Updated: November 11, 2011 12:32AM
LOS ANGELES — While the UFC makes its network television debut on Fox this week, a smaller mixed martial arts promotion is also getting millions of new viewers.
Bellator Fighting Championships has agreed to a five-year deal with FremantleMedia Enterprises to sell its MMA programming around the world, adding a global reach to its domestic niche on networks owned by Viacom, which also owns a majority stake in the promotion.
Bellator has been in business for less than three years, but its rapid growth underlines MMA’s burgeoning worldwide popularity. The Chicago-based promotion airs its weekly fight cards on MTV2, and it will replace the UFC on Spike TV in 2013.
The UFC agreed this summer to a comprehensive seven-year deal with Fox Sports, including four annual prime-time network shows beginning Saturday night when Cain Velasquez defends his heavyweight title against Junior Dos Santos at Anaheim’s Honda Center.
UFC President Dana White has famously declared MMA will someday become the world’s most popular sport, and his dominant promotion has filled arenas from Abu Dhabi to Rio de Janeiro to Sydney. Its North American pay-per-view events also air around the world.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney shares White’s belief in MMA’s inevitable worldwide popularity, and he has exhaustively recruited fighters from lesser-known camps on several continents. Fighters from France and Cuba currently hold two of Bellator’s eight title belts, while competitors from South Africa, Russia and Brazil have done well.
Bellator’s international flair and tournament-style structure should sell well anywhere, he figures. The promotion currently produces two 12-week seasons per year.
“We focused very heavily on domestic distribution over the last three years, building our format,” Rebney said. “But now’s the time we felt to expand the breadth and depth of what we’re doing. We have fighters from around the world, so we’re hoping to take it around the world.”
Bellator’s fight cards, largely contested in U.S. casinos, have aired on several MMA-hungry networks during the promotion’s brief existence, including late-night NBC, Fox Sports Net, Telemundo and ESPN Deportes. Rebney said the promotion already has a broadcast foothold in countries including India and Azerbaijan, but the new international distribution deal with Fremantle — the company behind “American Idol,” “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” — will only lengthen its reach.
With its circular cage and eight-man tournament competition in what Rebney calls “a real-sport format” to earn a title shot, Bellator hopes to offer a distinct alternative to the UFC’s more traditional matchmaking structure, even if it has only a fraction of the UFC’s talent roster, revenue and history.
Bellator — Latin for “warrior” — effectively inherited the mantle as the top North American alternative after the UFC purchased Strikeforce, its closest competitor, last March.
“I’m a UFC fan, but there’s that subjectivity that exists in matchmaking, when a guy behind a desk decides who fights when,” Rebney said. “I believe that’s completely counterintuitive to sports and competition.”