LOS ANGELES – To avoid the NFL crush, Bellator MMA will move from Thursday to Friday nights this fall, Spike TV president Kevin Kay exclusively told SI.com during a screening this week for Fight Master, its original MMA reality series debuting on June 19.
Following a rare Saturday night launch on Sept. 7 –- which will also double as Fight Master’s live finale -- Bellator’s ninth season will settle into the 9-11 p.m. ET slot on Sept. 13.
Thursday nights were a fruitful home for Bellator’s eighth season of tournament-style events, which concluded in early April. They averaged 862,000 viewers over 11 events on Spike (available in 100 million homes) -- by far, the promotion’s most-watched season to date. Bellator previously aired on Friday nights on MTV2, another Viacom cable property in 80 million homes without HD capability, where it averaged approximately 155,000 and 162,000 viewers for its sixth and seventh seasons.
Despite the California-based promotion’s tangible growth this past season, Kay said the NFL’s return this fall (with the NFL Network securing a fair share of premium games on Thursday nights) precipitated an obligatory move for Bellator, which Viacom purchased a majority stake of in 2011.
Through a process of elimination, Kay landed on the new night, and said Bellator’s previous Friday run on MTV2, which doesn’t have the visibility of Spike, isn’t an indicator of the promotion’s potential this fall.
TNA Impact Wrestling, which previously served as Bellator’s lead-in, has already been moved back into Thursday’s 9 p.m. slot, where Kay said pro wrestling’s dedicated audience will hold up better against sport’s greatest juggernaut. Kay said the strength of WWE’s Monday Night Raw and Spike’s Tuesday night original programming eliminated an early-week slot for Bellator, which left Wednesdays or Fridays.
Fox Sports 1, the rebranded Speed channel, announced in May that it would feature UFC programming on Wednesdays.
“I don’t want to see Bellator going head to head with the UFC,” said Kay. “I don’t think that makes any sense for fans. No matter who would win in that scenario, you don’t want to not give the fans the choice to watch both.”
The Ultimate Fighter reality series, which flipped between live and taped fights during its three seasons on FX, earned some of its lowest ratings on Fridays, yet Kay is optimistic that Bellator will grow a following on the new night, in the vein of boxing’s Friday Night Fights on ESPN.
“The Ultimate Fighter on Fridays was doing over a million viewers a week. I’ll take that, and with live fights, I think we’ll do even better,” said Kay. “There’s a lot of young men at home across [the] 18-49 [age demographic]. Gold Rush on Discovery does 4 million viewers on Friday nights. [The viewers] are there. You just have to give them the right thing and I think live fights on Friday, without competition, is going to be the best place for Bellator.”
-- Loretta Hunt