Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney on MMA Nation: “I Would Make [Eddie Alvarez vs. Gilbert Melendez] Happen in a Heartbeat”

Last week on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan, I caught up with the CEO of the Bellator Fighting Championship, Bjorn Rebney. Hot off…

By: Luke Thomas | 13 years ago
Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney on MMA Nation: “I Would Make [Eddie Alvarez vs. Gilbert Melendez] Happen in a Heartbeat”
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena
Last week on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan, I caught up with the CEO of the Bellator Fighting Championship, Bjorn Rebney. Hot off the dominating performance of welterweight prospect Ben Askren, I wanted to check in with the executive to get a sense of where his organization stood. Did the new television deal help? How damaging is the expensive signing of underperforming Roger Huerta? How far can Ben Askren go? Are Bellator fighting contracts too heavy-handed? Are they making enough money to continue operating?

In talking to Rebney, one gets the sense that he is keenly aware of the deep challenges required for success. Yet, he wisely has built in mechanisms to give his organization a fighting chance of being a success while they build their brand. You can read excerpts of our conversation below or listen to the entire interview here (interview starts a couple of minutes in):

Bjorn Rebney on the potential of rising welterweight star Ben Askren:

He can go as far as he wants to go. I think it’s unlimited. It’s one thing to do what he did to an average fighter, but to dominate Dan Hornbuckle the way he did was amazing. And he’s doing it all with virtually no stand up. He’s a hugely talented fighter. If and when his stand up game gets near the level of his ground game, we’ll have a really outstanding fighter competing for Bellator. He had such a calm about him when we were negotiating to first sign him that I knew something special was there. I didn’t think he would improve this fast, but he’s the real deal. I’m a true believer now. As he continues to develop, he’s going to be a tough for anybody in the world to beat.

On Bellator’s current television deals:

It was absolutely the right move when we made it. In our first season, we became the first MMA promotion to secure a deal with an ESPN network with ESPN Deportes and we reached 4.5 million homes in Spanish language with that deal. We then transitioned to a 24-event deal with Fox Sports net, now have the highlight show late night on NBC, and have the Spanish telecast on Telemundo. It has dramatically increased the recognition of our brand. It has been great for us. But Fox Sports Net has some drawbacks. Part of the problem with them is that it’s 19 different affiliates under the same umbrella. You know, if you’re in Milwaukee and the Brewers are playing, we’re going to get bumped. Same goes for the L.A. market and so on. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s not ideal. But the upside of FSN is that the viewers are hardcore sports fans. Fortunately for us, when the fights do come on the ratings have been great. We’ve had some great events and great fights. And the reality is that now we’re having meetings with people who wouldn’t even return our phone call a year ago. We’re in an enviable position. We’ll see what the next steps are. We’re working on trying to eliminate the scheduling problems with FSN right now. We just want to make it easier for fans to watch our product. TV is a strange and wonderful thing. I think within the next couple months we’ll have some great news to report.

On whether he regrets the decision to sign Roger Huerta to such a large contract:

As is the case in MMA and in junior high school, There’s a lot of hyperbole out there. Roger’s deal was surely not in line with some other fighters’ deals in the promotion, but it was nowhere near what was reported on various media outlets. There was indeed a signing bonus, but it was nowhere near what was reported. Roger brought a big following with him. His first fight with us was one of the highest rated shows we did all year long. So the reality is, looking back on it, Pat Curran ended up being our Butler (NCAAB). He knocked out Mike Ricci, got by Roger Huerta, and earned a close decision over Toby Imada. So looking back on it, I don’t think it was a mistake. And Roger may be back. He may re-focus and come back. If he does, people will be tuning in again.

On whether or not Sam Caplan (formerly of 5oz of Pain) is Bellator’s matchmaker:

Absolutely he is. Sam has the same personality defect that I do, he never sleeps and is constantly working on trying to improve the Bellator brand. We have a few people offering advice here and there to Sam, but the final decision on fights comes down to him and myself. We pulled him from M-1. He has worked exclusively for us for the last seven months now.

On how Bellator is successful in making money:

When you look back at the carcasses that are on the side of the road over the MMA landscape from the last few years, you see a lot of people who got into the game who didn’t really have any experience in the MMA game itself. You saw people come into it with great expertise in other arenas. But they didn’t really understand the dynamics of how to make things come together under one umbrella and reach a position of positive cash flow. The single worst thing about being a MMA promoter is selling tickets. So if you can set up a dynamic where you traverse the country on a week-to-week basis doing live shows and set up what is called site-view relationships with the venues where they pay a guaranteed fee before the show, you might leave a little bit of money on the table in case of a sell out, but from a cash flow perspective, you’re making money before you ever step foot in that market. It’s just a much more cost-effective way of doing things. When you’re on a budget as we where, you can’t afford to have any missteps. Being a new brand, if you can get anywhere near cash flow break even in your second year, you’re knocking the ball out of the park. You can look back at some of the court documents of failed promotions and see they lost tens of million of dollars. In the case of EliteXC, over $30 million. In the case of the IFL, $36 million. And they lost all that in an extremely short amount of time. You really have to be disciplined in where you spend your money. You have to know for sure that it will help build your brand and your company. It’s about understanding the business model.

On the specifics of Bellator’s contracts with their fighters:

There is an ignorance from that person as to the understanding of the specificity of our agreements. A lack of knowledge and understanding, obviously not read by an attorney or anyone with the knowledge of what that clause means. We register the trademark of a fighter’s likeness for the promotion of an event. Much like exactly what you would see in a Zuffa contract or a Strikeforce agreement. For the purpose of promoting a fight event or a series of fighting events, their likeness is registered by us. But we can’t use that for a Coke ad. We can’t use that for a Ford ad, or what have you, without paying that fighter. Obviously the person who wrote that doesn’t have the knowledge required to understand the language used. It’s very common. It’s used to promote the event. It’s standard fair. You have to promote the show.

What he has to say to Strikeforce’s Scott Coker regarding a potential Eddie Alvarez vs. Gilbert Melendez co-promotion fight:

As a follow up to our conversation last week which was a good one, once your upcoming fight at the end of June is done and now that Bellator only has one more event until we go dark for six weeks, let’s jump back on the phone and figure out how to get Eddie Alvarez and Gilbert Melendez on a monster stage in a fight that would be exciting for all fight fans. If I can have anything to say about it, I would make it happen in a heartbeat. I think Gilbert is a spectacularly talented lightweight. And I’m probably being subjective here but I think Eddie is one of the top two lightweights in the world. Just as a fight fan, you take the two CEO hats off, nothing to due with money, or TV, or anything. I think it’s the best fight that can be made at the 155-pound division. I would love to make it happen.

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Luke Thomas
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