Exclusive | Bjorn Rebney Interview Pt. 1: Bellator CEO Talks King Mo, Brett Rogers and the Business of MMA
Bjorn Rebney is a man on a mission. The Bellator Fighting Championships CEO and his roster of fighters have — in just over three years time — made Bellator the second largest mixed martial arts promotion in the world, behind only the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In so doing, Bellator has succeeded where many other promotions have tried — and failed.
I recently caught up with Rebney and was struck by his methodical, business-like approach to even the most mundane aspects of the fight business. Rebney, it seems, has a business model for everything, an approach which has paid dividends for him thus far. My first question: What is your reaction to being the world’s second largest MMA promotion?
“I see it both as a challenge and an opportunity, and also a very positive indication of the growth that the company has developed over the last few years. When we came into the industry we were #5 or #6 maybe, back when there was a WEC and a Strikeforce and an EliteXC and an IFL.
“I think the thing that I’m most pleased with in terms of the evolution is that the business model that I originally laid out many years ago has proven to be accurate, and the projected numbers and the things that would need to happen for us to get to the next level have actually occurred. It’s been a good evolution. We’re not near there yet. We’re not anywhere close to where I anticipate or our partners anticipate this brand and this organization will go. But it’s good, positive steps.
“The UFC has been around for a very long time and they’ve been putting out a very, very solid product for a very long time. We’ve only been around, literally, on television since 2009, which is really the blink of an eye in the evolution of a brand like this. So I’m pleased, but by no means satisfied.”
Speaking of business models, I asked Rebney just what Bellator’s approach was, because it seemed to me that, from almost out of nowhere, the company rose rapidly to become the #2 promotion in the sport.
“It was the result of a lot of due diligence, a lot of study, and a lot of analysis of what was going right in the industry in its infancy, and what was going very wrong in the industry in its infancy, and throughout a period of three-to-four years after the real explosion of mixed martial arts. I tracked with great interest really what I think is the prime catalyst to mixed martial arts becoming a general market sport, and that is Spike network. Network distribution and network sponsorship — and the promotion, marketing and advertising that flows from that — is a primary, primary catalyst in the development of a brand like ours, and it was in terms of the development of the UFC brand.
“One of the advantages that I had when I was developing the business model was that EliteXC and the IFL were both publicly traded companies, so much of their information in terms of how they were allocating resources … was public information. So I was able to do a great deal of due diligence and investigation in terms of all the mistakes that they were making and the directions that they were heading in — which were wrong directions. … The [business model] I was able to create was pretty close to being right on target.”
I was curious as to just when the seed for the idea of creating a fight company to rival the UFC and other major promotions first popped into Rebney’s head.
“The moment when water hit the ground on that seed was literally in 2005 when I first saw Spike network launch this new program called The Ultimate Fighter on the tail of WWE programming. … I watched the show. I’ve been a fan of MMA, watching it since the initiation of the UFC in ’93. I’m one of those original guys who watched Royce Gracie fight in a gi. And I looked at what are called the ‘overnights’ of that show, because one of your biggest indicators in terms of success or failure is gonna be ratings for a new show, how it’s doing.
“I realized that the platform was a very, very strong distribution platform. But could Spike develop this new genre, which I knew and my friends knew, but which the general market didn’t have any kind of knowledge of? And when I saw the overnights and I saw the way people were watching, immediately, that’s when I really knew. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This thing that I’ve enjoyed so much as a hobby and as something that I love watching and being a part of [can be a general market success].’
“I’ve literally still got VHS [tapes] from Pride sitting in my garage. I don’t even know if they make VHS recordings anymore. I looked at those overnight ratings from Spike network … and that’s really when the genesis of the idea came to me. … It was like, ‘I have this expertise. … This is what I do for fun. This is what I enjoy. Conceptually, if Spike’s able to develop this entire idea, this entire sports concept — this could be something that I could develop into a business.’”
One approach up-and-coming fight promotions have taken in developing their businesses is based, in part, on bringing in guys who lost a few fights and were cut by the UFC and using them as their marquee talent. I asked Rebney if fans could expect Bellator to do this.
“I don’t fault anyone for doing that. I don’t fault anyone for trying to use a fighter who previously had a name but might be on the downturn of his career. It’s not our model. We don’t follow that process. We have been about developing our own stars, developing the Eduardo Dantases and the Michael Chandlers and the Pat Currans and the Ben Askrens and the Pitbull brothers. The list goes on and on and on.
“It’s gonna be very difficult for a brand — as we’ve seen when we looked at the IFL, the EliteXCs, the Afflictions, the Bodogs and the all the others that have failed — when you look at their insistence and ongoing business strategy of utilizing fighters who are coming off of two or three losses in the UFC, to try to propel their brand. From a business model perspective that never seemed to me to be an efficient use of time, energy, money and marketing power.
“You can develop your own stars. You can develop your own superstars in the sport of mixed martial arts. That’s what we’ve been working really diligently to do. I think we’ve done a good job at it, and I think as we transition to Spike, we’ll be able to take it to the next level.”
But would Bellator ever be willing to bring in fighters who are making their UFC exits, such as a Jason “Mayhem” Miller?
“Depends on the circumstance. We’re not an organization — and I am not the CEO and head of an organization — where we plant our flag and defend it to the death. In other words, the sports entertainment industry is a constantly evolving business. You’re never gonna hear me say, ‘We’ll never do this,’ or ‘We’ll never do that,’ or ‘I’ll die defending this ideal or this concept.’ You have to evolve, you have to move, and you have to be willing to change and adapt. So you’ll see us sign fighters from other organizations if we think the fit is right, if we think the story is compelling.
“We made a very, very concerted effort to sign [Muhammed] ‘King Mo’ Lawal. And King Mo was obviously a former Strikeforce fighter. I believe, when healthy, he’s one of the top 205-ers across the entire globe. Incredibly exciting. Very charismatic. Great fighting style. A wrestler in the vein of Mike Chandler. A wrestler who looks to knock your head off, who uses his takedowns to set up his punches as opposed to his punches to set up his takedowns. I think he’s a monstrously charismatic and exciting guy to have under our banner.
“The fact that he had fought numerous times for Strikeforce was irrelevant to me. I looked at him as a tremendous fighter, a great personality, and a really cool guy who I wanted to have at the organization. If another guy like that comes up, which there’s no doubt they will, I’ll make a concerted effort to sign them.
“But each circumstance kinda stands on its own. What is the fighter’s background? Where does he come from? What has he done? What could he conceptually do on this monstrous new platform we have with Spike network? … And then you make the determination. But there’s no black and white rule where we say ‘We absolutely won’t do this,’ or ‘We absolutely will do this.’ Each circumstance is different.
“As the field [of leading MMA organizations] is narrowed to two, you’ll see a lot more of that. There will be great fighters who will come to the end of their relationship with the UFC, and want to be on Spike network and be a part of what we’re doing. And there will no doubt be great fighters who are fighting at Bellator and who come to the end of their relationship with Bellator and go over to the UFC. It will just be a back and forth.”
Bellator has signed Lawal, who faced allegations of PED use earlier this year, and Brett Rogers, who has had run-ins with the law for domestic disputes. Now I’m not one to judge others. But as a journalist, I was curious, could Bellator be considered a place of second chances for fighters who might be carrying a little baggage? What is Bellator’s approach to signing fighters who’ve had problems such as these in their past?
“Each circumstance really lives on its own. I went out, I met with Mo and I talked to Mo at length. I heard the totality of the circumstances surrounding his situation. I was able to render my own opinion, based on the information that Mo provided to me. And under those circumstances, I do not believe Mo to have been a cheater. I don’t believe that he, essentially, broke any rules at all.
“I think that King Mo Lawal made a mistake that you or I or anyone could or would make. And he lost his ability to do the thing that he loves based on having taken an action that anyone and everyone might take, relative to buying a supplement that, at the time, was completely legal from a store that’s akin to a GNC.
“And I think in those circumstances, when you look at the entirety of the circumstance and exactly what occurred … I looked at those circumstances. I met with Mo and his management, and I was completely comfortable, based on looking at: his track record; the level of competition he had wrestled at year after year after year; being in international competition, world championships, and Olympic trials; and the fact that he had been tested for PEDs not less than 50 times over a six-year period and had never come up positive one time in the most exhaustive and elaborate testing that exists on the face of the planet.
“But he showed up positive once in his MMA career, which he was able to track back to a specific supplement which was legally purchased, which unbeknownst to him had contained a banned substance. So I was very comfortable with his explanation, completely comfortable with it and trusted his explanation implicitly. So there was no issue there. I looked at him and said, ‘Wow. You got a bad deal. And I’m crazy about watching you fight, and you’re a tremendous personality, so we’re gonna sign you.’
“Brett [Rogers] was a completely different circumstance. Brett was a circumstance where his management came at us literally month after month after month. I had seen him fight in the past. I was there in Chicago when he was going toe-to-toe with Fedor [Emelianenko] and Fedor was still ‘The Last Emperor’ and considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist in the world.
“I saw a fighter who was still young in his career, who in my mind, if he just had a little bit more confidence or a little bit more knowledge of the game, conceivably could’ve finished Fedor, and been the first fighter to really knock off a guy who we as fans perceived as invincible.
“He went through a tough run where his management basically just threw him to the wolves, where he went in against man-eaters, and his confidence was down and he was just in a bad situation. I looked at what he had been accused of doing and listened to what he had to say and just made a judgment call. I was raised by parents who spoke volumes about forgiveness, listening to people and looking at the totality of the circumstances. So, you know, we gave him an opportunity. But each situation is gonna be different.
“I spoke with Brett before we signed the deal. I spoke with his management countless times. I got him on the phone a number of times, spoke with him. I got a much better understanding about: what his relationship is now with his wife, what his relationship is now with his kids, where is he, where is that relationship [with his family] going, where is his focus, what is he doing, etc. And we, as a company, made a judgment call.
“That’s the kind of analysis we go through in any situation. There may be circumstances where we make a completely different decision, where we look at the totality of the circumstances and decide we’re not going to move forward with this. And there have been those circumstances. I don’t wanna bring them up, because I don’t think it’s fair to the fighters that we’ve decided not to move forward with. But each one stands on its own. No two people are the same. No two sets of circumstances are the same. You’ve got to just look at them independently. And sometimes you’re gonna make the right decision, and sometimes you’re gonna make the wrong decision. That’s kind of how we go through it.”
With all this talk about Rogers, I was curious to get Rebney’s take on his opponent at this weekend’s Bellator 71 event, Kevin Asplund.
“He is a very tough heavyweight. He’s got a very strong record and throws for the fences. We’re not gonna put Brett into walk-over fights. We’re gonna throw him right in. And he says his training’s been good, he says he’s hyper-focused, he says he’s ready to go. Well, we’ll get to see answers to all those questions.”
Rogers and Lawal are both former Strikeforce fighters, and of course Strikeforce is now owned by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC. I asked Rebney about Bellator’s competitive relationship with the UFC, and if there was room for the two companies to coexist.
“I think there’s room for two players on the mixed martial arts stage. Time will tell, in terms of where their brand goes and where our brand goes … and what the development process ultimately is. I’ve never really been one [of these people] — as was the case with a lot of different heads of failed mixed martial arts organizations — who used to like to stand on soap boxes and pound their chests and talk about how great they were. That’s just not our style.
“I’m much more interested in focusing on the product that goes on the screen, the product that goes on in the cage, the product the fans get to see at the live events. Time will tell, over the next three, four or five years, what happens with both brands and what the evolution is.
“I’m very, very, very happy and comfortable with where we are in terms of our partnerships. We’re partnered with Viacom; they’re one of the largest and most powerful entertainment companies on Earth. We’re partnered with Spike network. I have the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Kay, the head of Spike network, multiple times each day. He’s heavily invested in the development process at Bellator, and I’m heavily invested in working with him to provide amazing content for our viewers when we get to Spike. So, time will tell.
“It’s obviously a very competitive business. It’s the fight business, literally and figuratively. And it takes a very competitive personality to be in it. But the products will ultimately speak for themselves, in terms of what happens from an evolutionary perspective and who ends up where and what we’re ultimately looking at when you and I look back again and talk in three years.”
I spoke to Rebney about the public’s familiarity with the Bellator brand, about the company’s name ID and recognition. I told him that I’d been to sports bars when Bellator was on, and patrons had either mistook it for the UFC, or simply said, “Hey, who are these guys?” I had never heard any complaints about the action, of course. What are Rebney’s thoughts on the company’s level of name ID right now?
“Our ‘Q Score’ — our recognition factor — is getting better and better. There’s no doubt that as we make the transition, as we start to come into being this large-scale promotion that cross-platforms under the MTV networks banner, that recognition will get larger and larger.
“I think what we’ve got working for us — which is a tremendous advantage — is that the product is of a very high quality. The fighters that are stepping into the cage are, in my mind and in many people’s minds, some of the greatest fighters in the world today, across multiple weight divisions. It’s just a build.
“Brands don’t get built overnight. That’s one of the mistakes that a lot of people in this industry have made in the past, and it has cost them their businesses. And [that’s indicative of] having a short-term vision. This industry, at [Bellator’s] scale — with multi-national television deals, a product that’s reaching 75 countries around the world on a week-in and week-out basis, and a partnership with Viacom — in this business, it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint.
“People who believe, as many of the people who have tried and failed in this business did believe, that they can launch and immediately rival the UFC, and have huge Q Scores and major crossover brand recognition, that is unrealistic and shows a lack of understanding of how sports and entertainment work. It takes time. It takes time and it takes the right partner. And as I said, I think we have the greatest partner in the history of fighting sports television in Spike. I know we do.
“This is a process. It’s a promotional, advertising, marketing process that engages television, live events, print, digital, radio, international licensing, merchandising and sponsorship support, and the like. So, it is an involved process. The cornerstone of that process — the core, the engine, if you will — is amazingly talented fighters and the product that we put inside that cage. And that, that I’m very, very comfortable with.”
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