On hiatus until Bellator MMA's Summer Series in June offers three four- man tournaments, the promotion and its vested television partner, Spike TV, have just begun to unpack their first season together since the move from MTV2's hinterlands.
A solid start, suggested Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, though not tremendous.
From Rebney's perspective the fights delivered what he hoped they would. Production took a "substantial step forward." More than half of their events were sold-out, a "huge change of direction from what we did in the past." He conceded "it's going well."
Spike TV president Kevin Kay agreed. Bellator delivered 36 percent more male viewers aged 25-34 from 10-12 on Thursday nights than the previous year. And for Bellator, viewership increased as a whole over the previous two seasons on MTV2 by roughly 400 percent.
"That first week we did over 900,000 viewers. The last week we came back and finished strong over 900,000. So I feel like it's a pretty good place for a first season to be," Kay said. "It's not like we're sitting around patting each other on the back, cause we have a lot of work to do, but I just feel like that's a nice number and certainly room for growth."
An expanded audience could come from a couple places, Kay suggested, including the upcoming summer reality show featuring Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Greg Jackson and Joe Warren. Spike TV's president is hopeful "Fight Master: Bellator MMA" will be a key ratings driver. Fan familiarity with Bellator's current crop of titleholders could pay off in a ratings bumps, too, he said, as evident by strong numbers for Pat Curran's second appearance of the just concluded season.
Based on Spike's experience working with UFC, the network stepped into its Bellator relationship carrying a strong sense of where they could excel. Fans needed to be made aware that MMA had returned to Spike TV, and that it was unique because of the tournament format. On both accounts Kay felt the job got done.
A Bellator app via Apple was downloaded over 105,000 times, Kay said. It'll debut for Android platforms this summer, giving more fans a voice during the televised broadcast.
"Ratings just tell you numbers, they don't tell you anything about how fans are emotionally connecting to your brand or your stars," Kay said. "We're looking at it all the time. On Bellator it's even more important because we're running shows every week for 11 weeks. We want to know how fans are feeling and connecting because it could help ultimately influence what you're putting on TV the next week."
There were moments the promoter and network couldn't control, such as Emanuel Newton knocking out promotional poster boy Mo Lawal, but even that turned out not so bad. The following week ratings increased by200,000 viewers. Kay owed that to interest created after Lawal's stunning loss.
Dependent upon several factors, Bellator could make good on a promise to promote pay-per-view this year, perhaps as soon as this summer. The most important element, Rebney said, is the type of fights it can sell. Atop that list would be a rematch between the promotion's lightweight champion Michael Chandler and former titleholder Eddie Alvarez.
Rebney and Alvarez, currently operating on different ends of a lawsuit over the fighter's services, sat down last week in Atlantic City in one of the show's production trucks. Rebney said he was hopeful that talking put them "that much closer to getting this thing resolved."
"The reality is Eddie and I had an hourlong meeting," Rebney said. "We didn't get too terribly deep into things, but it was a good meeting and it was just he and I sitting and talking. If we can get something settled it could change the whole dynamic, but I don't know if that will happen. And if it doesn't happen of course we have Dave Jansen lined up and David Rickels lined up, both of whom are anxious to get their shot at the title."
Alvarez's manager, Glenn Robinson, declined to comment on the conversation, citing requests from the fighter's lawyers not to speak with media.
Pay-per-view would be a gigantic leap in the progression of Bellator MMA as a legitimate No. 2 to the UFC -- presuming its success. Rebney confirmed that Bellator has looked at venues in the midwest, but nothing is far enough along to make news. When the promotion goes ahead and offers a pay-per-view card -- and that seems bound to happen -- Kay said Spike TV will act as the promotion's partner, feature barker programming, and do anything it could to deliver a strong buy rate.