Tomorrow night, Bellator is holding a big pay-per-view event from Madison Square Garden. Perhaps you’ve heard. Earlier today, I was reminded of that fact when Bellator retweeted this from Rolling Stone:
“#BellatorNYC takes a big jump with its first Pay-Per View event” That made me chuckle, since I remember the May 17th, 2014 Bellator PPV headlined by Rampage Jackson and King Mo. The actual Rolling Stone article [LINK] makes the same mistake in the subhead “Promotion achieves milestone with first pay-per-view offering live from Madison Square Garden.” I can’t blame Rolling Stone too much, though. They’re more known for covering Lady Gaga than sports, let alone mixed martial arts. The writer, Mike Bohn, mentions the 2014 PPV in the article, so my guess is that some editor added the mistaken subhead.
More interesting to me is the fact that Bellator itself retweeted the error. Was it merely done by a low-level employee who didn’t notice or didn’t care about the mistake, or would Bellator rather have us forget about that first venture into competing with the UFC in the pay-per-view arena? Truthfully, it’s much more likely an oversight than anything calculated.
Still, there’s little doubt that Bellator hopes tomorrow’s PPV is an improvement over their first pay-per-view three years ago. You may remember that at the time Bjorn Rebney was running Bellator and the promotion’s lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez was in a long contract dispute with Bellator. Alvarez wanted to go onto the free agent market, and the UFC had made an offer for his services. Bellator had the contractual right to match the UFC’s offer, but since the UFC offered Alvarez points on pay-per-view buys, Bellator could not match the offer without holding their own PPV event. [LINK]
They made two tries. Bellator 106 on November 2nd, 2013 was supposed to be a PPV headlined by Tito Ortiz vs Rampage Jackson, with Michael Chandler vs Eddie Alvarez II as the co-main. About a week before the event, Tito pulled out with a neck injury, and the card was changed from a pay-per-view to a free event airing on Spike TV [LINK]. The Alvarez-Chandler fight took place, and Eddie regained the title he had lost to Chandler two years before.
The second attempt was Bellator 120 in May 2014. As you know, that one did go off as a pay-per-view, headlined by Rampage vs King Mo. The original main event was supposed to be Alvarez-Chandler III, but Alvarez suffered a concussion a week before the fight and had to pull out [LINK]. The PPV had approximately 100,000 buys, which Bellator at the time touted as a success, but it’s telling that the promotion hasn’t taken another shot at the market until now, over three years later. An even more obvious indicator of the PPV’s failure was that a month after Bellator 120, Bjorn Rebney was replaced by Scott Coker. Coker granted Alvarez his unconditional release in August 2014, presumably seeing that another PPV was too high a price to pay for retaining Eddie. As we all know, Alvarez then moved to the UFC and briefly held their lightweight title.
Perhaps inspired by the huge success of UFC 205 last year after New York finally legalized professional mixed martial arts in the state, Bellator is going back to the pay-per-view well again. A lot has changed since Bellator 120. The UFC is still the most powerful MMA promotion by a wide margin, but no longer seems invincible, so Bellator is in a better position to succeed. Three years ago, Bellator had some pretty good home-grown talent, but they were not well-known by casual fans. Their big names were mostly former UFC fighters who were past their primes. That remains partially true in 2017, as evidenced by tomorrow’s fights being headlined by Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva. However, the UFC’s Reebok deal, Scott Coker’s popularity among fighters, and other factors have made Bellator better able to compete with the UFC for top-flight talent. Bellator 180’s Phil Davis, Ryan Bader, Matt Mitrione, and Lorenz Larkin would still be viable main-card fighters in the UFC had they not made the jump to Bellator. There is also the Fedor Emelianenko wild card in the co-main event. He’s no longer the remorseless fighting machine he once was, but even a diminished version of probably the greatest heavyweight ever is still a good draw.
So what constitutes a PPV success for Bellator 180? Here I have to resort to wild and uninformed speculation. We know that despite Bellator saying 100,000 PPV buys three years ago was a success, they fired Bjorn Rebney the next month. So I think it’s safe to say 100,000 won’t cut it. I don’t know the expenses Bellator will incur putting on the show at Madison Square Garden, but I assume they’re pretty high for a Bellator event. Fedor and the former UFC fighters on the main card probably didn’t come cheap. Beyond that, I assume that some or all of the four fighters in the main and co-main – Sonnen, Silva, Mitrione, and Emelianenko – will be getting PPV points. For money coming in for PPV buys, we have to remember that of the $49.95 price tag, the cable and satellite providers take about half. So if 200,000 fans buy the event, Bellator’s take will be around $5 million. My guess is that that would be in the neighborhood of covering costs. For that reason, I’ll say 200,000 buys will be touted as successful just for pulling it off and not losing money, but that 250,000 buys will constitute a financial success.