Spike TV played a big role in putting mixed martial arts on the map, regularly beaming Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts into homes and giving oxygen to a sport that not long ago was seen as too violent for mainstream. But now that UFC has switched partners -- to Fox and its cable siblings within News Corp.-- Viacom-owned Spike faces a new challenge: maintaining dominance in a mixed-martial-arts market it helped create without the biggest brand in the sport.
Viacom wasted no time laying the groundwork for a repeat act, recently announcing that it went out and purchased an entire competitor league to UFC, Bellator, which is already airing fights on MTV2 and is set to come to the more widely distributed Spike in 2013. Viacom executives hope their controlling stake in Bellator will allow for more integrated cross-platform opportunities for advertisers. At minimum, it will avoid the escalating licensing fees it had to pay to UFC.
"We know what type of exposure is needed, we know what type of marketing is needed, we know what advertisers want," said Jeff Lucas, head of sales for Viacom Media Networks Music and Entertainment Group. "We've already sold through the concept of [mixed martial arts]. ... And viewers have been conditioned to know that Spike is where you find MMA, whether it's UFC or Bellator."
"We're getting more live fights, and we're getting more opportunities for clients to integrate," Spike President Kevin Kay said. "What we learned in the six years we had [UFC] was how to market it, promote it and sell it."
What remains unanswered, and points to a potentially daunting challenge for Spike, is whether there's enough market space for two major products in what remains largely a niche sport -- especially when UFC has a bigger spotlight on Fox's broadcast affiliates, one it basked in during its first-ever broadcast event Nov.12.
"At the end of the day, in order to drive ratings you need to create an interest, a reason for people to watch," said Tag Garson, senior VP-properties and media at Wasserman Media Group and a former ESPN programming executive. "Personalities become important, story lines become important. That's what Spike and Bellator will have to help grow to [increase] the exposure that Bellator has been receiving so far."
"In addition to potential lack of viewer support for two major brands, I'm skeptical that there's enough talent to support two major MMA brands," said a former sports ad-sales executive who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships in the industry. "It seems that it will create confusion and therefore disinterest, which is what ultimately happened to boxing. Two brands enter, one brand leaves."
Viacom executives think fans will take a liking to Bellator's tournament-style play, which differs from UFC's method of matching two fighters against each other behind the scenes. They're preparing a slate of complementary programming, including a reality show and an MMA-focused news-magazine show.
And Spike programmers have already made it clear they're happy to take a piece of Fox's lunch by broadcasting their own UFC reruns whenever Fox or its cable network FX air live fights. When Fox took UFC to broadcast last weekend with a fight between two of its stars, Spike aired a marathon of fights featuring the same stars, and at one point grabbed a decent chunk of 900,000 viewers, helped no doubt in part by Fox's promotion of the fight.
"The audience didn't really know where to go, so they came to us because they think of us first," Mr. Kay said. "It shows we're a platform where people expect to see MMA."
Fox, which is planning four live UFC events next year and several more on its FX and Fuel TV networks, did not immediately comment to Ad Age .
Spike still retains the rights to UFC's library of past fights for another year. Executives had hoped to sell those rights back to UFC, which, under the terms of its contract, would allow Spike to start airing Bellator fights next year instead of 2013. UFC hasn't taken the bait, and executives privately say it's because the league doesn't want to go head-to-head with Bellator on TV before it has to.
"If they want to buy it back, we're open to making it as easy as possible for them," Mr. Kay said.
UFC president Dana White told Ad Age that he's focused on competing with market-leading sports like football and baseball, not Bellator. And he scoffed at Spike complaints that UFC should buy back the library of past fights.
"They made that deal, that 's the deal that they wanted," he said. "If they counter-program me with me, what do I care? And they want me to buy [back the library]? That's a crock."
Despite some behind-the-scenes sniping between Spike and UFC, the partnership clearly helped them both.
"It was a terrific partnership for both brands," Mr. Garson said. "It gave Spike content that the male demographic was looking for, and it gave UFC a platform to reach a wider audience on a regular basis. ... With the relationship with Bellator they're obviously keeping a toe in the water. How that gets developed further remains to be seen. But mixed martial arts is becoming more mainstream every year, and you're seeing it on various outlets, not just on Spike. There is some competition for the content, and it won't necessarily just be Spike that 's looking to have more mixed martial arts."