Q & A with Bellator Boss Bjorn Rebney

A few weeks ago I was standing around the figurative office water cooler with other industry types, and the discussion turned to Bellator – which, at the time, was made the de facto number two MMA promotion out there thanks to Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce.  Like clucking hens we traded gossip, facts and opinion.  Then someone posed the question of who was the better promoter: Scott Coker or Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney?  “Bjorn,” someone with a wealth of Bellator dealings said unequivocally.  “No matter what, Bjorn always finds a way for Bellator to survive.”  And so was planted the seed that eventually grew into this interview, which was conducted tonight. 

What’s Rebney’s favorite flavor of ice cream and how many times has he seen Star Wars?  If that kind of info is what you’re after, then this isn’t the interview you’re looking for.  Move along.  Move along.  However, if you want insight into how Rebney made his promotion work, how he sees his “baby” and what the future holds, well, sit back and relax.  MMAConvert has got you covered.

Like quite a few promoters before you, you’ve built a brand.  But unlike those promoters, you’ve managed to sustain and grow it.  What’s your secret?  How have you found success where others have failed? 

The secret is no secret.  The secret is there is no “special sauce”, there’s no unique or previously unused formula.  The secret was very exhaustive, hardcore business analysis, exhaustive due diligence coupled with an understanding of the fighting sport space as related to national television distribution.  It was understanding very, very clearly what the one group that has done it unbelievably right for the last number of years had done right.  Also, clearly understanding what many, many groups had done wrong, and applying a bit of my unique twist to it in creating a business model that worked. 

The sustainability of this brand and the growth of this brand has been planned.  It was orchestrated, it was planned, it was projected.  I can go back and point to projections I had made two or three years ago and they ended up coming true in terms of economic projections, brand growth projections and movement projections.  I spent a lot of years in this space and I understood it.  I did an amazing amount of due diligence and an amazing amount of study on the IFL failure, on the EliteXC failure, on the Bodog failure, on the Affliction failure – the list goes on and on.  I was just acutely aware of what they were doing incorrectly.  And I looked at what the UFC had done correctly, and then looked at what other major sports organizations were doing correctly, and I tried to apply it to our sport.

There really was no secret sauce, there really was no secret to it.  It was just a well-researched, well-thought out business model that fortunately ended up working.

It’s announced that Zuffa has bought Strikeforce, which makes Bellator the biggest, most prominent US promotion not controlled by Dana White.  What were your thoughts when you heard the news?

I had two thoughts simultaneously.  One of them was selfish and one of them was altruistic.  The selfish thought was that it was good for the Bellator brand because it turns us into the number two promotion behind the UFC.  The altruistic one was, as a fan of mixed martial arts, the acquisition had eliminated another player in the space, had eliminated another player’s position in the space.  Therefore, a certain number of fighters, by pure numerical analysis, a certain number of aspiring fighters were not going to have an opportunity to perform on national television.  They weren’t going to have an opportunity to perform or grow underneath another large, prolific banner. 

In terms of the growth of the game, in terms of the progression and expansion of mixed martial arts, I looked at it and thought, “Wow, that may be a negative.”  In terms of the specific impact on Bellator, I looked at it and thought, “Wow, that’s positive.”  Strikeforce, which a lot of people would go back and forth and say was the big competitor to Bellator, was now out of business.  Selfishly it was perceived as a good thing and altruistically it was perceived as potentially not a good thing.

How do you determine your markets for live shows?

At this point, given the magnitude and the number of shows we’re doing, it’s really based on forming alliances with casino partners who have a proven track record of promoting and marketing events in the space, and a real proactive take on reaching out into the market to put butts in seats for a large event.  Some of it boils down to the economic realities of where the best deal structure is for Bellator in terms of site fees coupled with support from the casino partner.  It’s a combination of things. 

We’ve found ourselves now in a really cool push where we’re doing multiple events with Mohegan Sun – which is a spectacular, gorgeous venue an hour and a half out of New York.  We’re doing I think four events this year with the Hard Rock down in Hollywood, Florida.  We’re doing three events this year with Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City, who were spectacular partners with us for an event last year, and the event was a success for us and a great success for them, so we’re going back there three times.  We’re going back to L’Auberge du Lac [Resort] in Louisiana.  We’re starting to establish what you want to establish as a promotional company, which is mutual success.  The casino has great success – they enjoy it, they put the right players in seats and they sell a lot of tickets and generate a lot of positive exposure for the casino.  And you as a promoter hit the numbers you need to hit, make the money you need to make, have a nice, packed house with excited, energetic fans, and have a good, fluid, comfortable experience working with the casino.  And then you’ve got that confident win-win relationship where they want you back and you want to go back.

When it comes to decision-making – like production or signing talent or what-have-you – are you the monarch of Bellator Land or are there others in on the decision-making process?

This is going to sound counter-intuitive coming out of my mouth, but I have always hoped to put myself in a position where I was not the smartest guy in the room.  Fortunately, I’ve done that.  I’ve read a lot of books about business, I’ve listened to a lot of really smart people talk, I’ve been fortunate and blessed that I went to a good graduate school and a really good law school, and had a chance to meet a lot of good people over the last 25 years in this business.  I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from really smart folks – whether it be heads of industry or whether it be men or women heading up major sports organizations or big agents or television executives – is to surround yourself with super-smart folks you can rely on.  Don’t put yourself in a position where you always have to hyper-micromanage.  Try to ensure you’re never the smartest guy in the room in all areas.  And I’m really, really fortunate that I’m doing that now.  I’m able to rely on a lot of smart people in terms of their thoughts on different issues. 

We have operational managers on the lower tier of our corporate structure who I listen to, who I drag into my office and I go, “Tell me what you think about whatever.  Give me your thoughts.”  And I’ve got super-smart people that I work with on a day-to-day basis and I’m always picking their brain and going, “What do you think?  Does this make sense?  What do you think about that?”  Ultimately, as CEO and chairman, I’m the one in charge of making the decision.  I’ve got to be the one who says we’re going left or we’re going right, we’re signing this guy or we’re not signing this guy, we’re signing this deal or we’re not signing this deal.  But I listen to a lot of smart people to try to give myself as broad an understanding of what’s going on as possible before I make those decisions.

You have fighter tryouts, you have UFC veterans knocking on your door, you have Bellator tournament veterans interested in another go around.  That’s a lot of fighters.  Describe the ideal Bellator fighter candidate?

The ideal Bellator fighter candidate is a world-class fighter – world-class talent – who just may not yet have been given the opportunity to develop and expose those talents on a world-wide stage.  The ideal, ideal Bellator fighter candidates are guys like Patricio and Patricky Pitbull, guys like Mike Chandler, guys like Joe Warren, guys like Eddie Alvarez, who may have been just on the periphery – there may have been some fanatical MMA fans who were aware of them, but they really hadn’t kind of jettisoned onto the consciousness of mixed martial arts fans and sports fans until they got here.  They were a work in progress but they were awfully close to being ready to leap to that next level, and just needed the right platform and the right dynamic to make it happen.

I think we’ve been pretty transparent about the fact that we’re not in the business – as the Strikeforces and the EliteXCs and the IFLs and lots of promotions around the world were – of trying to just sign big names.  With our model, the ideal fighter that comes to us is someone who has an unbelievable amount of skill, an unbelievable amount of drive.  It doesn’t matter what language they speak or where they come from.  If they have world-class talents that are on the cusp of generating a lot of fan interest and consumer excitement, those are the guys that we’re really looking for. 

I’ve got an amazing team.  I mean, the kind of signings we’ve had with the Limas and the Sandros and the Hawns – the list goes on and on of all these guys we’ve developed who were out-of-nowhere, just on the cusp of jumping over into being really recognizable.  And we’ve got them.

Ninety days, three fights on national television in 80 million homes – it gives you an incredible platform to develop a star-caliber fighter in super-short order.  If you’re a fighter who’s motivated in terms of stepping into that cage and engaging in hand-to-hand, this is a great format.  

You’re on MTV2 and you’ve stated your contract runs until 2013.  What then?  What’s the ultimate prize for Bjorn Rebney and his Bellator brand? 

The progression and maturation of our MTV2 deal has been great.  I’m very excited about what we’re doing with MTV2 and I’m very excited about the people we’re working with.  I think that the goal is to try to maximize this deal and see where this deal goes from there, to see what we’re able to do with MTV2.  It’s got the highest concentration of young male viewers in cable television, and those young male viewers are going to grow with Bellator over the next couple of years.  That’s a great, great strategic home for a brand that’s the second-biggest mover in the mixed martial arts space.  It’s a great place for us to be.  And I would hope that we would continue to build off that, continue to get the great kind of cross-platform support we get from MTV Networks, and see our ads and our promos across a variety of different channels that are owned by Viacom. 

Which Bellator event are you most proud of?

To answer that question I kind of revert back to being a fan.  I like events where there’s a bunch of great fights, where they move really fast, where the sequencing between fights is happening in short order, where the feature pieces look great, where there’s a lot of butts in seats.  There’s pieces of events that jump out at me. 

I’m a perfectionist when it comes to the production of our shows and the promotion and orchestration, so no single event jumps out where I go, “Wow, that’s everything I want Bellator to be!”  I like the feature pieces in our last show, I liked the stories behind our fighters at the last show we did at the Hard Rock recently.  I thought those looked much tighter than anything we’d done before.  I liked the super-boisterous, crazed crowd we had the last Mohegan Sun show that we did.  I liked the fights and the competitive nature of… I pick pieces from different shows. There’s not one where I go, “Look, that exemplifies everything that we’re about!”  I pick spots from different shows, and just hope that one day those pieces come together in great synchronicity and I can go, “Look, it all worked!”  But that hasn’t happened yet.

What the toughest part of your job?

A lot of people are kind of hard-wired where they can look at things and they’re willing to and they desire to say, “Oh, that’s awesome.  That’s perfect.”  I’m not wired that way.  Even when things are really good, I look at them as kind of “half full” and think about all the things we can do to make them better.  I think that’s the hardest part of my job.  My hardwiring requires me to keep looking and changing and altering and editing and fixing and recreating stuff…  That’s probably the toughest part of my job.

I used to run 10Ks, and I’d get done with a 10K and – though I’m not much of a runner – I would go, “Whoa, how cool is that?  I finished!”  But I never get that feeling in what I do here.  I never get the feeling of “Whoa, magic!”  The show ends and I go back to the truck and start to analyze a thousand different things I thought we didn’t do well.  Everything from a walkout to a feature piece to a bump to whatever it is that just wasn’t orchestrated the best way, that’s probably the toughest thing.  And when you combine that with the fact that we’re not like the National Football League, and we don’t have a season – it never stops and keeps going and going forever – when you combine that constant pursuit of making it better with the fact that there’s no end to it, that’s probably the most difficult thing.

The bottom line is, I’ve had a lot of jobs and this is the coolest one I’ve ever had, so even though there’s difficult parts to it, I don’t have much to complain about.

I’m going to throw out some names.  Tell me your thoughts on them.  The first one is Lyman Good.

Strength.  He’s super strong.  If he can just put his injuries behind him, I think he could be one of the best welterweights in the world.

Eddie Alvarez.

The best.  The finest lightweight in mixed martial arts, bar none.

Cole Konrad.

Surprisingly good.  I think people look at Cole Konrad and they don’t realize what a dominant heavyweight he is.  I honestly believe that there are probably only three or four heavyweights in the world today who could on a consistent basis compete with Cole Konrad.  He has that “Ben Askren” stigma to him because he does not have a particularly well-rounded mixed martial arts game.  But that which he does he does better than anyone in the heavyweight division.  And that’s a pretty dominant weapon to have.

Toby Imada.

A guy who was seminal to the growth of the Bellator brand.  The guy who recruited Toby Imada and desperately kept calling me and telling me to sign him characterized Toby Imada by saying, “He is the best fighter with the worst record in mixed martial arts.”  I was like, “Well, that’s kind of a glass half-full/glass half-empty way to describe someone.”  But Toby Imada was seminal to this brand’s development and jump-off point.  We were doing a show on ESPN Deportes, we had a four million-home universe, it was Spanish language, we had no English language distribution, and out of nowhere Toby Imada pulled off the single greatest submission I’ve ever seen in a televised mixed martial arts event.  My marketing and public relations team at Alpytac begged, pleaded and demanded that we put it up on YouTube and don’t try to sequester it and show it only on Bellator, and it became a viral sensation.  Suddenly, fifty times as many people were watching Toby Imada get an inverted triangle and submit Jorge Masvidal than had ever watched a Bellator show on ESPN Deportes.  I would go places and say, “Yeah, I’m the CEO of Bellator,” and they’d go, “Oh my god, I saw that submission where that guy was hanging upside down!  That was crazy!”  So every time I think of Toby Imada I think of an enormously positive, enormously free and incredibly powerful marketing push that he single-handedly was able to generate for this brand.

Nate Marquardt.

Top-seven ranked middleweight who can fight.

I think I read somewhere that you’re definitely interested in him.

It’s funny, but often times I hear promoters say, “Oh, I’ve never seen him fight,” or “He’s not that good.”  And that always strikes me as so odd, because we all live in this space.  Wherever you are, in terms of whether you’re an IFL or EliteXC, you would’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in mixed martial arts.  So when people say to me, “What do you think of Nate?  Are you interested?”  Well, let’s see.  He’s one of the top-seven ranked middleweights in the world, he’s coming off a big win in the UFC, he’s consistently been a top-ten ranked middleweight for the last four or five years… Yeah, of course we’d be interested.  I don’t know if the right deal can be structured with him, I don’t know if the deal would happen.  But to pretend to people when they ask you those questions that you’re not interested in the potential of a guy like that joining your organization – that just rings false on so many levels.

Dana White.

When I think of Dana I think of someone who is hugely driven.  I don’t know Dana personally.  Obviously, just like all of us, I’ve seen his public persona.  The thing I get when I hear Dana speak is that there seems to be an amazing amount of drive and focus.  I have a lot of respect for drive and focus.  Those are the two things I typically think of when I think of Dana White.  I also think he’s probably working as hard, if not harder, than I work – and I know I work extremely hard.

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