Whether it’s politics or the MMA business, when the main story of your operation is dominated by process you know you are in a losing battle.
Whatever fan interest level there was for Bellator 299 in Dublin or hype for the upcoming Bellator 300 event in San Diego, one thing is very clear: a lot of people inside the fight business are trying to read the tea leaves as to what Scott Coker’s future prospects are because their future prospects are attached to his existence.
Gossip may be free but it ultimately kills MMA promotions from the inside out
When a fight promotion announces 20 fights on a card, suddenly the story moves from one of substance to one of process.
Why are they burning contracts? Is it an edict from an outside force? What are the financial difficulties? Who benefits and why?
The story of Bellator MMA stuck in Paramount’s quick sand trap is well-known. Paramount is billions of dollars in debt and just had their debt rating cut to near-junk status by Moody’s. The media giant’s interest in combat sports is on shaky ground. It’s been a long and slow death of a thousand paper cuts for Bellator and now there are growing questions about Paramount’s future with Al Haymon.
Any time a wrestling promotion or a fight promotion is dominated by media headlines involving palace intrigue, it’s doomed. The circular firing squad in the media beast feeds itself. The promoter completely loses control of selling their narrative, which equals financial instability and an eventual collapse.
What would the fight industry look like without Scott Coker?
For multiple generations of people working in combat sports, it’s a scary question to ask because a lot of people depend on his existence for their existence.
There are a lot of interested parties on the outside looking in: Andy Foster of the California State Athletic Commission; Nobuyuki Sakakibara, the current RIZIN frontman and former PRIDE boss; Chatri Sityodtong of ONE, and Japanese TV partner ABEMA. David Feldman; and Triller, the backers of Bare Knuckle FC.
Everyone in MMA has their own reasons as to why Scott Coker’s existence has relevance to their own careers. A fight business without Scott Coker means partners and associates will lose their jobs. There’s no guarantee that anyone will fill that vacuum moving forward.
How we got to this point of considering what a post-Coker fight world looks like is both messy and depressing.
Buying out the competition or waiting for them to collapse on their own accord?
That’s the magical question everything is asking right now with PFL.
The constant media campaign, full of media leaks left and right, regarding PFL’s future in MMA and their interest or lack thereof of buying Bellator from Paramount has been a dark cloud that won’t go away. It reminds me so much of the media campaign during the time that UFC was busy negotiating the rights to PRIDE assets away from Ed Fishman. Mr. Fishman, Dick Clark’s business partner, had made a substantial offer to buy PRIDE and turn it into a giant casino property that would attract big whales to gamble on fights. In the end, there wasn’t serious interest by the Japanese to make the deal. They were busy in building leverage and buying time to get the right offer from UFC.
The rest is history.
The rumors regarding PFL buying Bellator from Paramount have been just as crazy. Will they or won’t they? What’s the hold-up? Are there dark financial secrets? The speculation doesn’t add up.
When The Financial Times reported last August that the Saudi government would invest $100 million USD into PFL, that declaration immediately stimulated the rumor mill that PFL would have the finances to buy out Bellator from Paramount.
A more cautious and careful reading of the situation by Al Jazeera paints a specific picture. The Saudi deal, under a spinoff company managed by their Public Investment Fund, would be focused on PFL operations in the MENA territory (Middle East/North Africa).
The automatic leap by the outside world to connect Saudi investment with alleged PFL interest in buying out Bellator was purely speculation. It may prove to be well-informed speculation but it is still speculation nonetheless.
Which leads us to the obvious question: why?
Why would PFL want to buy out Bellator from Paramount?
Logically speaking, the value of PFL buying out Bellator is not buying out the company itself but rather buying corporate guarantees regarding Paramount television time and digital distribution for future fight events. Having a guarantee from Paramount as a backup in case PFL’s relationship with ESPN changes in the future is a perfectly responsible ask.
However, if Paramount wants to phase out its MMA and combat sports operations, then what value is there in PFL acquiring Bellator other than pushing a media narrative similar to what UFC did with the PRIDE asset purchase?
If you can’t purchase a media partner, then what interest is there in purchasing any of the Bellator fighter contracts? Are they even transferrable? How many of those contracts is PFL really interested in? That’s the PFL side of the negotiating table.
What about Paramount’s side? If they want to get out of the fight business, they could have flipped Bellator already but they haven’t done so yet. What would the hold-up be? A higher asking price? That would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
I offer a different hypothesis: Paramount’s attorneys may be concerned that they could get caught in the crosshairs of Congressional inquiries over the Saudi government’s investment in PFL. Attorneys can’t give business advice but they could certainly inform their client that their risk of a Federal investigation into any sports deal involving the Saudis would mean answering subpoenas and undergoing depositions. Look at what has happened already in the LIV Golf/PGA Tour saga.
If you’re a Paramount executive, is it worth accepting the money from PFL knowing that you are likely going to have spend millions of dollars in defending your company from discovery requests?
The path of least resistance for Paramount is to let things die on the vine and watch Bellator drop dead rather than sell to PFL for pennies on the dollar. If Bellator dies, does Scott Coker immediately become a free agent?
What would Scott Coker’s future look like in a post-Bellator world?
Nature abhors a vacuum but nobody’s coming to the rescue
When UFC bought the assets of PRIDE, there was an assumption that someone – perhaps the UFC – would end up filling up the vacuum of Japanese MMA fight promotion. How could the world’s second-bigges fight market evaporate overnight?
I’m sure Nobuyuki Sakakibara thought the same thing. He kept a low profile for several years.
A funny thing happened – the cavalry didn’t show up to replace him.
UFC had their chance to run multiple shows due to an agreement with marketing giant Dentsu. They failed to take over the market.
Before you knew it, Mr. Sakakibara was back in business under the RIZIN banner. It took a while but the old PRIDE team is back and delivering shows at Saitama Super Arena. His venture two months ago with old friend Scott Coker was very successful.
There’s no instant alternative to replace Scott Coker in the fight business. You can’t replace someone with decades of experience and connections. There are lots of reasons why Bellator under Paramount leadership has failed. Given how much travel Mr. Coker has been involved in to keep Bellator active, he’s earned a well-deserved vacation.
But a well-deserved vacation is a lot different than a retirement.
He may very well retire from the business. There would be a lot of sad business partners. A Scott Coker retirement would be devastating for Andy Foster, who is struggling to get as many show dates as possible on the California events calendar.
For Nobuyuki Sakakibara, losing Mr. Coker would mean losing his best chance of an American partner to promote RIZIN shows in the States.
The same can be said for Chatri Sityodtong of ONE and his ABEMA business partner, Yuji Kitano.
Mr. Kitano would love nothing more than to see a RIZIN, ONE, and K-1 partnership emulating the boom period of 2003 in Japan. Revanchism in the Japanese fight business is often viewed through rose-colored glasses.
For a promoter of a zombie fighting operation, Mr. Coker may have one last act before his nine lives are up.
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