Bellator Fighting Championships will move its base of operations from Chicago to Southern California next week as part of it continued preparations for a relaunch on Spike TV in January 2013.
Media conglomerate Viacom purchased a majority stake in Bellator last September after Zuffa LLC uprooted its Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise to the Fox networks for a seven-year deal reportedly worth $90 million a year. In 2005, Spike TV, which is owned by Viacom, debuted The Ultimate Fighter reality series, which is credited with igniting the UFC's breakout commercial success in the U.S. UFC content was a Spike-programming staple during their fruitful, seven-year partnership.
Bellator, which airs on MTV2 (another Viacom property) Fridays until the end of the year, was started by former boxing promoter Bjorn Rebney in 2008 and has held 72 tournament-style events in North America to date. Rebney said the west-coast migration to Irvine, Calif., was a six-figure commitment almost a year in the making and will include the relocations of 31 Bellator employees.
"The return on that investment will far exceed the cost of moving," said Rebney. "I can't tell you how many times in the last few months I've jumped on a plane to L.A. or N.Y. last minute to meet with advertisers, sponsors and both domestic and international partners. It became a running joke in the office."
Bellator's new offices, located about 40 minutes south from Spike's headquarters in Los Angeles, will merge a majority of the promotion's public relations, marketing, event operations, producing and programming departments under one roof.
Southern California is noted for its high concentration of fighters as 18 of Bellator's 145 contracted fighters hail from the area. That number is only expected to rise as Bellator scouts the local facilities, teams and regional shows more frequently.
The move will also make it easier for Spike to market the Bellator brand and its stars across Viacom's wide array of broadcast, cable and other media platforms.
"In some ways, it's like the Hollywoodization of Bellator," said Spike TV President Kevin Kay. "It's all these cross-promotional opportunities, to get these guys to movie premieres with our partners to get them seen and to get Bjorn out there more. We'll be able to hook the fighters up with "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight" on the red carpet of an awards show and have them interacting with big celebrities and just getting the community to know more about this great brand."
Kay said Viacom and the cable network are planning a big marketing push for Bellator when the promotion begins its ninth season on Spike in January 2013. Spike has also locked in 10 episodes of shoulder programming in January, drawing from Bellator's first eight seasons, to promote the season nine tournament competitors. Spike will also continue to develop its MMA Uncensored news and feature show, which is drawing 500,000 viewers each week, according to Kay.
A Bellator reality TV series -- promised as something different from The Ultimate Fighter format -- will debut sometime in 2013, said Kay. The untitled show is being executive-produced by Bertram Van Munster, who's won eight Emmy Awards for CBS's The Amazing Race. Kay and Rebney said the reality series will likely shoot outside California to take advantage of better tax incentive programs offered in other states.
The move is a homecoming for SoCal native Rebney, who got his first job as an attorney in Irvine. Rebney said he started Bellator in Chicago so his wife wouldn't have to displace her thriving public relations firm, though he'd always had plans to relocate.
Bellator will continue to produce events throughout North America, said Rebney, particularly in places like Atlantic City, N.J., and Ontario, Canada, where the promotion has found strong venue partners. However, the promotion might promote a group of events in California, like its annual summer series.
"We'll have too many fighters working with us that are based here to not do something [in Southern California] and we'll be able to promote in this market," said Rebney.