Tomorrow night (April 2), Bellator MMA will make its Showtime debut with Bellator 255, the first of three consecutive Friday night cards on the premium cable channel (Friday’s show will be available to non-subscribers via multiple streaming services, online platforms and cable TV providers). The network will then televise up to two Bellator MMA events per month for the remainder of the year. Showtime has a long, storied history in combat sports, and both Showtime Sports and Bellator MMA are ViacomCBS companies, so it would appear to be a logical partnership for the challenger MMA brand. It is less clear why Showtime would opt to invest in Bellator MMA at a time when its boxing ratings are down and skeptics are questioning how much longer the network will remain committed to the sport. “Since the 2020-21 TV season began back in September, Showtime’s Saturday night fight card is averaging a meager 178,500 viewers,” Sportico’s Anthony Crupi noted. But Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said those viewing the network’s boxing efforts through the lens of Nielsen television ratings are looking at it the wrong way. The sport brings an important demographic to the network and has consistently been a key driver of new digital subscribers since Showtime’s OTT platform launched in 2014—which explains why they have continued to invest in boxing despite the low ratings and are now venturing back into MMA.
Our Take: To be clear, 178,500 is a small audience–even for Saturday night. “To give you a better sense of how underwhelming those numbers are, Showtime’s highest-rated card (252,000 viewers) was dwarfed by such recent nonessential curiosities as the World Series of Bowling/PBA Championship broadcast on Fox (456,000 viewers) and NBC’s Saturday broadcast of Six Nations Rugby (Ireland v. England, 406,000 viewers),” Crupi said. In fairness to Showtime, the broadcast networks reach around 70 million more homes than the premium cable network.
But Espinoza insists TV ratings do not fully account for the attractive demo the sport draws or the company’s evolving business model. “[For starters], the streaming numbers are not publicly available,” he said. “There’s actually also a decent amount of repeat or replay viewing within the first 24, 48, 72 hours. And if we look at ratings more generally, except for at the ad-supported networks, the premier night [audience] has become less and less important. Because we don’t monetize individual viewership of shows the way ad-support networks do, we’re not really as motivated by premier night—or that people watch on linear. We just want people to watch. It’s all valuable [viewership] to us.”
Conventional wisdom indicates boxing has an older fan base. Remember, the sport hasn’t regularly been on over-the-air television in decades. But Espinoza says that’s not the case. “It’s a relatively young, male-skewing, multi-ethnic (over-indexing African-American and Latino), multi-generational audience, and that is an important subscriber base for [Showtime] as a whole,” he said. “It’s part of the mosaic of demographics that we use to support the network.” For what it’s worth, the MMA and boxing fan are believed to be the same age (49).
Live boxing has also been influential in growing Showtime’s streaming business. The sport is credited with five of the top 10 new sign-up days in platform history. “Driving [subs] is one of the primary metrics we look at,” Espinoza said.
“There is a priority across the company on expanding the streaming opportunity—not just domestically but worldwide,” he said. The belief is that live combat sports, which have the potential for international distribution, help to differentiate the streaming service and can push people to subscribe.
The hope is that Bellator can continue to drive a diverse base of younger, male viewers to sign-up for Showtime’s OTT platform. Espinoza said the company has “some basis for believing that it will,” citing “anecdotal information regarding the amount of viewership [the promotion received on DAZN]” and the similarities he sees in terms of the “passion of the fan base, the quality of the matchups and fighters, as well as Showtime’s reputation for high-quality premium presentation.”
The sports executive is also convinced there is an audience for the product. “We saw in our experience with Strikeforce about 10 years ago that there is certainly room in the market for more than one brand,” he said. “We saw Strikeforce get a lot of traction very quickly, develop some of MMA’s biggest stars, and because it was such an attraction ultimately the UFC decided to acquire it.” It should be noted that Bellator President Scott Coker was the founder and CEO of Strikeforce.
Of course, if Bellator were reliably driving subs for DAZN, the OTT service would not have parted ways with the promotion. A media executive with knowledge of the Bellator-DAZN partnership said Bellator provided the streaming service with a small bump in subscribers when it initially launched stateside (think: tens of thousands of new sign-ups). But in aggregate, the number of subs attributed to the MMA promotion never got into the six figures. “In the world of digital subs, the dropoff after clear category leaders like the UFC and WWE—or even a premium fight like Wilder-Fury 2—is extremely steep,” the exec said. “Compelling a consumer to seek out and sign up for a streaming platform is a challenge, and the demand is just not there for brands that are in a distant second place. So, do they have a dedicated audience? Yes. But it’s really limited.”
The question then becomes, can a consistent home, a regular schedule and the support of an organization that has a long history and great reputation with the combat sports audience help develop new fans and ultimately new subscribers?
Note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly implied Showtime’s strategy is to move subscribers to Paramount+.