Two weeks ago, mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion Bellator struck a landmark deal with the BBC which will see the free-to-air broadcaster provide coverage of its events throughout 2021.

David Green, Head of Bellator Europe, spoke to Insider Sport about how the deal with the BBC is a ‘statement of intent’ by the public broadcaster, and discussed the impact the agreement could have on the expansion of both Bellator and the sport of MMA.

IS: MMA is becoming an increasingly popular sport in the UK. Is the recent agreement between Bellator and the BBC a recognition of this growing market?

DG: It’s a massive indicator of where the sport is heading. MMA is a very new sport – it’s only been around this century, unlike many other sports. It’s growing but it’s still a small sport compared to others so for us, it’s always been a question of how can we grow the market? 

That falls on attendance in arenas and awareness but clearly broadcast is a huge part of it. Getting a free-to-air offering and a free-to-air platform is very important to that growth. A platform like the BBC is just massive because it not only comes with that broad bandwidth but also the name of the BBC and what they’re going to do in terms of their other platforms will really help with what we need as well which is more awareness and a bit more exposure across the sport.

IS: How pivotal can it be to the expansion and growth of Bellator and MMA, to have the sport on free-to-air TV in the UK?

DG: It’s huge. It’s a real statement of intent by the BBC. They don’t go into anything idly, they researched us and we’ve been talking for a very long time. They did a test in October when we held the first ever MMA show in France which was fun even though it only had 1000 people. 

They tested it on iPlayer and both from their side and our side, it was a real success. it was nice to see Bellator and MMA being discussed on Newsnight and BBC Breakfast, and of course, the BBC Sport platform where people consume their sports news. That alone brought some new eyeballs to us, and I think it brought some new eyeballs to the BBC so it’s a nice mix.

IS: Bellator has hosted events in the UK before – the last one was in late 2019 and unfortunately the 2020 event had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. As Bellator begins to build its audience in the UK as a result of this deal, are there any plans to expand your UK scheduling and hold more events at British venues?

DG: When I came onboard about two years ago the plan was to build Bellator into Europe, and the UK and Ireland were very much a cornerstone of that. What we did in 2018 and 2019 was to really build the markets, and in Dublin in particular we filled the arena twice a year quite comfortably. 

We’ve done shows in Wembley, two shows in Millan, and we were the first into France. So, had it not been for the thing that we all didn’t see coming last year, I think we would have continued the story and not only reinforced those markets we already visited – like Wembley, Newcastle and Birmingham – but we would have gone on to look into new markets both in the UK and into Europe as well.

As soon as we can put some bums on seats I think we’ll be back in business and looking at new territories and go back to those ones that worked very well for us.

IS: Bellator has recently announced the Light Heavyweight Grand Prix as well as a Featherweight title fight, which will both be in April around the same time the deal with the BBC begins. How big would you say these events are to kickstart Bellator’s presence in British broadcasting?

DG: I think it was a nice bit of timing actually. We moved on to a new channel in the US as well (Showtime), so there was a bit of a nice bit of calendar aligning there, and because of that, we wanted to come up with a pretty strong schedule and that’s going to really play into the BBC as well.

We’re coming out with this Light Heavyweight tournament, and we’ve made some pretty aggressive signings over the last few months. Our Light Heavyweight division is probably second to none in the world, so everybody’s really keen on seeing that fight. It went down very well when we announced it!

And not only is that coming in April, we’ll have our Featherweight Championship coming up on 2 April and then we’ll have four fights in the next two weeks in the Light Heavyweight division. So, it’s great news, with a lot of heat around it all from a fan point of view.

And because of that frequency and that really strong start, I think it’s going to be a nice place to start with the BBC, and three events in a row will at least help the audience to know where to find our events.

IS: Is there going to be any sort of original content or insight? Obviously fan engagement is crucial right now during the pandemic, with people unable to go and watch sport live.

DG: I think that was one of the key reasons why the BBC became quite attracted to us, because not only have they got the broadcast platform, they have also got the website. BBC.com is probably the biggest news site in the world and I think the BBC Sport is just an excellent source of sporting news.

Over the next couple of months, I’m really encouraged by what the BBC are planning. I think they’ll really help to introduce the sport to new people, but also the fans that are already there, I think they’ll give a lot more insight. We’ll see a lot more about fighter profiles and the like across all of their platforms, so I think you’ll see a lot of nice pieces to go alongside the main events that are coming online as well.

IS: You mentioned earlier the successful event you had in Paris, and how refreshing that was to get some people back into stadiums. Alongside the deal with the BBC, how much room for expansion you feel there is across the rest of the European market? Could we possibly see some deals with other European broadcasters?

DG: Absolutely,  we’re doing the same sort of thing in every territory in Europe and beyond  that, we just did a really big deal in Russia, with one of the biggest channels out there which holds the English Premier League rights, so it’s nice to align ourselves with those guys out there and we’ve also got great deals in the Netherlands. 

We’re looking at deals all over Europe and often, they’re about the same sort of philosophy where we’ve got a nice platform to show this. You have someone like Spike in the Netherlands where the commentators and presenters come over to our events, so they’re localising the product as well. When we were in Paris, they brought their team out there and that will grow and help to form new locations for events in arenas across Europe.

IS: What do you think the partnership can bring for the growth of some of Europe’s rising stars in Bellator? In the UK we’ve got Michael ‘Venom’ Page, and James Gallagher from Ireland is building up quite a reputation in the sport. With regards to their branding and their fan base, do you think this deal could further kickstart their careers?

DG: It was very important for me when we were building up the European side of things for it not to feel like a second tier. This is fighting, you put two people in the cage and close the door, and they’ve got to win. There’s no hiding from the sport so not only do they have to be the best they can be to beat the opposition, but in combat sport – such as boxing and MMA – it does rely on characters and characters need a platform. 

Something like this deal and the other deals we’re going to do, and also aligning with some real genuine talent will help these guys to fight in the US, and you have people like James and MVP who do really well with a US audience. They’re doing very well over there, never mind over here.

When they’re fighting, they’re exciting, and they’re interesting to listen to outside of the cage, as well as in it. This will only help to get them into the bigger fights in the US and there’s a really clear pipeline for our talent now from Europe

We’ve been very aggressive signing talent from Europe which is very important to us as a brand, but it’s not just about signing them in Europe, they have to come over and compete at the highest level and earn their spot. Many of them are doing it and doing it with a degree of style.

IS: Finally, we talked earlier about the impact of COVID-19 and unfortunately, there are a lot of events that had to be cancelled. Now that Bellator events are back on, could you take us through the protocols and safeguarding measures that you have in place with regards to testing and quarantining?

DG: Like every sport, we’ve had to learn a whole new way of operating that we never thought we’d have to think about before. Because we’ve got the added complication of being owned by CBS Viacom, we have to adhere to very strict COVID-19 protocols and rightly so. 

Safety is paramount for us and it always has been. Once we got going last year, I think we did a fantastic job of getting the events on and getting them on safely, and we’ll continue that this year. 

Essentially it’s about maintaining a sort of an airtight bubble around the events and and that’s everything from taking over hotels to make sure we have quarantine the minute you get there, testing on arrival, quarantining in your room until your clear, testing regularly every day or other day, and keeping everybody away from the outside once they’re in the bubble and and just really being strict.

We have QR code entries into every area and we have everything cleaned down. It’s just very thorough, and it has to be for the safety of all of our athletes and staff and also in order to make these events run smoothly.