Ben Fowlkes
Friday August 19th, 2011

One paragraph. Three sentences. That's how Spike TV bid farewell to the UFC after six lucrative years for both. As the statement went out over email just a half-hour before the UFC announced it had signed a game-changing deal with Fox, it felt just a little like watching a seemingly perfect couple break up over Facebook.

"The Ultimate Fighter season 14 in September will be our last," the Spike TV statement read. "We are increasing our commitment to distinctive, original series that we own such as Auction Hunters and Bar Rescue, which are delivering on our goal to reach a broader audience. Our 6-year partnership with the UFC has been incredibly beneficial in building both our brands, and we wish them all the best in the future."

Now that's efficiency. Plug for the final season of TUF (starting in September, just in case you forgot)? Check. Plug for a couple other Spike reality shows? Check. Semi-hollow expression of best wishes? Check.

And all in three sentences.

As splits go, this one was at least somewhat amicable. Spike was exactly what the UFC needed in 2005, but it outgrew basic cable and the time had come to go network, and both of them knew it.

Sure, Spike sent the UFC off with a few "kicks to the balls," in Dana White's words. Counter-programming one of the UFC's Versus events with a day's worth of Nate Marquardt reruns was one such blow, but as a Spike TV executive told me recently, that move had a purpose beyond simply tweaking White's ego on his way out the door. When the ratings for those old fights came back higher than the UFC's live event numbers, it was for more than just bragging rights.

"Why did people tune in to watch Nate Marquardt's [re-aired fights] instead of [UFC Live]?" said the Spike executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The reason why is that they're familiar with Spike TV, and they're probably not familiar with Versus. They flip on Spike and they see fighting, and guys like to see fighting. That's why it did consistent ratings all day."

So what will Spike do now that the UFC is moving on up in the TV world? Instead of getting out of the MMA business altogether, it seems likely that the cable network aimed squarely at young men will simply replace the UFC with the upstart Bellator organization, hoping that Spike is enough of a destination for fights that its audience won't care about the brand name on the mats.

Of course, if there's one thing we've learned about MMA fans over the years it's that they definitely do care about the brand name. A hefty portion of the fan base still seems to think the sport itself is called UFC. So how do you pull this switcheroo without losing your entire audience?

That's the question Spike will be looking to answer if and when it scoops up Bellator, but it already has a few things working in its favor. So far Bellator has managed to scrape by with minimal TV exposure, thanks mainly to its reputation for putting on memorable fights despite a lack of big name stars.

Not surprisingly, MTV2 is still known more as the place to see old episodes of Pimp My Ride rather than live sporting events, so it's been tough for Bellator to gain too much traction there. Moving to Spike, which is betting that some viewers will still flip past it looking for fights even after the UFC is gone, could fix that problem.

If it works, it's a win for both the promotion and the network, as well as for the sport itself.

As great as it is for MMA in general to get the UFC on network TV with the full force of Fox's promotional power behind it, this sport still needs alternatives. It needs somewhere for fighters to develop, and somewhere for them to go when the historically impatient UFC casts them off.

Now that Strikeforce seems to have an expiration date stamped on its forehead, Bellator could become that viable second option. That is, if it can secure the right TV partner.

Part of Bellator's success has come from keeping its expectations -- and expenses -- realistic. It never tried to become a gigantic challenger to the UFC, and so YouTube fame or a couple hundred thousand viewers on MTV2 was good enough. Spike could help elevate it to the next level, and in the process give fighters and fans a viable second-tier alternative to the UFC, while giving itself something to plug the considerable programming hole left by the UFC's departure.

That's good for MMA. It's great for Bellator. It's good enough -- and probably reasonably priced enough -- for Spike. As long as the they can all help each other, it's a match that makes too much sense to resist.

After all, Spike won't get to run those old Nate Marquardt fights forever. And I wouldn't count on those same viewers showing up in droves for Auction Hunters just yet.

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