Examining Bellator’s Return to PPV
In a week without a major fight card, Bellator MMA grabbed control of the news cycle by announcing a pay-per-view card for June 24 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
It will the third try at pay-per-view for a promotion that has lived on cable television for its entire existence, and signals a shift from business as usual.
The announced card is something of an MMA variety show, with bouts geared toward casual fan nostalgia alongside legitimate high-level fights, both of which are necessary in order for the show to succeed.
In what the promotion is billing as a double main event, the top two bouts pit Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione. Sonnen vs. Silva, the most appealing fight to the casual fight audience due to the notoriety of both fighters, Sonnen’s talking ability, and their long-brewing feud, will get primary main event status.
Bellator also made two title fights official for the main card, with Douglas Lima defending his welterweight title against recent free agent pickup Lorenz Larkin, and Michael Chandler will defend the lightweight title against relative unknown Brent Primus. According to multiple reports, the card will also feature the MMA debut of Aaron Pico, one of the most highly touted prospects in memory, on the Spike TV portion of the card. Although they won’t be driving most pay-per-view sales, these are the fights that will strengthen the card’s credibility and may sway ardent fans that are on the fence about buying the show. Bellator will be adding another fight to round out the main card.
The top two fights are far from perfect, and the main event could generate the wrong kind of reaction. The idea of Sonnen vs. Silva is to pay off a feud that began when both were in the UFC. It would have been a major match three years ago when it was initially scheduled, but in the time since the feud has dissipated, and the Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva that compete in June 2017 will be very different from the fighters that were supposed to compete in July 2014.
Both fighters are still dealing with the fallout of that would-be fight.
Sonnen failed two different random pre-fight drug tests for various performance-enhancing drugs. The Nevada Athletic Commission handed him a two-year suspension, although Sonnen had already announced his retirement following the first failed test. The retirement was only temporary, as Sonnen returned this past January against Tito Ortiz with a shrunken, softer physique. After escaping a guillotine choke, Ortiz had little issue submitting Sonnen in the first round.
Silva refused a random drug test by the Nevada Athletic Commission, resulting in a lifetime ban that was later amended to three years. He was set to compete late last year against Mirko Cro Cop for Rizin FF, but injuries suffered in a hit-and-run accident last May while he was riding his bicycle forced him out of the contest. Silva will be four years removed from his last fight and days away from his 41st birthday when he fights Sonnen in June.
When looking at every available option, in some ways Sonnen vs. Silva is the right main event for a Bellator PPV. It has big names, the best talker on the roster, and although the rivalry has been reduced to the point of near nonexistence, come fight time it will certainly be felt. However, the fight has all the ingredients to come out as a major disappointment or embarrassment. It’s the same type of recipe that brought together other legends fights and curiosity bouts under the Bellator banner that resulted in horrible fights and silly, but undeniably loud, shouts of fight fixing. That is not the impression any promotion wants to leave fans with, much less fans that were willing to pay to watch, but it’s a real risk with Sonnen vs. Silva.
The co-main event has the same issues as it did when it was first announced in November: Emelianenko, the all-time greatest heavyweight, was battered in his last fight by mid-level light heavyweight Fabio Maldonado. At 40-years-old and significantly undersized to an athletic Mitrione, the fight likely won’t go well for Emelianenko. However, the match makes sense for the local market and the pay-per-view. New York City has a strong Russian population for Bellator and Emelianenko to draw from, and Mitrione will likely get solid press coverage as a former New York Giant. On pay-per-view, Emelianenko is one of the few MMA fighters to draw on that medium outside of the UFC.
While both fights may combine for a modest number on pay-per-view, it is notable that they weren’t booked on separate television events, where both could have drawn more than one million viewers, or perhaps significantly more. Since Scott Coker took the reins of Bellator over from Bjorn Rebney in June 2014, the promotion has aimed to build an audience on television using fights like Sonnen vs. Silva and Emelianenko vs. Mitrione. It is no surprise that Coker and company are giving pay-per-view a shot, but neither of the main event bouts felt like natural pay-per-view matches.
After taking Strikeforce national in 2009, Coker had his eye on pay-per-view, but refused to pull the trigger without the right fight. There were times when he aimed to build to that right fight for pay-per-view, but when that right fight fell apart, so did immediate pay-per-view plans. Aside from a co-promoted venture with EliteXC in 2007, Strikeforce never did promote a pay-per-view. With Sonnen losing so soundly to Ortiz in January and Silva being out of action the past four years, nobody would have guessed the fight was being targeted for pay-per-view. It’s fight between big names, but it feels forced into the pay-per-view medium.
Rather than wait for the right fight or a sure thing, if such a fight exists, Bellator is moving forward with an experiment on June 24. They have put pieces in place to give it a solid chance of succeeding, although at no small cost (between fighter purses, marketing, the cost of doing television at Madison Square Garden, and pay-per-view satellite time, it will have a hard time not being the most expensive show in Bellator history).
If the show is a success, it will lead to future pay-per-views and it should strengthen Bellator’s resolve to sign more big name free agents. If the show fails, Bellator will continue to build its television product and resume waiting for the right fight. Whereas other promotions have jumped to pay-per-view as a last-ditch effort or based the entire company on pay-per-view success and failed miserably, there is no indication that this is the case with Bellator. It’s an important night that may significantly impact the course of the promotion, but it is not make-or-break.