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When Bellator first emerged on the MMA scene, it seemed like an energetic startup with a unique plan: constant tournament MMA. Get away from the championship formula, get away from the chatter and the hype and the matchmaking favoritism and make something more sporting, more hardcore.
In retrospect, it’s the same formula many promotions have tried in order to differentiate themselves from the UFC. From PRIDE, and the IFL, to Sengoku, and the PFL. Even late era Strikeforce got into the tournament model. For a while it made Bellator the (much smaller) ying to the UFC’s yang, but whatever the format they brought to the table, the narrative always stayed the same. The UFC was number 1, and Bellator struggled along in second place trying to build their reputation.
A decade later, and Bellator’s formula may have changed, but the zeitgeist has remained exactly the same.
A fitting sendoff for Bellator
Word on the street is that the Viacom/Paramount based MMA promotion may have just run their last event; selling their assets off to the PFL as Showtime announced that they’re washing their hands of all sports programming in 2024. If that all goes according to plan, then Bellator will walk away off of a rock solid MMA card that absolutely nobody cared about. Just like always.
To really push that fact home, I present readers with a prime example of viewer interest: me. As I write this, a devastatingly mediocre UFC card plays in the background. A card for which—were I not on vacation last week—I would have recorded a 2-3 hour Vivi podcast and will be recording a 6th Round, as well as running a live chat thread and some light X/Twitter duty. Meanwhile, for Bellator, I got through the prelims before I found other things I needed to do and dipped out on even watching the main card.
That’s not because I wasn’t interested or thought the fights were going to be bad. Hell, I gave Yaroslav Amosov his nickname; I had every reason to be personally invested. The card looked good and (by all accounts, from what I saw) was good. It was meaningful and had fighters I liked in matchups I cared about. But if my job is to stay on top of what fight fans care about, then my incentive to watch Bellator was entirely based on what I felt like making time for, paying attention to it and/or creating work for it would have done nothing to help me produce stuff people would read.
Media can only create so much interest
It’s one of things I’ve learned over time working this beat. Media requires a ton of hustle and offers little in the way of reward. Don’t spend time where you don’t have a clear plan to make money. With no real audience of Bellator’s to deliver a product to, it’s never made much sense to build a career out of covering their fights.
To that point, if Bellator’s ‘maybe next year’ underdog aura never left right up until the moment they closed their doors, the UFC is increasingly feeling like a promotion on the move—largely in the wrong direction. In the very same way that readership trends told websites that Bellator was a hole down which money shouldn’t be thrown, the UFC is starting to play a very similar tune.
This bargain basement Apex card may have fans more excited than a pair of Bellator title fights, but it doesn’t have them half as excited as a TUF Finale did a decade ago, and that’s a problem.
Not for the UFC—a seemingly never-ending juggernaut who has found so many ways to funnel money into their company that they could probably play in front of 10 comped seats for the next decade and still make money—but for people like myself. People looking to stay on top of the stories fans care about, and maintain even a niche audience (like nerdy fight breakdown fans).
The future of combat sports media is likely less UFC
Bellator’s likely death isn’t great news for fighters, who can use every bidder for their services possible. Or for fans, who can always use another scrap to fill the free time. But it feels more like a more ominous sign of the times, that everything is drifting away from mixed martial arts as a hot topic. MMA fandom may have never truly supported ‘Spikeforce’, but the interest especially isn’t there right now.
Bellator is on its way to the boneyard. The UFC is still here and running strong, but if anybody needs me, I’ll be reading up on this ‘Salt Papi’ dude, and trying to figure out exactly how much is too much attention to pay to this upcoming ESPN card in December. Maybe, if I can find a little extra time, I’ll remember to shed a tear for Bellator while I’m at it.
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