Believing in Bellator and Bjorn, reality TV edition

I was wrong about Bellator.

I realize I don’t have to say that. No one asked me if I thought Bellator would survive and thrive. Even though USA TODAY is going for more of a hipster/snarkster audience these days than it was in my full-time decade there, they still would leave headlines like “Another Conversation With Another MMA Promotion Doomed to Fail” to Deadspin.

So I hope I hid my skepticism at the time, when I was thinking, “What? Another MMA promotion? And another boxing guy is running it? Yeah, yeah — I’ll take the call, whatever.”

I’m still not a fan of first-person sports analysis (though I realize two of my recent posts start with confessions of various biases), but I think this is the best way to illustrate the point …

In the two years I spent as USA TODAY’s MMA beat writer, I spoke with all of the promoters with big-time ambitions — Elite XC, Affliction, Strikeforce, WEC, IFL, etc. All of those promotions had decent TV deals at one point, while Bellator was starting out on ESPN Deportes and pushing out highlights on YouTube.

Some promoters believed in MMA. Some believed in their vision of MMA. Hindsight is easy, but only a few promoters grasped the sport and their place within it. Reed Harris and the rest of the WEC crew got it, and they were already comfortably in the Zuffa umbrella. Strikeforce’s Scott Coker got it. And now it’s clear — Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney got it as well.

And still, in today’s Bellator conference call, I had to play skeptic. I’ve just finished a draft of a book on The Ultimate Fighter (and if you’d like to publish it, I’ll put you in touch with my agent), so I’ve been as aware as anyone that TUF isn’t drawing the ratings it once did. Is the reality MMA market played out? And while MMA fans fret that TUF isn’t producing UFC-caliber talent, can Bellator turn up any half-decent fighters?

We won’t know until we see it. But Rebney’s answers showed that he’s not full of the foolhardy bravado that has dragged down other promotions. He’s aware of the challenge, and bringing in Amazing Race producing veteran Bertrand van Munster is a sign of how seriously he’s taking it. They’ll focus on fighters “earlier in that maturation process,” but Rebney wouldn’t rule out the occasional veteran.

Maybe Spike deserves a bit of skepticism here. While Rebney, like Coker before him, isn’t one to poke the UFC bear, Spike still seems to think it’s the network for MMA. Granted, I’m out of the demographic that gets excited about the pro rasslin’ lead-in. In fact, the 10 p.m. Thursday air time for regular Bellator shows will be past my bedtime. (If it’s any consolation, that’s also why I don’t watch much Duke basketball.)

But to put down the first-person perspective for a minute, they don’t have to convince me to stay up late. They need to stand out in a saturated MMA marketplace. And Bellator shows all the signs of being the one group (besides the UFC) that can do it.