Why an Ortiz vs. Jackson-headlined PPV makes sense for Bellator
It's a visual you might or might not have seen coming a decade ago, but there they were on Monday: two former UFC champion superstars flanking the competition's president as a united front. Bellator MMA CEO Bjorn Rebney smiled and nodded as the promotion's two latest acquisitions, Tito Ortiz and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, discussed their pending light heavyweight bout on Nov. 2 in Long Beach, Calif., which will serve as the anchoring headliner for Bellator's first-ever pay-per-view event since its 2009 launch.
Since last week's TNA Wrestling live reveal on Spike TV that the 38-year-old Ortiz had defected from the UFC to it's No. 2 competitor and would face Jackson, the fight's relevance, as well as the Viacom-owned promotion's decision to enter the PPV market with it at its helm, has courted scrutiny.
No one was particularly surprised that the two fighters migrated; both have aired their discontent with UFC owners Zuffa LLC many times during the last few years over salary, sponsorship disputes and general disrespect. More pertinent is the line that Rampage-Tito would have been a tantalizing main event circa 2003, not 2013, as there's little argument that Ortiz (16-11-1) and Jackson (32-11) have already seen their better days. Both are on three-fight losing streaks and exited the UFC on career downslides (Ortiz had even announced his retirement last July). In addition, their remaining cachet with fans would still cost Bellator a much prettier penny than what they're used to paying for talent. Why do this fight now and why do it as a pay-per-view, where every fight promotion not named the UFC has failed?
For one, the fight has already gotten people talking, said Rebney, who cited "huge" spikes among the company's worldwide social media and other digital tracking, following the announcement.
"I was actually happy about the response because it was visceral and emotional, and it was emotional on two extremes. There was no apathy," Rebney told SI.com at the Monday press conference. "There was tremendous excitement or tremendous disdain -- no middle of the road. For what we're trying to create here, apathy is a death knell. Excitement and disdain are both positives because it means people are paying attention."
What is Bellator exactly "trying to create" with this bout? The fight has no title ramifications and, gratefully, Rebney hasn't shoehorned in that it will; Bellator works on a tournament-style format to create its contenders. So, in terms of relevance, how should this fight be considered?
There is another way to gauge this bout's significance. If Rampage-Tito is being orchestrated to draw attention to the other wares that Bellator has to offer, it wouldn't be much different than what Zuffa attempted with the controversial David "Tank" Abbott at UFC 40 in 2002. Abbott was a (near) 40-year-old relic of the organization's past when Zuffa re-signed him to a multi-fight contract, not to show that he still had it (he didn't and went 0-3), but for the buzz he would bring with him.
In many ways, Bellator's getting a better host of options with Jackson and Ortiz than what Zuffa got with Abbott. After they fight on Nov. 2, Jackson and Ortiz will become fixtures of Bellator on Spike TV. They'll fight on Bellator's free televised cards, with their wins instilling renewed hope in diehard fans and their losses building up their opponents.
Both are shoe-ins to coach the second season of Bellator's reality series Fight Master, and their appearances on TNA Wrestling will continue to feed the audience cross-pollination experiment between the two Spike-broadcasted properties.
That's not to say that this pricy investment -- multi-year deals for both that include other Viacom-property option incentives likely totaling in the six- to seven-figure range -- doesn't introduce potential setbacks. Both fighters come with baggage. On Monday, Ortiz spoke of his injuries and subsequent surgeries (the most recent of many being ACL surgery 12 weeks ago) the way a war veteran might brag about his medals, followed up with his ever-optimistic, but now predictable declaration that he's bounced back at superhuman speed and is "100 percent."
"He's had a lot of surgeries, but having spent the last few months around him, I've been able to watch him train. I've been able to watch him come off two knee and one neck [surgeries]," said Rebney. "I think he's in a great space, probably as good a space as he's been in for the last six or seven years in terms of physicality. I think we're going to get the best Tito we've seen in a very long time."
In his final fight for the UFC in January, the rambunctious Jackson became the main target of multiple women's rights groups (spurred on by the Las Vegas Culinary Union's longstanding battle with Station Casinos, also owned by UFC's Fertitta family), who zoned in on the fighter's lewd comments and actions toward female reporters in the past, as well as a spoof video he'd previously starred in that glorified rape.
Rebney said he hadn't watched the offensive video, nor had he had any conversations with Jackson about his future conduct as a Bellator fighter.
"I've never been the first amendment police. That's not my job," said Rebney. "Rampage is an incredibly colorful character, who says in many instances... what people are thinking in that moment, but don't say. I'm not going to change Rampage. He straddles the line of being incredibly entertaining and sometimes 'aaahh' inducing, but that's Rampage."
On Monday, Jackson admitted that he's taken his edict to entertain "a little bit" too far at times, then moments later joked in a sexual manner with a female reporter, asking a question by phone while her husband stood only feet away, videotaping the fighter awkwardly.
There's no doubt that Ortiz and Jackson have become polarizing fighters of late, but that's a positive for Bellator and Spike these days when the name of the game is expanding its fan base. Rampage-Tito will be but one of five fights offered on Nov. 2, and Rebney hopes the final card will include three, five-round Bellator championship fights. Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler and featherweight titleholder Pat Curran, who've blown through all the competition Bellator has been able to muster up for them, were also named as potential participants. The Chandler bout, in particular, could create a win-win opportunity for the promotion to bury the hatchet with its former champion Eddie Alvarez.
Bellator and Alvarez have been in litigation over a contract dispute since January, when the lightweight fighter tried to break away from the promotion to sign a multi-fight contract with the rival UFC. Top among Alvarez's countersuit against Bellator was that the Viacom-owned promotion could not fulfill its obligation to match the UFC's offer because it had no intentions to ever produce a pay-per-view event in which the fighter would receive a sliver of its revenue. While Rebney and Spike TV President Kevin Kay both stated separately that Rampage-Tito was intended as a pay-per-view from the moment of inception, its creation does nullify at least a part of Alvarez's argument and offers the fighter an option to return to the Bellator fold and avoid a costly trial that isn't set to begin until late 2014 at its earliest. Ironically, fans who've chastised Bellator for exercising what the promotion believes was its contractual right, could buy the pay-per-view to support Alvarez, knowing a portion of what they paid would go into the previously sidelined fighter's pockets.
Legally and logistically, Rebney said it was possible for a settlement to be reached in time for Alvarez to join the Nov. 2 event.
"A bad settlement is better than a good litigation," Rebney told SI.com. "I've said that since this whole thing went sideways, so you never know? It reached a very adversarial tone; things have calmed down a bit, so we'll see."
A Chandler-Alvarez rematch would be the most appetizing co-main bout Bellator could make at this time, though Rebney said it isn't a bout he's counting on. What Rebney is more confident of is that Bellator's first PPV will hold its own in the space where at least a dozen other promotions petered and died out.
"They had no driver," said Rebney of the past attempts. "Pay-per-view fails without drivers. You can't do a pay-per-view out of thin air. Spike's the driver. You've got to have regular TV, same time, same place, same channel to build up to it. And our pay-per-views aren't going to be fueled exclusively by old names that got dropped by another organization. It's totally different than what the others tried in the space."
Rebney said to expect heavy advertising for the Nov. 2 event across Spike's cousin platforms like MTV, MTV2, VH1, BET, and Comedy Central. Pay-per-view commercials on CBS don't sound likely, as the channels exist under diverging branches of the Viacom umbrella, but shoulder programming on Spike TV, likened to HBO's 24-7, has already commenced shooting with both fighters conveniently living and training in Southern California.
Bellator's foray into pay-per-view, which will be priced between $35 and $50, depending on its geographic distribution, will undoubtedly be judged and juried by its buy numbers. Without the benefit of seeing what type of promotion Viacom and Spike will allot the event, pundits are pegging the show between 50,000 and 100,000 buys. Relatively-speaking, these numbers would be considered a win for any other promotion except Bellator, which inherited its No. 2 status in 2011 by default and is still somehow expected to achieve the low-to-mid six-figure digits that it took Zuffa nearly six years to build up to with the industry's recognized brand name.
Possibly, the goal for Viacom and Spike is to make as big a splash as it can occasionally to draw a few new swimmers to its end of the pool. These newcomers don't necessarily have to be MMA viewers, either. Maybe they watch the pay-per-view. Maybe they don't. Maybe they hear about it and tune in to watch Fight Master or some other Spike programming, instead. Possibly, Viacom and Spike will gauge the success of this initial PPV on the buzz and momentum it creates, and how many new hands find Spike on the TV dial in the coming months. Pay-per-views aren't cheap to produce and the bottom line is always making money, but in this case, profit can be ascertained in more than one way.
Though it's easy to forget it, one of the differentials of Bellator in the MMA market is that it exists under a different business model. Rebney said that Bellator isn't under any obligation from Viacom or Spike to produce a set amount of PPV events within a certain time. The pay-per-views will come when it makes sense to have them.
"The UFC is a pay-per-view business. That's what fuels 80-85 percent of all their revenues. Month in, month out, whether they have good fights or not, they still do pay-per-views, as we saw last Saturday [with UFC 163.]." said Rebney. "That is their business dynamic. Ours will not become that. When we have a big card and great fights, we might do pay-per-views, but it will be card specific. We are a free TV vehicle. That is our primary driver."