Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S., particularly, it seems, among Hispanics. A newly launched MMA league, the Bellator Fighting Championships, trying to capitalize on this trend, betting that the largest growing demographic in the U.S. will continue to be intrigued by the action-packed sport.
"We believe very strongly that there is amazing opportunity in the sport and business of mixed martial arts in the Hispanic market," said Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney.
Bellator has announced it will air the fights on ESPN Deportes with weekly TV broadcasts starting in April 2009. "Our target coming out of the box with this partnership with ESPN Deportes, our advertising, our marketing budget, and our promotions is the Hispanic market," Mr. Rebney told HispanicBusiness.com.
Currently 30 fighters have signed up with Bellator and 60 percent of them count Spanish as their first language.
"To date nobody has done a real legitimate sport show about MMA that features live fights and live tournament competition where the majority of the competitors in the show or on the events were Hispanic and could communicate clearly to that audience. We're doing it," divulged Mr. Rebney.
Mr. Rebney says that nine out of 10 MMA fights are tremendously exciting, and that the same can't be said for any other fighting sport; he believes this is why people continue to watch MMA fights and why MMA has a "fighting chance" to continue its upward climb.
The MMA market has already had its share of failures, however -- both Elite XC, which spotlighted Internet sensation Kimbo Slice, and Bodog, shuttered their operations. One of Bellator's key strategies is to focus on the Hispanic market.
Mr. Rebney says that the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier MMA league, does an amazing job putting on great events. At the same time, feels that there is an opportunity for more players in the field, especially in the virtually untapped Hispanic market.
Bellator commissioned a Nielsen study to track the difference between national ratings in the general market and in the Hispanic market for MMA programming. That study showed that "Hispanics disproportionately watch mixed martial arts programming."
He said that according to the study, "In many cases there is a 2 to 1 ratio in willingness and desire for Hispanic viewers and consumers to watch MMA programming."
Mr. Rebney also noted that Hispanics tend to be "fiercely brand loyal and have a tremendous amount of purchasing power. If you deliver a high quality product, where you have great fights, highly competitive programming, and really solid back stories in terms of getting feature pieces told about the fighters, you may be fortunate enough to capture the loyalty and alliance of that market."
It's more than the commissioned studies that give Mr. Rebney this confidence -- he's had plenty of experience dealing with the Hispanic market segment and its love of fighting sports.
Mr. Rebney was a fight promoter for Oscar De La Hoya from 1993-1997. During those years, he picked up on how incredibly powerful, dynamic, and multifaceted the Hispanic market is.
In this role, he coordinated De La Hoya's fights and promotions, all the while learning what it takes to be successful in the fighting sports. Mr. Rebney has spent the last three years working up a game plan to make Bellator one of the premier leagues in the MMA. He says it's imperative to understand the drivers behind the MMA world -- like how to structure TV alliances, work with fighters to structure their contracts, work casino deals, bring sponsors into the space, generate positive revenues on events, and how to work with commission.
"There are a lot of moving parts to the fight business and you can't hope to get into it if you've never actually coordinated those moving parts," said Mr. Rebney.
To this end, Bellator will utilize a variety of top Hispanic talents, notably Eddie Alvarez, Nick Gonzalez, Hector Lombard, and Jorge Masvidal. Mr. Rebney calls them competitors "who can communicate with our audience in their first language, who are bilingual, and who also are top world ranked guys."
Another difference between Bellator and the existing leagues is its tournament structure. Bellator's strategy banks on most fans preferring to watch fighters that they believe to be "the best of the best," while the fighters themselves desire control over their professional careers. With its tournament-style play, Bellator has removed the speculation equation behind setting up good fights. This allows for the fighter's performance to determine his level of success in the sport.
A fighter can control his "winning or losing, his ability to fight for the world title in our league, and he can also control how much money he makes because each win brings with it an ever increasing salary structure," disclosed Mr. Rebney. "It's all about letting your fighting do the talking and leaving the politics behind setting up fighting events out of it."
"Fighters are always intrigued by the opportunity to control their own destiny and what our tournament format provides is an opportunity for a fighter to have his own destiny completely in his own hands."
Another exciting aspect for the athletes is being a part of the ESPN brand.
"[Athlete's say] 'wow this is real, this is something of substance, this is the foremost name in the history of sports programming,' which gives us a nice position," affirmed Mr. Rebney. "Now it's up to the fighters to recognize that Bellator knows the fighting sports and is experienced in the promotion, production, and televising of fighting events."
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