If it's Thursday, it must be time for Bellator MMA.
OK, not this week and not for the next several, either. On the first Thursday of this month, the mixed martial arts promotion ended its eighth season with a bang. Pat Curran put on an electrifying performance in defending his featherweight championship and middleweight Doug Marshall and featherweight Frodo Khasbulaev earned title shots with victories in tournament finals. Though the fighting won't resume until the Bellator Summer Series of four-man tourneys begins in June, Bellator is undoubtedly succeeding.
Now is a time for Bellator to bask in the glow of its first season on Spike. The former television home of the UFC is part of Viacom, which in 2011 bought a majority share in Bjorn Rebney's five-year-old MMA company. At the time, Spike had just lost UFC broadcast rights to Fox and was looking to stay in the fight business. Bellator spent a year and a half with fellow Viacom outlet MTV2 before switching to Spike in January.
The move has been a boon to the formerly struggling company. Since Strikeforce folded in January, Bellator has essentially become the RC Cola to the UFC's Coke. (Bellator doesn't have the brand name to draw a Pepsi comparison). Spike announced last week that over the course of the season Bellator averaged 861,000 viewers, about four times as many as watched the last two seasons on MTV2.
We had questions about the numbers, because there are so many moving parts when one tries to assess ratings. Spike is in around 98 million homes, for example, while MTV2 is in 80 million ... but still mostly in standard definition. And Spike has been a player in the MMA game for as long as the game has been played, while MTV2 has been, well, we're not quite sure what the channel is best known for. (It's certainly not music.) So SI.com sat down with Spike president Kevin Kay the other day to talk ratings, business goals and what makes fighting so appealing on TV:
The biggest challenge back when we started with the UFC was getting sponsors. I remember going into rooms and showing clips of what people were then calling cage fighting -- or human cockfighting, even -- and sponsors would look at you like you were out of your mind. It took a bunch of years to get mainstream sponsors into the sport, because they had to be convinced that it was regulated and safe. We don't have that challenge today. There are still companies that will not sponsor MMA, but there's a broad base of sponsors across a lot of categories. And that's to the benefit of Spike, to the benefit of Bellator, and to the benefit of the fighters.
I believe that mixed martial arts is still in its infancy. It's been on widely distributed cable TV, and now network TV on Fox, for just eight years. That's the infancy of a sport. The fan base is growing, with new people finding the sport every day. Look, I didn't know anything about this sport eight years ago, and now I can't watch enough fights. My family wants to send me out of the house sometimes. I've had people ask, "Aren't you worried that you're going to burn people out with so many fights on TV?" No, I'm not. Baseball has a 162-game schedule, plus playoffs. People watch a lot of sports. The last thing I'm worried about is whether there are enough sports fans.