Written by: Remi Se
By the time Rampage showed up to a press conference out of shape and laughing at the thought of attempting a 5 round fight; fans were already questioning the last over the hill match-up they had see. Chael Sonnen had put forth such a lackluster effort in losing to Tito Ortiz that a contingent of fans were claiming the fight was a set up. Sonnen hadn’t thrown the fight, he was just well past his prime and rusty from years of retirement. With hype building around Fedor’s match against Matt Mitrione and Rampage’s rematch with King Mo, the obvious strategy of riding would be retirees to ratings seems like a model that Coker is not going to let go of. The fans have tuned in for Ken Shamrock looking horrendous against the late Kimbo Slice and losing almost instantly to a low blow from Royce Gracie (the ref missed it). They sat through Rampage vs Ishii, a snooze fest that was somehow more entertaining than any of the fights previously mentioned in this paragraph. So how could anyone expect Coker to move away from the “Expendables” model of entertainment? Gathering older fighters who are years past their peaks to put on subpar shows has become a staple of Bellator; but it seems like a strategy that is doomed to fail sooner than later.
First, the painful truth must be acknowledged. For as awful as that Sonnen vs Ortiz match-up wound up being; the fight garnered 1.8 million views. The only recent events to do bigger numbers were Shamrock versus Gracie (co-main evented by Kimbo Slice against Dada 5000) and Shamrock versus Slice. After a year where Bellator’s ratings slipped, it would be insane to expect him to go away from cards that have actually been working. For comparison, Bellator 165 which featured a classic in Benson Henderson vs Michael Chandler along with Michael “Venom” Page on the card garnered 598 thousand viewers, about a third of the attention. Coker is struggling to manufacture stars and riding the fighters of another era appears to be his only reliable vehicle to viewers. Coker needs the last generation’s stars, even if the fights have been abysmal.
There are two problems creeping up on Coker though. First is retirement, Ortiz is one of the few fighters that Coker has gotten truly big numbers out of but his victory over Sonnen was his curtain call. These fighters are either coming out of retirement or should have been retired in most cases and that means that they have a short shelf life. The second problem is that fans are starting to catch on to the poor product. Sonnen barely contested the choke that Ortiz applied to finish the fight and the fans recognized it. The complaints about the fight being fixed were an attempt to rationalize such a poor showing, but the realization is bound to hit that Sonnen was just that bad. That seems like a guaranteed way to lose interest in his next fight. Benson Henderson drew his lowest views as a Bellator fighter after a single loss and one lackluster win; the fans are not patient with fighters who underperform. Coker needs to manufacture stars with longevity and a product that the viewers want to watch; maybe the Expendables can help after all.
The legends match-ups need to be billed as secondary main events instead of the headline fights. When Coker has an aged veteran that can draw a crowd, he needs to make sure that a title fight is on the same card as a co-main event at the top of the card. He can still ride the old names, but giving top billing to Michael Chandler, Douglas Lima or Rafael Carvalho would give fans a reason to stick around and watch the best that Bellator has to offer. By pairing the title fight storylines with the Expendables drawing power, Coker could provide the show that viewers are looking for and hopefully draw new eyes to the cream of the crop. That would mean that when the legends hang up their gloves once and for all, the fans will have been exposed to the next generation of home grown Bellator fighters. Instead of filling out these legend cards with former UFC collectives (take a look at the Fedor card), Coker needs to use those cards to establish the home grown talent of Bellator.
The execution of this idea would come down to coupling the title fight with the legends fight as both being historic. For example, Coker could sell a grudge match that took years to come to fruition in Wanderlei Silva vs Chael Sonnen as a fight the final chapter of a heated rivalry. Instead of cutting the promotion off there however; they would follow with a “history in the making” sort of build up for a championship fight (Michael Chandler vs Josh Thomson is an idea). By pairing imagery of a younger Sonnen slamming opponents with Chandler slamming Benson Henderson; the advertisement could establish a connection even if the two fighters are not all that similar stylistically. Suggest to the fans that Chandler is a new generation star by pairing him with a former legend. Bellator was able to promote a double main event to huge numbers when they advertised both Kimbo vs Dada and Shamrock vs Gracie in their build-up to Bellator 149.
The suggestion is simplistic and obviously not world changing, but if it was then it would stop being realistic. The formula for these highly viewed cards is not going to go through major shifts that the brass feel would be risky. So making a subtle shift that suggests to viewers that the most important fights are not coming from the fading but the rising stars is a strategy that could pay much bigger dividends long term; but it is also a plan that Coker has no reason to view as too risky. Chandler vs Henderson deserved to be seen by more viewers and Carvalho vs Manhoef should have done better than average. Those two fights also set up compelling rematch scenarios in the near future and if Coker wants to ensure the fans tune in; he should use the Expendables.