Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk Hall has played host to The Beatles and Stones, Sinatra and Pavarotti, presidents, pageants and performances alike. But the Prohibition-era seaside arena is perhaps best known for its fights. Over the past 50 years, the Hall has hosted dozens of professional boxing’s biggest title bouts, bringing names like Tyson, Holyfield, Foreman and Holmes to its marquee.
However, on a Friday night last month, yesterday’s champions gave way to a newer breed of fighter, schooled more in judo, jujitsu and kickboxing than the sweet science. The Bellator Fighting Champions had arrived in Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom for Bellator 65, the sixth fight card of the tournament-based MMA promotion’s sixth season. With the steel cage in striking distance of Viacom’s New York City headquarters, we headed down the Garden State Parkway for a behind the scenes look at Bellator as it prepares to debut on Spike TV in 2013.
Viacom acquired a majority stake in Bellator in October 2011, as the sun set on Spike TV’s long-term broadcast partnership with the UFC. It was an immensely successful relationship for both parties, but they ultimately decided to go their separate ways last year. For its part, Spike TV had honed its expertise in marketing MMA, and wanted to put that capability to use for an MMA partner in which it had equity.
It was a window of opportunity that Bjorn Rebney, Chairman and CEO of Bellator, recalls hurling himself through.
“When this door opened, I was as pleasantly relentless as I could be to get this done,” he says.
Rebney, a former fight promoter, founded Bellator in 2008. He conceived it with a primary point of differentiation from other MMA promotions: a single elimination tournament structure. Fighters must advance through several rounds over the course of a season before reaching a title fight. Bellator bills itself with the tagline, “Where title shots are earned, not given.”
Rebney knew, though, that Bellator would need more than a unique structure to outlast other MMA promotions – many of which have entered the market with mixed results. According to Rebney, Bellator’s success relied on finding a media partner with tremendous power and reach, and expertise in marketing to the savvy and highly engaged MMA audience. He saw Spike TV, and its work in building the UFC brand through programming including The Ultimate Fighter and UFC Unleashed, as the gold standard.
“When I first started this – envisioning what it could be – I always thought of Viacom. But, at the time, that was like a little kid saying he wanted to be quarterback of the Giants,” he says. “The elevation of the Bellator brand since we signed this partnership has been exponential.”
Indeed, Bellator aired 25 events on Viacom’s MTV2 and Viacom premium joint venture EPIX in 2011, and will air another 25 on the networks in 2012. The fights also run Sunday nights in Spanish on Tr3s. The undercard matches for Bellator’s Friday night events stream live on Spike.com. Bellator fights are covered heavily on MMA: Uncensored Live, Spike’s Thursday night MMA news program which, in its first season, is already the most-watched MMA news show on television. And the Spike press machine has secured regular exposure for Bellator with ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Yahoo! and other major outlets.
But all this programming and press is prologue to the debut of Bellator on Spike TV in 2013. In addition to airing Bellator’s Friday night events, Spike TV and Bellator announced last month that they are developing a reality series featuring Bellator fighters, under the guidance of Bertram van Munster, co-creator of The Amazing Race. The one-hour reality series also comes to air in 2013.
With that debut still more than six months off, Spike TV has an unusual incubation period in which to refine and enhance the Bellator broadcast. Under the watchful eyes of Rebney and Spike TV President Kevin Kay, that task falls to Scott Fishman, Senior Vice President and Executive Producer of Spike TV.
Fishman is a 31-year veteran of Viacom. He began his run with the company as a production assistant at MTV, when the channel was still in its infancy. As MTV grew, so did Fishman’s responsibilities. He quickly found himself directing VJ segments, then live concerts, the network’s Spring Break broadcasts, and its beloved Rock ‘n Jock competitions. That live sports experience helped make Fishman the top choice when Spike TV began programming sports and live events. With the network, Fishman has served as executive producer for Slamball, TNA Impact Wrestling and, of course, UFC. Fishman produced every live UFC fight on Spike TV from August 2005 through 2011.
With Bellator, Fishman finds himself at the helm of a production unlike anything else in the Viacom family. While Bellator is headquartered in Rebney’s native Chicago, nearly the entire operation is mobile, and rolls to new venues throughout North America on a weekly basis during the season. The fleet of vehicles includes a half dozen tractor trailers and a horse trailer that houses a control room and two edit bays. During Bellator 65, it occupies a large chunk of the airplane hangar-sized production garage in Boardwalk Hall.
Fishman sums up the intrinsic appeal of MMA nicely. “Most people want to see people get punched,” he says with a laugh. But the packaging of the fights is critical and, according to Fishman, his job is to “control everything that happens outside of the cage.” As such, the work of his team begins well before the first bell rings on Friday night. The Bellator team usually arrives in town on the Tuesday before a fight and immediately gets to work producing and editing profile pieces on the week’s fighters – a focal point of Spike’s Bellator broadcast. Fishman strives to set Bellator apart by focusing on the fighters as much as the fights themselves.
“We pride ourselves on storytelling,” Fishman says. “We have tried very consciously with our fighters to tell you who they are, where they’re from, and why they compete.”
Rebney – a self-professed student of sports broadcasting legends like Roone Arledge – agrees. “What we’re doing is allowing the stars to help build the brand,” he says.
“It’s all about caring,” Rebney continues. “The essence of what we do is getting people to care about people in the cage. That’s what people are tuning in to see.”
It’s tough not to care about the people in the cage. Thanks to Bellator’s tournament structure, they’re fighting for their professional lives every time they enter the ring. And many of them come bearing compelling backstories. The night we visited featured a Featherweight Semifinal matchup between Daniel Straus and Mike Corey. Straus was fighting in memory of his close friend, MMA fighter Chris Smith, who was killed in a car accident in Ohio only days earlier. Mike Corey’s corner man for the evening was his good friend and fellow Bellator fighter Pat Curran. If Corey had won, he would’ve had to fight Curran next (Straus ultimately prevailed).
Beyond storytelling, Fishman is constantly tweaking the production to even better convey the visceral impact of MMA combat. Audio is a particular passion of his – maybe unsurprising, given his MTV background – and Fishman continuously pushes advancements on this front. Recently, his team built a unique five-pronged microphone apparatus that hangs down over the center of the ring, capturing each crunch of bone in stunning clarity. Fishman is also experimenting with never-before-seen camera angles to capture the fights, which he asked that we refrain from sharing here for competitive reasons.
The roadshow rapport among the entire crew was on clear display on fight night in Atlantic City. During commercial breaks, Rebney chats as effortlessly with the camera guys as he does with the announcers. From ringside, he calls back to the production office – to a virtual “Batphone” clearly marked “BJORN” – to trade thoughts on fights and show flow. The ring girls, Jade and Mercedes, travel from city to city with the team, and watch the fights with genuine interest when not attending to their official duties. And the production crew even has its own mascot, Bella – a bulldog fashioned by a crew member out of multi-colored sheet metal. Bella is emblazoned with bumper stickers from Bellator ports of call like Laredo, Texas and Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. We’re told she posed for a glamour shot on the boardwalk earlier in the day.
The team interacts with ease, and there’s an air of excitement and energy that surrounds the entire operation. Rebney understands the opportunity Bellator’s partnership with Spike represents.
“Spike is where MMA fans live – nobody in the TV universe knows how to market to the demo and the space better,” he says. “This is the most positive, collaborative process I’ve ever been a part of in the entertainment industry.”
As for where that collaboration takes Bellator in 2013 and beyond, Rebney has his thoughts.
“I never got into this business with the vision to be number two.”