As the sport of MMA continues to blossom, the presence of Bellator in the market is growing stronger. Founded in 2008, the world's second most prominent organization still has considerable ground to cover before becoming an equal to the UFC, but it takes a seminal step forward on Saturday with a fight card unlike other in its more than eight-year history.
Bellator NYC takes place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The pay-per-view offering is headlined by a Light Heavyweight grudge match between Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva and features a supporting cast which includes legendary Heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, two championship fights and the debut of a promising Lightweight prospect.
Unlike the UFC, which has been a pay-per-view model from the beginning, Bellator to this point has been almost exclusively a television product. With the exception of a May 2014 pay-per-view card, every event in the Viacom-owned organization's history has aired on some form of television, with its current partner broadcast being Spike.
The decision to move from television to pay-per-view and ask fans to pay $49.95 for something that has historically been available through the cost of a cable bill is bold. A special attraction is needed to persuade fans to fork over their money, and Bellator President Scott Coker says plans went in motion when the headlining bouts of Sonnen squaring up against Silva and Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione were locked in.
"It all started out with the fighters that we wanted to put in there being available," Coker tells Rolling Stone. "We wanted to have a fight card that wasn't just one main event. We thought we had to provide two main events. Coming to New York City, it will be our first time on pay-per-view since I've been [president of Bellator], and we wanted a fight card that from top to bottom, we provide something for everyone. I think it's the best fight card put together in mixed martial arts in 2017."
With the UFC having somewhat of a down year so far due to the absence of stars such as Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones and more, the opportunity for Bellator to increase its profile is the combat sports space is there for the taking. Bellator NYC will be the most widely distributed event in company history, with the card available in 166 countries across the globe.
"Bellator is awesome and they're on the rise," Sonnen says. "This sport has never been bigger. Every single weekend someone is fighting somewhere and there's title and there's main events and contendership matches. Bellator is in a great spot."
Timing is one of important aspects of event booking, and Coker says the fight card assembled for Bellator NYC made it worthy of the pay-per-view platform. Sonnen has been part of some of the biggest events in UFC history, so it was natural to have him atop the lineup. The chance to finally settle the more than seven-year-old rivalry with Silva only compounded the logic. Each fighter is 40 and might be past his prime, but the pure, unrelenting hatred between the two sides makes it a must-see affair.
Add in the fact Emelianenko, who many consider to be the greatest Heavyweight of all-time, is fighting Mitrione, and that's a strong starting point. Bellator wanted to go all out, though, which is why they added a Welterweight title fight between champ Douglas Lima and Lorenz Larkin, a scrap for Lightweight gold between Michael Chandler and Brent Primus, as well as the debut of 20-year-old super-prospect Aaron Pico.
With all that, it's hard to argue Bellator NYC's pay-per-view validity, especially because it provides a different appeal from a traditional UFC pay-per-view.
The number of units sold will determine whether the event is considered a success, but with record live gate numbers expected, there's potential for the card to reach a number which surpasses any non-UFC pay-per-view event for MMA.
"Bellator has done its part," Sonnen says. "You bring something new to the marketplace and bring in the best athletes at the biggest events and hype it as best as you can to get the word out so people know. Then you leave it in their hands. Do the fans want this or not? What we're seeing in droves is that they do." He continues, "The entire industry is in a really fun place right now. When I was a young man I never knew it would be this. These opportunities didn't exist. Bellator doesn't leave any stone unturned, and they're gamblers. It's a bet. They're making a bet on this and based on ticket sales and attention, it shows they made a good bet."
Getting people to be aware and buy the pay-per-view is a challenge in and of itself. However, ensuring consumers don't have buyers remorse and convincing them to come back for more in the future is a much more difficult task. Bellator NYC has set the bar for what the product can be with its best foot forward, and now that the bar been set, fans should only expect equal or better quality in the future.
"This is something we have to build off," Coker knows, "We're not going to be in the (monthly) pay-per-view business; we're going to be in it when the fights are built properly and prepared and simmered and built up for a nice pay-per-view show. It's more the boxing model. Next year we're talking about maybe doing a couple shows and then maybe three the following year and we'll go from there. We're not going to do fights just do to fights on pay-per-view."
Although metrics such as gate, attendance and pay-per-view will be the primary determining factors of success, producing quality action is the responsibility of the athletes. Sonnen doesn't anticipated a dull moment in his headlining bout with Silva, and while it's on fans to decide whether they want to purchase Bellator NYC, Sonnen says those who don't will miss out on a special night of fights.
"If you're a fight fan and you don't want to be left in the dark at the water cooler on Monday morning, then you've got to tune in," Sonnen says. "You earned your money, but we're doing our part. Title fights, the most anticipated debut of a prospect in MMA history with Aaron Pico and you got some of the legends."