Bellator MMA has upset the UKMMA apple cart, but will they learn from past mistakes?

Bellator MMA has invested heavily in an attempt to shake up the UKMMA market, building a roster of 24 talented athletes from Western Europe for their ‘localised six-event series’, which is slated to start before the end of 2018.

First reported by ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Bellator’s aggressive poaching of the UK and Ireland’s most decorated fighters — including two-weight BAMMA champion, Terry Brazier and ex-UFC pair, Norman Parke and Jim Wallhead — shows bold intentions for this contemporary project.

It would be foolish to look at their new venture as anything other than a turning point for UKMMA, but the promotion must approach apprehensively if they are to succeed in the long run.

Why a good television deal is crucial for Bellator

President of the organisation, Scott Coker, first teased the nationally syndicated television product at Bellator 200, which took place at London’s SSE Wembley Arena on May 25.

With stars like Michael Page, bitter rival Paul Daley and reality TV’s Aaron Chalmers already on the books, a dedicated product for the British and Irish is unquestionably logical, especially with their parent company, Viacom, having UK TV ties.

When the Bellator boss made the announcement back in May, he indicated that project’s launch (and inevitably, it’s success) rested on backing from Viacom and Channel 5, with a broadcast agreement their most pivotal necessity.

Of course, Bellator’s past UK TV presence hasn’t exactly inspired hope. For years, UK fans have irked criticism towards the Coker-led brand for their inability to fix a live broadcast on our television sets. At best, we’ve been given the odd UK (main) card live, with most events chartering around a 24-hour delay at best.

The Bellator 200 event was broadcast live on 5Spike and drew 117,000 viewers according to BARB, showing that there is fascination there for an MMA product on national television.

Befittingly, they have a body of proof with this European roster — which I’m certain they will continue to add to ahead of their estimated launch in October or November — but without a live TV deal, their efforts mean very little.

If Bellator is expecting any success they must be prepared to broker a live broadcast deal. They have no excuse this time either, with a product catered towards a local timezone, Viacom sister channels like 5Star, 5Spike and 5USA would undoubtedly benefit from live, primetime sports.

Especially with the UFC moving from one subscription service to another (switching from BT Sport to new platform Eleven Sports at the end of the year), a live MMA product on free-to-air television will give Bellator a boost through their greater accessibility.

Who brokered the BAMMA talent raid?

Bellator’s slew of signings has received a large amount of attention on the UK circuit and the rationale for that is their poaching of BAMMA’s standard bearers.

Terry Brazier, who held the BAMMA welterweight and lightweight titles, may have been the most high profile signing in this round of acquisitions, but he joins three other former BAMMA champions who have jumped ship in the past year.

Bellator

Terry Brazier poses after his final BAMMA fight. Image Copyright BAMMA

Bellator’s capture of champions Michael Shipman, Ryan Scope and Daniel Crawford showed serious intentions to raid BAMMA’s upper echelons, and that fearless theme has carried over to their latest shopping spree.

It started so promisingly, as well. Bellator and BAMMA have shared (what seemed like) a fruitful relationship, first partnering up in December 2016 for Bellator 169/BAMMA 26 in Dublin, Ireland.

Since that event, they have worked together a further three times officially, with BAMMA matchmaker, Jude Samuel, also sourcing undercards for Bellator London events in 2017 and 2018.

Bellator

Michael Page snaps his fingers at Bellator 200. Imagine Copyright Bellator MMA.

One could argue that this partnership was nothing more than a Trojan horse from Mr. Coker. On the surface, it looked like a profound gesture to help solidify BAMMA as the UK’s number one organisation. In reality, it was an unassuming way for Bellator to learn about regional markets across the UK and Ireland without such financial burden.

A joint venture in December 2017, which took place at Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena, served as the final resting place for the Bellator and BAMMA working agreement and at the turn of the new year, the Viacom owned promotion began their assertive pursuit of BAMMA talent in order to fill their Bellator 200 undercard.

Former BAMMA matchmaker, Jude Samuel — who served under the promotion since BAMMA 2 in February 2010 — played a big role in this. You could go as far as to speculate that one of the key players who helped develop BAMMA over the past eight years, was also the reason for their most consequential talent exodus in history. That’s bittersweet juxtaposition.

Learning from past mistakes

UK MMA’s cyclical growth (and diminishment) over the past decade is something Bellator should be wary about when investing in this market. Right now it looks like they are playing it safe, with only a limited six-event series currently penciled, and that’s probably the most sensible decision.

In the past we’ve seen Cage Warriors on their knees, BAMMA have had their share of troubles too, not to mention the most recent demise of Russian promotion, Absolute Championship Berkut, in the UK.

Cage Warriors rebounded by locking up strong regional ‘Academy’ territories, nurturing their relationship with UFC Fight Pass and signing some incredibly promising athletes. With four UK events already this year, they are the most active of the crop.

The future of BAMMA, however, remains dubious, with Bellator effectively absorbing their identity. It is paramount that they begin their rebuilding speedily. With core fans already disgruntled, it will be even harder to reclaim their credibility in the marketplace without serious restructuring. They must also do everything in their power to keep hold of Fabian Edwards, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Of course, one fundamental difference is that Bellator has a much higher amount of liquidity than its UK counterparts. But as we saw with ACB, investing money wisely and not frivolously is critical to any form of success, let alone long-term growth.

Strong brand awareness, a good television deal are ingredients for Bellator’s potential prosperity. The matchmaking specifically needs to be on point, too. Booking fights like Michael Shipman against Carl Noon will be nothing but detrimental to Bellator and if they really want the core MMA audience to get behind this new product, they need to do away with mismatched mockeries.

With their resources and exposure, there’s no excuse for them to repeat the errors made on previous London undercards.

If they can do that right, there’s no reason why their ‘Western European’ arm cannot become a celebrated player, whilst giving athletes further financial opportunities to make their MMA dreams, a reality.