A while back, Bjorn Rebney’s mother offered some counterintuitive advice: “try not to be the smartest guy in the room.” At least as a CEO, it makes sense. Provide guidance and let the brainier types take you to another level.
Rebney feels he’s found that with executives at the Spike network. The way he figures, Spike helped usher in the boom at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) with “The Ultimate Fighter,” the popular reality-competition series going back to 2005. He’s confident the network can offer a similar boost for the mixed martial arts (MMA) organization he runs -- the Bellator Fighting Championships.
“The potential for dramatic expansion is pretty large,” he said.
Some guidance will come this evening as Spike airs live Bellator fights for the first time. Those will air Thursdays most weeks this year. Plans also call for the launch of an “Ultimate Fighter”-type series in the summer.
Multiple UFC challengers have fallen by the wayside, but Spike feels Bellator gives it a chance to maintain a strong presence in the MMA game. It lost rights to “The Ultimate Fighter” – some of its highest rated programming – as Fox cut a huge deal with the UFC.
Spike has more than a passing interest with Bellator. Canceling it like any other programming in the face of declining ratings would be tough. Rebney continues as CEO with equity, but Spike’s parent Viacom is a majority owner.
Viacom, which was carrying Bellator on MTV2, began talking with Rebney as it became increasingly clear it wasn’t going to pay the fees to keep the UFC. By acquiring Bellator, it wouldn’t have to worry about helping build a brand again and risk losing that all.
Spike is investing heavily in Bellator, giving it a coveted Thursday night spot where it counts on ad dollars from movie companies and others looking to reach viewers before the weekend. It’s run a substantial marketing campaign leading up to tonight’s launch, including calling on the assets of other Viacom units.
Spike, though, has been moving in a different direction than when its UFC programming was at its height. Looking to attract audiences outside its male 18-to-34 target, the network has been adding the type of reality series such as “Auction Hunters” and “Bar Rescue” that can be found on any number of other networks. So, it plans to treat Bellator as sort of a daypart rather than a network-defining cornerstone.
With Viacom’s position, Spike owns all the inventory in Bellator telecasts and at live events, though it works closely with Rebney and his team. Miller has signed on as a top-line sponsor. Among other involvement, “Miller Time” will appear on-screen next to the countdown clock during fights. The beer marketer will also be involved with the Spanish-language broadcasts on NBCUniversal’s mun2, which acquired rights from Viacom.
“What’s especially great about the sport's fan base is that these guys who love MMA are multicultural, so it’s a true total-market opportunity,” wrote Ryan Reis, senior director of marketing for Miller Lite, in an email.
Multiple Bellator sponsors will have a presence on the ring mat, including Miller, Relativity Media’s “Movie 43,” Dave & Busters and the Navy. Marketers will have the opportunity to tie-in at a local level as Bellator holds 25 live events this year, including tonight’s in Orange County, Calif.
For the coming reality series -- where up-and-coming fighters will compete to join Bellator tournaments -- plans call for Chattem to integrate its Icy Hot pain reliever (to soothe tired fighters) and Monster DNA to display its headphones (fighters need music to fire them up when entering the ring).
“These companies are coming in at the ground floor, so they’re going to be doing a lot of things to grow with the sport,” said Ralph Sorrentino, vice president of ad sales at Spike.
Category exclusivity is there for the taking. Conflicts such as, say, Budweiser appearing on the mat at a UFC bout inhibiting Miller’s involvement won’t be a problem. And, Spike is open to imaginative new inventory. Fake tattoos on the backs of boxers have been tried, but …
“It’s pretty much like an easel,” Sorrentino said. “We’re going to be painting the picture as we go along.”
That might fit with the saying in the ad business about media being the new creative.