, obviously the folks at Fox Sports Network were great partners to and for us for a couple of seasons. But the focal point of my organization, the focal point of what we're doing was in trying to put this deal together. I mean, the reality is that MTV, MTV2's moniker for MTV2 is that MTV2 is 'Man’s Best Friend' And when I looked at the numbers on the station what you find is that they have the highest concentration of males 12-34 of any network on television and when I say any it means higher than ESPN, higher than TNT, higher than USA, higher than ABC, higher than FOX, CBS, etc. So, you know, when you look at our demos, you look at the people that are watching what we're watching, when you look at people who tune in and watch MMA and buy PPVs, that's who it is. You know, it's males 18-34 and that's who MTV2 hits with all of their programming and they do it better than anybody. So, this was the perfect step in the maturation of Bellator Fighting Championships and we count ourselves as lucky to have this in place.

JAMIE PENICK: MTV2 is on a different cable tier in some areas. It's on a digital preferred package as opposed to the digital basic, and it's also in some less households than FSN was. What are you expecting ratings-wise, comparatively speaking, to what you were getting on FSN?

BJORN REBNEY: Well, I think that they're a totally, completely different animal. MTV2 is a major cable network. MTV2 is in over 80 million homes across the country and by way of comparison, you know, the major networks that we’ve all known since we were kids, NBC, CBS, ABC, and more recently FOX are in anywhere from 108 to 112 million homes, so the magnitude of the size of an MTV2 is very comparable to ESPN2 to ESPN to ESPN Classic to the USAs, the TNTs, and the like. It reaches an awful lot of households, virtually every household in the US. And when you're looking to try to accumulate great ratings what you're looking for is you're looking to hit the right demographic. If a program like Bellator Fighting Championships is on a station that disproportionately programs for women or disproportionately programs for older men, you know 48 and older or 45 and older, you're not going to do the numbers. It's like, I said it earlier today when I was talking and that is, horses go where the hay is and the bottom line is that there's not a better network on television right now than MTV2 for capturing the allegiance and excitement of the 18-34 year old male demo so, I mean I think our ratings will be terrific. The ratings will be terrific provided we keep putting on great shows; we have spectacular fights, and my production team works 21 hours a day to put together the finest production humanly possible. But all that's in play.

JAMIE PENICK: That's something else I wanted to talk about, the production aspect of it. How much of a hand did Fox Sports have in your broadcasts and will there be any difference to the look of Bellator Fighting Championships now that you're on a network like MTV2?

BJORN REBNEY: Great question. Fox Sports Network had nothing to do with the production of our shows. All the production was handled by our production team, a production team that I've hired over the last couple of years, you know, just refining and getting better and stronger people, headed up by our Senior Coordinator producer Robbie Beiner who's got 14 Emmy awards and I think 12 of those are for fight programming. We will continue to produce our own program but the essence of the partnership that we have with MTV2 is highly integrated, so I'm leaving for New York tomorrow morning at 7 AM, I’m going to spend the next three days in New York all day working with the production people at MTV2 talking with them about everything from music to features on fighters to promotional sports and the like, so you know they're heavily vested in the program and they're heavily vested in insuring that it does great numbers and is entertaining and exciting but we're going to stay absolutely pure sports. I mean, the essence of Bellator is going to be in that two hour block, four live fights, great tight 60-70 second feature pieces on our star fighters, great teases to open the shows so you know what's coming up, great bumps between fights so that you stay tuned and people don't bump channels or go anywhere else. The essence of what we have been creating is going to stay the creating, it's my job to make sure it gets better and more exciting and faster-paced and just constantly getting better and stronger.

JAMIE PENICK: So, is it safe to say that you're looking to use the MTV production to enhance what you've already done and not actually have them with an overt or too much of an influence on what you presented previously?

BJORN REBNEY: Yeah. I think we were really fortunate, the people at MTV2 and the team at MTV2 came to us and they're young and they're inventive and they're creative and they were excited and they like what we've done. They looked at our programming and they've liked what we’ve done and of course I looked at their network and was in love with what they were capable of doing with us. So they didn’t come in to look to change much. They came in and said, hey, where we can be of help or we can be of assistance to you guys, we'll do it in a heartbeat but we like what you're doing, we love the tournament format, we love the dynamic of the fighters controlling their own destiny and not a matchmaker making a decision as who gets to fight who for what and when. So it's one of those ideal kind of synergy in terms of partnerships that you dream about having as a producer and as a CEO of a company.

JAMIE PENICK: The last time we talked to you a lot of the conversation was about Bellator vs. Strikeforce. Does this new deal help or hinder anything going forward with Strikeforce?

BJORN REBNEY: Boy, I don't know, you know, as I've said many times I've tried to stress publicly because it's really not my nature to kind of call people out or create kind of an adversarial situation. I like Scott [Coker], I think he does a terrific job. I've watched a lot of his shows. His last event [in St. Louis] was spectacular. Knockout after knockout and surprise, it was a great show. You know, I don't think that Scott was particularly interested in making those fights happen and, you know, I pursued them pretty aggressively because Gilbert [Melendez] kept calling out our champion Eddie Alvarez and I thought it was a fight that Eddie would win. So we attempted to make it work. I don't really, you know, we have 25 events coming up in 2011, more events than any MMA promotion on a big national platform (Editor's note: The UFC plans to run 30-32 events in 2011) so we've got an awful lot of work to do and my focus and the team's focus now is going to be putting on incredible event after incredible event, traveling from city to city to city, putting on the best Mixed Martial Arts [events] that the Bellator team is capable of putting on. So I think that Gilbert/Eddie would have been a fun fight. I don’t think that, based on Scott's reaction, that it's a fight that would have happened or could happen or would happen in the future, but it was interesting at the time and I think it would have made for a fun match-up from a fan's perspective but I don’t think it will occur.

JAMIE PENICK: I was reading an interview with our friend Jonathan Snowden that you did [on Tuesday] over at BloodyElbow.com and you addressed the sustainability of Bellator with this deal. What is it that this deal provides that will help you sustain the business and help it grow forward and get to that cash flow positive that you were talking about? What is it specifically about this deal that help turns that corner?

BJORN REBNEY: Well, it's a combination of things. It's not just this deal, although this deal is tremendous, I mean, when you look around the world in terms of recognizable brands, you talk about groups like MTV and Coca Cola and Nike, McDonalds, those are hugely-recognized brands that anywhere you go in the world whether it’s China, whether it's the Middle East or Western Europe or South America and you say 'MTV,' everybody knows what you're talking about. So, you know, the brand traction that an alliance like that creates in terms of what we do internationally, in terms of what we do with venues here domestically, in terms of what we do through sponsorship, in terms of what we do in merchandising, it builds revenue across multiple fronts. The deal itself is a very strong deal, I mean it's an anomaly in the television business to have somebody give you a three year commitment and we have a three year partnership with this team at MTV2. My goal and my focus when I started building out Bellator Fighting Championships was to put ourselves in a position where we spent money, invested capital, got to a certain point and once we reached that point where we turn the corner and reach a position of cash flow break-even and then ultimately start generating consistent net profits and we’ve reached that cash flow break-even point. It's a thrilling, as a business owner and as a business developer and a CEO, it is a spectacular point to be at in the maturation of your company because you no longer have to seek investment capital, you no longer have to talk to investment groups and pitch them on a idea. The idea then speaks for itself. So, you know, we're in a very, very good spot and we’re very lucky to have a group like MTV Networks and MTV2 on board, you know, to have helped get us to that spot.

JAMIE PENICK: I know there were a lot of rumors and reports over the last year that Bellator was in financial trouble and could be close to going under. Was there ever a point that you were in that spot, or were those rumors and reports unfounded?

BJORN REBNEY: They were completely, totally and utterly unfounded. There was a business model and a business plan that was created years ago to build out Bellator Fighting Championships. I've spent a lot of years in this industry. I've spent a lot of years putting out events, cutting television deals, securing venue deals and selling sponsorships in this sport and other combat sports. I knew what it would take to get to this point. So when I went out and tried to secure investment capital years ago for this company, it was a situation where I knew what I needed. I knew what I needed to get in terms of capital to fund this business. We were never in a position where we were close to going out of business, we were never in a position where the company was in jeopardy. We knew exactly where we were going. We had some spectacular alternatives in terms of television coming off the heels of the two seasons on FSN. But we had some things we had to fix. We had to fix the preemption, we had to fix those issues. Once we fixed them in terms of this new deal it sends it all into the next level and we're fortunate to be there. People [question it], rightfully so, they've seen the IFL, they've seen EliteXC, they've seen Bodog, they've seen Affliction, the list goes on and on and on. So they look at a new company, and whether they love it or hate it, the natural inclination if you're a fan of this game is 'I don't think they're gonna make it.' Well, because when nine out of ten don't make it and there's one huge 800 lb. elephant that does, it's human tendency [to think that way]. If nine out of ten people slip on a street you're going to be more careful where you walk. I don't fault anybody for asking the question, but as the guy running the company and running the books and doing the numbers I knew exactly where we were and we were in a great spot. We're in a substantially better spot now, and it was all part of the plan.

JAMIE PENICK: With the past history of the IFL's, the EliteXC's, etc. there's just a general apprehension of maybe not wanting to commit too much into a new company if they're just going to be out of the picture in another year.

BJORN REBNEY: It's just human nature, you don't want to get vested. You don't want to go spend $600-$700 on a suit and have it be a brand that's completely out of style in a year and a half. You don't want to put in the energy and the emotional weight of getting vested with a company and its fighters and its programming to have it go off the air and to have it not be in existence. And I understand that because I was one of them. I was one of them that started watching the UFC years and years and years ago before there was Spike and before there was new development and before it exploded onto the scene and the general public. I've watched some of [the other promotions] and as a fan you just kind of pushed your way back to that which you knew was going to be around. Thankfully at this point, I can say with all assurety that Bellator will be around for many, many years to come. Our brand of mixed martial arts, our tournament format and our objectivity will be around for a lot of years. We're just happy about it and happy to be with MTV2.

JAMIE PENICK: I want to turn the attention back to the season four tournament, set to begin in March. Last time we talked to you, you gave us a lot of numbers and a lot of information on why Thursday was the best night for Bellator on FSN and why that timeslot was chosen. Is it still going to be Thursday nights for season four, or do you have any ideas on what day of the week and what timeslot you will be in for season four?

BJORN REBNEY: It may be or it may not be, it's one of the things we're working on as we speak.What we wanted to do is we wanted to get through the announcement of the new alliance, the partnership between MTV2 and Bellator, and then subsequent to that in pretty short order make the announcement of what night we're going to be on. Thursday nights presented some really unique advantages. It was kind of an untested waterway in terms of mixed martial arts programming. The UFC had enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on Spike on Wednesday nights, and I think there was a lot to be said on Thursday nights. But we may not be back on Thursday nights, we'll be making that announcement in relatively short order. But we're very, very comfortable with the nights that are being chosen and how that's going to play itself out over the next three years.

JAMIE PENICK: Will Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock still be your broadcast team for this year?

BJORN REBNEY: Well, I hate to put people on the spot, but we're working through all the broadcast team issues as we speak, both English and Spanish language announce teams, ring announcer, the whole thing. I was thrilled with our teams last year, I thought our Spanish language team did an amazing job, I though our cage announcer Michael Williams was, from my perspective, awesome and industry leading. And I'm just real happy with everything that everybody did on air for Bellator. We should be making those announcements in terms of who's going to be back in short order. We haven't done anything official, but of course with a three year deal, with television, you're looking to secure alliances with your talent that extend throughout the entirety of that three years, so we're working through all of that. What I can tell you is that I thought everybody did an amazing job. I thought we had two of the best on-air teams in the history of MMA in both English and Spanish, and I thought Michael did a great job as well.

JAMIE PENICK: MMAWeekly.com this week reported that Daniel Gracie signed on for a season four light heavyweight tournament. Is that a confirmed weight class for season four and what other weight classes will we see when you return in March.

BJORN REBNEY: In season four we're definitely going welterweight because it's just so rock solid. We've got so many great guys, between Hahn, Wallhead, Hornbuckle, Weedman, Lozano, 170 is going to be a murderer's row. 155 has really come around for the first time in terms of an all around tournament, I'm really excited about what's going on at 155. 145 is terrific again, stacked from top to bottom with everybody trying to get a chance to fight Joe Warren for the title. We're giving very serious thought to 205. There are some really talented fighters at 205. Gracie's had a unique career. He fought in PRIDE, he hasn't fought a lot, but of course he carries the Gracie moniker which is always a huge feather in the cap of a fighter. He's done well, I think he's 5-2. We signed Daniel, and if 205 kicks off in March he'll definitely be in that mix.

JAMIE PENICK: One final question I wanted to touch on as I haven't seen it addressed anywhere else. Have you had to give up any ownership stake in Bellator to Viacom or MTV or other parent companies where they would get a part of this or is this still completely your company and this is just a television deal only?

BJORN REBNEY: That's a terrific question. We're not in a position where we can speak directly to the deal terms. We don't talk the license fees, or equity structures and those kind of things, we just kind of leave that entirely off the table just based off our deal with the network. Much like was the case when I cut the first deal with ESPN, we were the first MMA promoter to ever do a deal with any member of that family, the specifics of the deal, with good reason as they cut 1,000 different deals in a given year and they want to be sure that the confidentiality is respected out of those deals, so you'll never find me in a position where I'm speaking to equity, or speaking to licensing fees or any of those things. But I can tell you how many events and I can tell you about the great promotional support they're going to give us, but the substantive deal points we've got to keep kind of quiet.

JAMIE PENICK: Well, Bjorn, thank you for joining us and giving us some insight onto this upcoming season. We're excited that Bellator is going to be on TV on a consistent basis and not preempted in all of our markets from week to week!

BJORN REBNEY: You and I both, brother. (laughs) I can't tell you how happy I am that I won't have to deal with people calling me from Milwaukee all bent out of shape because the Brewers preempted them, or calling me from LA because the Clippers preempted them. FSN were great guys, they were absolute class acts and magical to work with, but that was just a difficult, difficult dilemma to work with when we were putting on great fights and 60-70% of the country didn't get to see them when they were scheduled to be on. But thankfully we've got a perfect alliance in place right now with MTV2. We're thrilled about it, it goes for three solid years. But for a blackout or some kind of awful event that takes place in this country, every time we say we're going to be on, we're going to be on, we're going to be on for two hours, the fights are going to be compelling, they're going to be exciting. You're going to see every minute of them, you're not going to miss the beginning, you're not going to miss the end, and if you're not home and you set your DVR, you're going to be able to watch it when you get home. It's everything we wanted in terms of the next step with this brand, man.

Special thanks to Zach Arnold at FightOpinion.com for a partial transcription of the interview

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