A pair of ground-breaking television partnerships announced 48 hours apart involving Sky Sports, Channel 5 and the Viacom-owned Bellator mixed martial arts fight league created a pioneering moment for the sport’s fighters, aficionados and promoters in the UK this week.
It signifies an arrival in the major league; an exposure long craved. The announcement today that Sky Sports will air – live, mostly late night – twenty Bellator MMA events a year from North American locations, coupled with the news this week that Channel 5 will televise a six-event European fight series this year in prime time, is unquestionably the greatest single shift ever seen for the sport on these shores.
It will create a shop window to transform and shift the perception of a sport which has been, at times, eyed in some quarters as the bastard child of the mainstream sports landscape. Not so in America. And not for some time.
But this is certainly a moment the mixed martial arts industry in the UK has long-awaited. Moreover, it largely puts MMA into the same firmament as boxing, readily accepted as a regular sporting fare.
Coverage will start on Sky Sports in eight days time (Feb 17, 3am UK) when Britons Paul Daley and Michael ‘Venom’ Page clash in one of the most anticipated all-British MMA fights of all time, in Connecticut, a quarter final in Bellator’s welterweight grand prix tournament. The bad blood between them gives it extra vim.
Channel 5, meanwhile, airs a live event from Newcastle tomorrow night (February 9, 10pm-12), featuring rising British prospects a couple of handpicked fighters from the elite camps of the USA.
On February 23, Sky Sports will show Bellator 217, from Dublin, with popular Irishman James Gallagher headlining.
The deal with Channel 5 was presented Wednesday this week by head of the Viacom UK office James Currell, and perhaps a more logical coupling, given that Bellator, bought outright three years ago by Viacom, also owns Channel 5.
But the most significant position of the European series on terrestrial television, is that it is has been shoehorned into Saturday night prime time slots, where Channel 5 has had success with boxing involving heavyweights Tyson Fury and his cousin Hughie Fury, generating respective chart-topping numbers at its peak of respectively 3 million and one million viewers.
Fight sports are not for everyone, of course, but to have mainstream exposure has always been the goal of this hybrid of martial arts, still only three decades old.
Fortuitously, live fight nights are now vogue with broadcasters, Bellator having also, under its CEO Scott Coker, having signed a US$140 million three-year deal with streaming service DAZN in the USA for seven exclusive events a year.
Today’s announcement – the addition of Sky Sports – sets up 2019 as a stellar year for Bellator, and indeed MMA. Sky Sports has long been seen as the Holy Grail as a destiny for the young, but burgeoning fight sport, due to its leverage and projection with mainstream sports fans, but also for its rolling sports news channel’s driving power with news stories.
There is another, perhaps more subtle coup here, moreover, in that Bellator’s greatest rivals in the USA, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have consistently sought to be platformed on Sky’s powerful set of television channels. Bellator appear to have snuck in through the door with silk socks on.
The UFC, since 2013, has been aired on BT Sport.
It is no secret in the industry that the UFC, predicated in the past on a pay per view model, has looked at deals with Sky Sports in the past. Without success. The UFC, which has had deals with Setanta, ESPN Europe, and since 2013 with BT Sport, Sky’s closest rivals, have attempted to create a partnership with Rupert Murdoch’s television sports empire, but Bellator – predicated on free tv or subscription modelling – have arguably pulled off the greatest coup the sport has ever seen in this region.
There was a time when Sky Sports – heavily invested in boxing with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport – appeared an unlikely bed fellow for MMA. But this ground-breaking moment in the history of the sport is incomparable to any other television deal MMA has ever seen in Europe.
It has been a long-held belief by those in MMA – the decathlon of fight sport disciplines – that given eyes on the sport, interest in it will blossom. It may be raw, visceral, but its protagonists very often have humanising, life-inspiring back stories.
On the Newcastle card alone, Britons Terry Brazier and Nathan Greyson have fascinating histories. Brazier is an ex-paratrooper who left the British Army after tours of Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, the sport helping to control his anxiety; Greyson escaped the violence of gang life and prison, the sport inspiring a life change in the south London, who is trained by Brad Pickett, a former fighter whose father made bespoke shoes for the fashion industry, Elton John and Mick Jagger.
Sky Sports have supported boxing for just over a quarter of a century, and now make the great leap forward. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was simply finding the right partner.
Undeniably, this sets a benchmark for everyone else to follow and is likely to propel MMA into a new era in Britain, and with a little marketing and imagination, create much greater interest in the mainstream than just the irascible Irishman Conor McGregor, who, to date, is the only true crossover star in Europe in the sport’s history.