Fremantle jumps into MMA fray

Five-year deal with upstart Bellator signed

Fremantle Media Enterprises has signed a five-year global rights deal with rising mixed martial arts org Bellator Fighting Championships.

Bellator is positioning itself as an alternative to Ultimate Fighting Championship, which signed a lucrative TV rights contract with Fox Sports Media Group in August. Viacom recently acquired a majority stake in Bellator and can begin airing its tournaments in 2013 on Spike, whose UFC relationship is ending with the Fox deal.

Bellator’s tournaments currently air on Viacom-owned MTV2 and Epix2.

“It is our belief that there is room for two unique MMA properties to coexist in the marketplace both here domestically and globally,” Fremantle senior veep of global content acquisitions and development Jeff Tahler told Variety. “There will always be competition, and the UFC, they are what they are. I don’t think anyone’s going to not say they’re not going to be the No. 1 organization out there. That said, we wouldn’t have gotten into this if we didn’t think there was a unique selling opportunity.”

Fremantle will handle rights for international TV distribution as well as licensing, digital and ancillary rights for both the U.S. and worldwide markets. Tahler said that the appeal for Bellator is growing thanks in part to its tournament-style approach that calls to mind college basketball’s March Madness.

To that end, Fremantle doesn’t envision selling Bellator as library programming, but rather event programming that will air live as much as possible. If there are windows for Bellator’s spring season, Fremantle will take advantage of them, but fall 2012 remains the primary target for international distribution.

“We have a great relationship with Spike and Viacom channels,” Tahler said. “We’ve distributed a number of their non-sports programming over the years. … It’s a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity to roll this out properly. You have to roll this out as a sport and not as a television program. People want to see events live.”

Fremantle’s interest in Bellator has been long-brewing and was only reinforced by the recent Bellator-Viacom deal.

“In this business, as you know, it’s nice to get validation from a major corporation,” Tahler said. “It was the cherry on top. It’s a great story to tell for us when we’re going out there and selling this — it’s not just a guy holding MMA fights in a barn.”

Tahler noted that global interest in mixed martial arts was being fostered by fighters being pulled from regions all around the world.

“The incredible athleticism and intensity exhibited in all of our mixed martial arts tournaments translate into any language,” Bellator chairman, CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney said. “With FME as our partner, we will have the ability to showcase our high-intensity brand of fighting to millions around the globe.”

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