In recent years in mixed martial arts, promotions that have tried to position themselves as the UFC's primary competitor have always fallen by the wayside. But the news that Viacom has purchased Bellator Fighting Championships makes this No. 2 promotion different: Bellator may never be on the same level as the UFC, but it now has a solid foundation on which to establish itself as an MMA promotion that's here to stay.
Viacom owns both MTV2, which currently airs Bellator fights, and Spike TV, which has been the cable TV home of the UFC for several years. Spike President Kevin Kay told USA Today that with the UFC leaving Spike for Fox, now is the right time for Viacom to demonstrate that it's heavily invested in MMA by getting on board with Bellator.
"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," Kay said. "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."
Viacom's plan is to keep Bellator on MTV2 through 2012, then move it to Spike in 2013, when Spike's deal to air repeats of UFC programming comes to an end. Spike has a much larger audience than MTV2 -- and an audience that's accustomed to watching MMA -- and so moving Bellator to Spike just makes sense.
The biggest question is what kind of investment Viacom wants to make in Bellator going forward: Will Viacom be willing to spend the kind of money that will allow Bellator to compete with the UFC for fighters? Or will Bellator be content to stick with fighters who are mostly a step below UFC level? Bellator has a handful of fighters who are considered among the Top 10 in the world in their weight classes, but for the most part the quality of the fighting in the Bellator cage is not on par with what fans are accustomed to seeing in the UFC.
Another question for Bellator is whether it will re-think its approach of using a seasonal format with weekly shows and tournaments. That format has been Bellator's trademark, and it allows the promotion to build up its tournament winners quickly. But it has also resulted in problems when winning fighters have suffered injuries, and the tournament format has caused some of Bellator's champions to experience long layoffs while waiting for the next tournament to end.
But however Bellator resolves those issues, the best news is that Bellator will be around long enough to make those decisions. Viacom is a huge media company with the deep pockets necessary to keep Bellator afloat for years to come. This deal means Bellator has a promising future.