Spike TV president Kevin Kay is the man responsible for bringing the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its popular reality TV series, The Ultimate Fighter, to the men's interest cable network in 2005. So it wasn't a surprise that Kay and Spike moved fast to replace the MMA programming void left once UFC parent company Zuffa announced its plans in August to move its product to the expansive Fox Sports Media Group platform in 2012.
What was a bit unexpected was Spike parent company Viacom's decision to purchase a majority stake in its next MMA property, Bellator Fighting Championships. Founded in 2008, the tournament-structured Bellator currently airs on MTV2 and EPIX, outlets also owned by Viacom.
In his first interview since announcing the purchase on Oct. 26, Kay explained why Viacom and Spike made the much larger investment (Kay wouldn't disclose exactly what Viacom's stake is in Bellator now) and what Spike's initial plans are for the promotion when it begins airing on the network in 2013 (more on that one-year delay below).
In the exclusive interview, Kay also reacted to UFC President Dana White's comments regarding Spike's decision to move ahead with Bellator during the final stages of the Zuffa-Spike agreement.
SI.com: Spike TV had a highly successful seven-year broadcast partnership with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Why did Viacom decide to buy a majority stake of Bellator for its next round of MMA programming?
Kevin Kay: There were a lot reasons. We kind of saw the end coming with the UFC. Obviously it was a good thing, and it was good for both sides, but you know that every couple of years, you're going to have to re-negotiate with escalating rights' fees you're going to pay. It dawned on us that one way to avoid continuing to pay escalating rights' fees and not have any backend or ownership or ability to exploit the library over time without paying for it again and again was to look around and see if there was the possibility to invest in a mixed martial arts promotion. We really liked Bellator. We liked (Bellator CEO) Bjorn (Rebney) and loved the talent development people -- (matchmaker) Sam Caplan particularly and we loved the tournament format.
SI.com: What were Viacom and Spike TV's initial thoughts on Bellator's tournament format?
Kay: One of the things we've seen with the UFC over time is that the library tends to wear down (in terms of ratings). What continues to work are live fights. The tournaments give us live fights every week. That was another consideration for us: How do we get the most live fights onto Spike and in this case, MTV2 in the short term, because we think that's where the future is. Fans want to see live fights. We think the investment was wise. Rather than continue to rent somebody's brand and build it for them, and not participate in the upside over the long term, this was an opportunity to own and participate. We want to be in the space. When we had the WWE and we decided we weren't going to do that anymore, we didn't get out of the wrestling business. We got into the TNA business. Here we are five years later and we have two million viewers a week watching TNA. We know we can build the right properties and we felt like Bellator was a good one to invest in. We believe fans come to Spike for mixed martial arts. We want to be in the live sports business, so more hours of live fights we can put on, the better, as opposed to library product.
SI.com: When Zuffa announced in August that they'd be moving the UFC to Fox, Spike moved quickly to stream Bellator's undercard fights on its Spike.com website. When asked about this, UFC president Dana White seemed to take umbrage with this. Would you respond to White's statement that Spike was somehow not honoring its end of the deal?
Kay:I read that Dana said we weren't honoring the spirit of the agreement. We're absolutely 100 percent honoring the agreement. When we decided not to go forward (together), we told them we'd 100 percent honor our agreement. We're honoring the contractual terms of the agreement and that's all I have to say abut it. We wouldn't do it any other way. We do have the right to put other mixed martial arts promotions on Spike.com. That's in the agreement.
SI.com: I just want you to confirm what's already been reported. Once The Ultimate Fighter ends its 14th season on Spike in December, the network still has a whole year of UFC library rights under contract. And Zuffa had the option to buy back that library, freeing Spike up to air other MMA-branded programming in 2012, but chose not to?
Kay: Yes, it's contractual. While we own that library, we can't put another mixed martial arts promotion on Spike proper, on the linear network. They could buy it back if they chose to. They chose not to do that. We have the library and we'll use the library.
SI.com: People have interpreted Zuffa's decision as the promotion strategically trying to clog up Spike from moving on with another promotion in 2012. Was that how yourself and Spike interpreted it?
Kay: I don't have an opinion about it. I think that's their decision. We have the library and we're using it because we're paying for it and why wouldn't we? Whatever their motives are for not wanting to take it back and put it somewhere else, you'd have to ask them.
SI.com: A highpoint of your UFC programming was the reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. Have there been any talks for something similar with Bellator in 2013?
Kay: Yes, there has. One thing we won't do is duplicate The Ultimate Fighter. It's a great franchise and it's going to go on to another network. I actually think the tournament format is a little bit like The Ultimate Fighter without the reality piece of it, per se, because every fighter is fighting three times over the course of the tournament to win the championship. You fight, you lose, you go home. There's a lot of reality already baked into that idea. There's different kinds of reality ideas that were starting to kick around -- nothing we have our hearts set on yet -- but we're hearing lots of good ideas for reality programming around Bellator. But it won't be 16 guys in a house. We're not doing that show over again.
SI.com: Would we see this reality TV programming as early as 2013?
Kay: Yes. One of the great things about having this much time to prepare and having Bellator on MTV2 throughout next year, is we have the next 14-15 months to hear a lot of pitches, pick what we want to do, put things in production, (including) a lot of reality programming around Bellator, some shoulder programming. We're going to take Bellator's library of fights, see what's there and see how we can package that because, for the fans, they've not seen most of these Bellator fighters before so we want to build those stars. And it's actually fresh library product, so there's lots we can do and we have 15 months to figure it out.
SI.com: With the UFC, you'd have dates and main-event fights decided months ahead, allowing the network time to promote them. Could you walk me through how we would see these 12-week tournaments presented on Spike TV?
Kay: You'll see live tournament fights for 12 straight weeks, two times a year. We're actually figuring out right now how we might expand the tournaments so that it's more than four weight classes each season. If you fight in the quarterfinals, you can't fight for (at least) four weeks because you need time to recover, and the same for the semi-finals into the finals. So, we do have a good opportunity to tell the winning fighter's story across 12 weeks and promote their fight. No question, it's a little more challenging, but the truth about our relationship with the UFC was we'd agree in advance what the fights would be and then guys would get injured. You've seen so much of that this year. There's a lot of challenges in promoting MMA and I actually think the 12-week tournament presents different kinds of challenges, but where I think we're really good is marketing and promoting. That's the value we brought to the UFC and the value we'll bring to Bellator.
SI.com: In between these two 12-week blocks, are there plans to promote more shows to keep consistency going on the network?
Kay: We can do as many fights as we want to do. We want to get guys more fights, so the two tournament (blocks) are in place, but I think you'll be seeing us looking at lots of different ways to get fighters fights, to get champions fights against top contenders and build the business. We wouldn't want to be dark for any period of time, but we have the advantage that we have a network devoted to this. I can run as many fights as we want to run as long as we have the talent and great matchups to do it.
SI.com: Could we see this reality TV programming between the tournaments?
Kay: Yes, exactly.
SI.com: This is starting to sound like more of a time commitment than what you had with the UFC.
Kay: In some ways. We had 24 weeks of TUF, the two TUF finales and then four fight nights a year for 30 weeks of programming, plus the library. Here, we'll have all of those things and the potential for even more fights, so it's quite a bit. It's certainly comparable, if not more.
SI.com: Finally, what did you learn about The Ultimate Fighter/UFC relationship that you believe you can take into this next round of programming with Bellator?
Kay: When you're in a licensed deal, you have less control than when you're in an ownership position. I think there's lots of things, now that we're owners here, that we'll be able to do that we weren't able to do in our relationship with the UFC and the way that relationship was built. From a marketing perspective, from a sales perspective, from a client perspective, we have a lot more latitude and control over things that sometimes the UFC would say, "Well, we don't want to do that particular sponsor or we have a sponsor that would be a conflict." We were always really good at working those things out, but the fact that we now are owners makes it our decision and a lot easier in a lot of respects. I think that opens up the world to other clients and for them to be able to do more with Bellator more easily. Other than that, I get to say that I sat on the sidelines watching the guys that do it best in the world -- (UFC owners) Dana, Lorenzo and Frank (Fertitta) -- and soak up every experience. We paid a lot, but I learned a lot and hopefully we can bring all of that learning from myself and my team and bring it to the party for Bellator.