Exclusive interview with Bellator CEO, Bjorn Rebney

It’s hard not to look at Bjorn Rebney’s first name and immediately associate him with strange Icelandic music. That’s Bjork, and she’s probably strumming some whale bone harp right now. Chances are, you’ve never encountered anyone named Bjorn and an even smaller chance you’ve encountered someone named Bjorn who’s a fight promoter. If, by some nominal chance, you’ve encountered someone named ‘Bjorn’ who is a strong MMA advocate, then you’ve already met Bjorn Rebney, the CEO of Bellator Fighting Championships, and you didn’t even know. This week, Jay managed to catch up with the guy that’s responsible for making Bellator your favorite new MMA organization and you should do yourself a favor by reading the interview.


How did you get into the fight business? I was working as an agent representing athletes, working for a guy named Lee Steinburgh, [the guy the movie Jerry Maguire is based on] in Newport Beach, California. My uncle and grandfather had been in the fight business for many, many years. I was an attorney and an agent working with guys like Steve Young and a lot of other athletes in football, baseball and basketball. So Oscar de la Hoya was looking for representation coming out of the Olympic games just after winning his gold medal and because my family was in the boxing business, I had the background and I was the guy who started representing Oscar. I had him for a number of years then Sugar Ray Leonard who I formed a partnership with when I left Steinburgh. Ray and I had a boxing promotion for a number of years, but I was a hardcore MMA fan because it’s what I used to view for fun, for relaxation. I would sit down and watch the old UFC and watch Royce Gracie fight in a gi…so when I finally got the opportunity to build up my own MMA organization, I was able to take into account all of the expertise I gathered over many, many years working in the fight business promoting and producing and putting on events on a national television platform and I finally got this shot.


We really enjoy Bellator around here, what do you credit Bellator’s success to? That’s very cool to hear. I think one of the mistakes made by a lot of the other organizations like IFL or Affliction is that they tried to establish points of difference that were really seminal, they weren’t what many hardcore MMA fans wanted to see. You look at the IFL and they had the team concept with uniforms and that kind of stuff, then you look at EliteXC, they focused their energy on characters instead of focusing on the greatest fighters in the world. So I think one of the things that has resonated with Bellator fans as far as ratings and attendance and market support are that…I’m an MMA fan…I didn’t go from being a boxing promoter to MMA because I saw the numbers UFC was generating. I was a fan of the game early, I was a fan of the game before anyone knew what it was and I saw something in it that I thought I could change and give fans an option, an alternative structure, that was objectivity, that was a place where fighters could control their own destiny, a place where our sport would be analogous to what we see in baseball or football or soccer, golf, tennis. I think that concept, when you take into account some great fights and really good feature pieces and a very high level of attention to detail in terms of production, I think has translated well with consumers. When I go to the dentist, I think what the dentist does looks remarkably simple. I’m never going to go home and do it myself because I’m not a dentist. So the difference with Bellator is; I understood the fight business, I understood marketing fighters, finding fighters, promoting fighters, cutting television deals, producing live fight events, marketing and selling those events to sponsors, securing international licensing deals etc and I was a huge fan of MMA, so I think part of the success is just due to the fact that the modeling is right. It’s applicable to our game, its not offensive to people like you and I who have been watching it and tracking it for years. It makes sense and my hope is that fans continue to respond to that.


At the end of season one, our site’s founder said that Bellator was the best kept secret in MMA. How do you feel about that statement? Do you think you are still a diamond in the rough or is Bellator’s time to shine right now? The diamond in the rough analogy is a very cool one because the diamond in the rough analogy means that it’s good now, but it’s not as good as it can be. Ultimately, I think that is where we are. We are good now, I’m happy with some of the things we are doing. I’m extremely pleased with the level of the competitive fights we are putting on, extremely pleased with the Georgi Karakhanyan’s knees and Curran’s amazing knockout and Hector Lombard’s 5.8 second KO against Jay Silva, there are some great moments like the Georgi Karakhanyan fight that took place last week was a spectacular fight that I was just eating up cageside watching. I’m very happy with that, but there are still elements of the production, there are still elements of the feature pieces and storytelling, there are still a lot of things we need to improve and get better at so that’s going to come with time. We just need to focus and spend more time with the product to continue to refine it. Right now, I think we are good enough to be in front of that huge large scale audience we are in front of each week on Fox Sports Net, NBC and Telemundo but there is still a lot of work to do. No one has seen the best of Bellator, that I can guarantee.


How hard are you going after the co-promotion with Strikeforce? Is there any other match-ups you want to make besides Gilbert Melendez vs Eddie Alvarez?I’m really comfortable where we are, I like the tournament and where its going, the qualitative level of the show and where it’s going; this is one of those opportunities as a fan that as soon as I saw Gilbert on Inside MMA and Gilbert called out Eddie, you know Gilbert has the heart of a warrior and he just wants to fight the best of the best he doesn’t care what banner they are under or what show they are on. Eddie called me literally 5 minutes after the show and said “Dude, I would do anything for that fight I would love that fight it would be awesome”. We are talking about 2 of the top 5 lightweights today and I said absolutely. I would love to make that fight, let’s do it. In reality, it really shouldn’t be a fight that is that difficult to make. It’s not one of those situations where you’ve got one fighter who is a major superstar and one is a phenom but an unknown from Brazil. You have 2 fighters who are pretty equivalent in terms of name recognition and pretty equivalent in terms of drawing power and they are closely matched in the world rankings. It’s a great fight. It’s the kind of fight where a guy like me and a guy like Scott Coker can sit down have lunch, have a couple burgers and some diet cokes [diet cokes?!] and figure out how to make it work in relatively short order. A promoter or television network should not get in the way of that fight getting made. I’m hopeful that Scott and I can get together in very short order and figure out how to make it. As a fan I would love to see that fight.


What do you think of Dream using the white cage? Should MMA have a consistent setting or is there still a place for the ring? This is truly personal and not speaking as the Bellator CEO, when I’m watching MMA, and maybe this is because I am a US based fan and I grew up watching the UFC, but I think it should be in the cage. I think dynamically from the sport’s perspective, both aesthetically and in a sports sense it should be in the cage. When I watch it, I feel like that’s where our sport is. I think that for whatever reason when I see MMA in a ring it’s either a lesser event or its a boxing event gone terribly wrong. That’s just how I perceive it. What Dream just did, I don’t know if it was a publicity stunt or what, but we all grew up watching UFC and that look for our sport is very specific and that’s how I fell in love with it. So when we created our cage we made a huge circle for great sight lines and that’s our game. Bellator will always be in a large circular cage, that’s how we do it.


Any chance of releasing a DVD of Bellator highlights? As much as we appreciate you putting the fights online we want to watch them on TV.I’m happy you asked that and thanks for saying it. I hear ya’ and you aren’t the first person to say that. A lot of people have asked us about the potential of a DVD set and we are working with two different groups on that front and my hope is we can figure out in those few weeks between the end of season 2 before we go charging into season 3 that we can get a deal done with one of them and put out a compilation set. It’s something we’ve given a lot of thought to and we have talked to a lot of people about it. We just have to put away the spare number of days necessary to get it done. It is something you will see.


Now that Kimbo is cut from the UFC have you thought about signing him to the heavyweight tournament next season? I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for anyone that has the courage to get inside that cage and want to fight. I played football in college and that was a very high impact sport but it pales in comparison to what even the smallest guy on the smallest card at the smallest show puts him or herself through, so I respect anyone who does it. I don’t know if a Kimbo Slice or a James Toney or those kind of people fit into Bellator. I don’t think they are what we are about. Bellator is about the objectivity and the best fighting the best for the championship. We are unconcerned with the back story or where you may or may not have been on Youtube in terms of being a street fighter or a internet phenomenon. I think what really matters is who is the best and who is going to beat the best. So I don’t know if the personality driven characters are necessarily a great fit for what we are about.


A lot of the fans were disappointed when Bellator chose not to include Masakazu Imanari in your bantamweight tournament. What was the reasoning behind that?The reality of the bantamweight tournament is that we are not full, we still have two spots open and we are doing a wide search in terms of who we are looking at and who we are finalizing that with has yet to be determined.


Can you confirm the Women’s tournament in season three?I don’t know if we’ve publicly announced it yet, but we have talked about it so much that I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the sun is going to rise tomorrow and we are gonna have a women’s tournament in season three. We haven’t made an official announcement yet, but we have been aggressively signing spectacularly talented women at 115 pounds and we have a collection of the best women in the world and we are looking to fill just a couple more spots. It’s a really, really safe bet that you will see the best women’s tournament in the history of MMA beginning August 12th the beginning of season three of Bellator.


So can we just call that an official announcement?As close to an official announcement as we have made! I think our publicist and PR people would have my head if I made an official announcement but it’s a very, very safe bet.


We all remember last season in Bellator when every fight would immediately be placed on Youtube the next day, this season seems to be different. Is there something in the Fox Sports Net contract that prevents this from happening?No, what it really has come down to is last season, we had a much greater amount of time to orchestrate that because we were shooting the shows on Friday and we were editing them and we only had one show to do. Now we are producing the show live on Thursday nights plus we are cutting three shows between Fox, NBC and Telemundo so it’s a timing issue. We got the 6 second KO of Jay Silva up in an hour and ten minutes, it’s tough because we have to put in the effort to get through those three highlight shows. It’s not a change in philosophy, it’s just a manpower issue where we get the best of the best up but we aren’t getting everything up as quickly as last year. We are focusing on the real high watermarks, the things that are indicative of a hardcore Bellator moment.


This is coming straight from Zeus because he is in California and I love hanging it over his head that he is on tape delay: Are you aware that cable subscribers on the West Coast are on a six-hour time delay for each Bellator event?Great point and great question. One of the things about being on the Fox Sports Network is they have the hardcore programming especially for local teams and events. The fans you are getting are hardcore and they love their game. So one of the downsides is the Fox Sports Net schedule is one that caters to the local sports. On the West Coast, whether Dodgers or the Clippers or whatever they need those delays. There is a pro and a con to the alliance and it’s one we are dealing with and working with them and trying to work through it to get clearances closer to what our live event time is.


Any plans bringing Bellator back to California? I would love to come back to California man. I was born and raised there, my whole family is there. The problem with California is that we have an 8pm EST live start time, so the furthest west we can get is the central time slot. If we were any further west, you got your first nationally televised bout going down at six o’clock. So anything past Kansas city or Dallas or those markets make it virtually impossible because if you’re trying to do a show and sell tickets and you have a start time of six o’clock on a Thursday, you will have no one in the seats. Even a seven o’clock start is difficult in terms of a national television broadcast because in terms of crowds, they get there at 7 they watch an undercard fight they eventually all arrive for the nationally televised portion, to do that on the west coast in a big market…it’s tough. We are battling through that, the ratings have been spectacular. Fox Sports Network ratings have been great, the NBC ratings have been winning the time slot, we are doing very well and I love our position on Thursday nights. It does present an issue though, getting west of a central time zone and getting people in the seats.


So a huge jump in the ratings between season one and season two?Oh, dramatic. Dramatic. We’ve been winning the time slots from a national perspective. We are the highest rated show nationally on FSN on Thursday nights, our replays on Sunday nights are winning nationally. We have the key demographic of 18-34. Our Saturday nights on NBC are getting six, seven, sometimes eight hundred thousand viewers. Our late night NBC show is beating all of the networks in applicable time zones. So it’s a dramatic difference. I mean we were a brand new promotion last year and our audience is not going away. Now we have a much larger audience and they keep responding to the product.


Any plans for Bellator to put on a PPV?I think one of my strengths as a CEO is that I am a fan of the sport. As a fan of the sport, you and I know when UFC puts on a show, you look at it I look at it and within a few seconds we know if we want to buy that PPV. Shogun vs Machida, I wanted to see that. The analysis only works when it’s simple. If a consumer has to make that conscious decision to buy or not buy a PPV, you’re going to lose 99% of them. It’s an emotional reaction where you go BOOM I gotta see that, like UFC 100, I had to see that. So when the timing is right and we are at that point and the right fighters are there and the right match-ups can be made absolutely. We are just waiting for the right time.


Any chance we will see Paulo Fihlo fight for Bellator?That’s a great question, that’s a great question….I don’t know the answer to that question. I think he is a tremendously talented fighter when he is on and focused. I wish I could have seen him vs Hector Lombard because I think that would have been a great fight for Hector. I would still like to see him fight Hector but as a human being, my hope is that he can overcome some issues and put himself in a position to rock and roll and be the Paulo Fihlo we all watched a few years ago. From a human perspective, he does that and then from a fight promoter’s perspective I would love him to come fight for our company.
Published on May 21, 2010 at 10:01 am
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