Bellator Fighting Championships' move from MTV2 to the higher-profile Spike TV is a foregone conclusion.
That's how a couple of industry executives recently characterized the situation to MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
As one source put it: "It's going to happen. It's not 'if' but 'when.' Throw 'if' out the window. The only question is if it's next year or the year after."
When the UFC recently announced a groundbreaking seven-year deal with FOX and FX, it essentially marked the end of live UFC broadcasts on Spike TV. A planned "UFC Prelims" special on Dec. 30 will be the final live UFC fights on the cable station, which has been the UFC's primary television partner since 2005.
Now, as many have speculated, could the UFC's departure open the door for Bellator?
The organization began airing events on Spike TV's sister property, MTV2, earlier this year following previous deals with ESPN Deportes and FOX Sports Net. Bellator CEO and chairman Bjorn Rebney long has contended (publicly anyway) that he's perfectly happy with his current MTV2 home, where the organization's three "Summer Series" events averaged 242,000 viewers.
"At this stage, the only group that we're working with that is actually putting fights on with Bellator is MTV2, and they've been doing an amazing job," Rebney recently told MMAjunkie.com.
However, Spike TV is far more visible and in 100 million homes (compared to MTV2's 80 million). Additionally, with Spike TV's marketing muscle (which has helped promote 14 seasons of "The Ultimate Fighter" and dozens of live events) and an upgrade to a high-definition channel, Bellator could easily grow its audience exponentially. After all, even the lowest-rated UFC-Spike TV events score between 1.5 million and two million viewers.
Viacom, which owns both MTV2 and Spike TV, certainly could facilitate a move. And there's clearly interest in doing so since Viacom and Spike TV want to remain in the MMA business.
"Everyone wants Bellator to come to Spike TV," one source in the company said. "We're all in this together.
"But it all comes down to the UFC library. That's it."
Future decided by library rights
Ah yes, the UFC library.
While Spike TV no longer will air live UFC events after this year, its existing contract allows it to air the UFC library (including past events, former "TUF" seasons, "UFC Unleashed" episodes and specialty programming) in 2012. However, as long as Spike TV has the rights to the content, it can't air programming – including live events – from other organizations, such as Bellator, until 2013.
However, the UFC could purchase and reclaim the library if it can reach a deal with Spike TV.
"If they made a decent offer, we'd probably sell," one Viacom source said.
The library then could be shifted to the FOX-owned FX cable station, which will play a significant role with the UFC's 2012 broadcasting schedule. Those plans include new seasons of "The Ultimate Fighter," and each of a scheduled 26 episodes concludes with a live fight. Coupled with six annual UFC Fight Night-type events, FX is expected to air live UFC fights a total of 32 times in 2012 alone. And that doesn't include the four annual events the FOX network will air.
But if Spike TV retains the library rights in 2012, FOX and FX face a potentially major problem.
Counter-programming threat looms
"I don't think FOX truly understands what having the library means," one Viacom source said. "That means we could put (old seasons of) 'TUF' against (new seasons of) 'TUF.' We could be airing fights, replays of fights, all kinds of stuff when they're airing live fights."
What kind of impact such counter-programming could produce is debatable. However, back in June, Spike TV scored 793,000 viewers for a special that contained old Nate Marquardt fights. Versus' live-event broadcast (which was supposed to feature Marquardt) drew just 744,000 viewers.
"The last thing you want is confusion in the marketplace," the source said. "You have to spend a lot of money to let people know where you're airing. People are creatures of habit. They don't read stuff for the most part. They only know the channel it's on, and a lot of people don't know (about the UFC's move to FX)."
So basically, the UFC finds itself in a precarious position next year: It can allow Spike TV to retain the library and possibly face counter-programming from its own content. Or UFC officials can try to work out a deal to acquire the library – which would lead one of its biggest competitors to a TV deal with its former home.
So is eliminating the the threat of counter-programming worth a scenario in which Bellator could move to the higher-profile Spike TV in 2012?
"That's the billion-dollar question," the source said. "And it's answered by people richer than you and I."