On Wednesday, ESPN entered the ring, albeit hardly with full force. Its Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, in only 4 million homes, will begin offering MMA programming next spring.
New MMA promoter Bellator Fighting Championships will produce a two-hour weekly Saturday prime-time show that includes fights and background, with up-close-and-personal pieces about the fighters themselves. While the program will be in Spanish, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said the company is working with ESPN to find an English-language outlet, perhaps broadband site ESPN360.com.
Bellator's fights in venues around the country will appear only on ESPN Deportes when they begin in April 2009. Live events will be held Friday and then edited into the show that will air the next night.
Venture capital-backed Bellator (ESPN does not hold a stake) is three years in the making, and its launch comes at a curious time. Multiple MMA leagues looking to compete with the dominant promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship have fallen by the wayside recently, including the International Fight League, which had a programming deal with MyNetworkTV.
More recently, ProElite--the operator of the EliteXC league whose events have appeared on Showtime and CBS--looked to be headed for extinction. Showtime, which holds a stake in the money-losing company, threatened to take control of ProElite's assets and auction them off this week, including the contract of well-known fighter Kimbo Slice. But in an SEC filing Wednesday, ProElite said Showtime has given it a stay, at least for two weeks.
But Bellator's Rebney believes that MMA has particular appeal in the Hispanic community--something the UFC and its competitors have overlooked. ESPN Deportes offers a venue to capitalize on that. "Nobody in mixed martial arts to date has really made a concerted effort to provide targeted content to that audience," said Rebney, a former agent to Hispanic boxing great Oscar De La Hoya.
In a statement, ESPN Deportes general manager Lino Garcia said MMA "is becoming increasingly popular among Hispanics" and the network "is thrilled to work with" Bellator, the Latin word for warrior.
Rebney said about half of the fighters will be of Hispanic origin.
Before announcing the Bellator deal, ESPN has covered MMA as a sport through a section on ESPN.com and other platforms. But others are less convinced that its few-holds-barred action meets that standard. Arizona Sen. John McCain has referred to it as "human cockfighting."
Bellator said its fights "will be highly competitive sports programming in its purest form and will have no connection to reality television."
ESPN Deportes has committed to carry a 12-episode, three-month season of Bellator tournament-style competition, and Rebney is confident that a second season will follow. With his boxing background, he said the primary revenue driver in the fight world is via pay-per-view coverage, which can run $45 or more per event. He added that the aim is to discover a group of champions in season one and challengers in season two, then pit them against one another on PPV, which would be a non-ESPN venture.
Regarding the failed UFC challengers, Rebney said none had "strategic direction focused on achieving pay-per-view"--something the UFC has been successful at.
"If your model is not keenly focused on developing stars who can drive people to make a premium purchase, you're dead from day one," Rebney said.