In early 2021, after bouncing around a variety of different networks and platforms, Bellator finally found a long-term broadcast home on Showtime.
While the move appeared to be promising at the time, that relationship ultimately lasted less than three years before the promotion’s parent company Paramount Global offloaded Bellator to the PFL in an industry-shaking deal this past week. In retrospect, longtime Bellator executive Mike Kogan believes the promotion’s fate was sealed once it landed within Showtime’s purview, though through no fault of the premium network’s doing.
“I don’t want to point the finger at Showtime and say specifically, ‘Everybody else was in line to fall over to promote us and then Showtime was keeping us down.’ I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I think Showtime was a dead network when we got there,” Kogan said in a rare interview Monday on The MMA Hour. “And three months later, the CEO of Viacom comes out and goes, ‘Yeah, this is a dead network, we’re going to shut it down.’ So I think by virtue of where we ended up, it was kind of like the beginning of the end.
“We went from Spike being in 93 million households, down to CBS Sports, which was still in 54 or 55 million households, to a paywall with 25 million subscribers. That’s kind of going backwards, so that definitely didn’t help. I think Showtime might have tried to do whatever they can do, but there’s only so much they can do when they’re sitting behind a paywall and their subscriptions were dwindling down. So I don’t know that it’s Showtime per se. I just think in a corporate structure that is so multifaceted and has so many shows and so much product, we just kind of got lost, and we were just being ping-ponged around.”
Looking back on the events of the past months, Kogan admitted Bellator’s final shows were a “bittersweet” conclusion to the promotion’s journey. Kogan worked for many years as a behind-the-scenes driver within the company, contributing with everything from matchmaking and negotiations to talent scouting and long-term planning.
PFL co-founder Donn Davis previously told MMA Fighting that the acquisition was purely a stock deal with no cash exchanged, and that Paramount remains a “small minority owner” of Bellator. He laid out tentative plans to keep Bellator running in 2024 as a unique brand underneath the PFL umbrella, one that focuses on international one-off events rather than adhering to PFL’s strict season formula. He also expects the two brands to work in concert for a PFL champions vs. Bellator champions mega-event tentatively slated for early 2024.
While it’s still early, Kogan is encouraged by what he’s heard thus far from PFL leadership.
“I think it’s a smart decision [to keep Bellator separate], because you could always roll it in later,” Kogan said. “But Bellator, I believe, has a pretty good recognizable name, especially in European markets, which is where the PFL wants to run Bellator mostly. Like in Europe, we’re a known product. We’ve filled arenas in Paris and Milan, in London, in Dublin, Israel. So why get rid of it? Keep it. I think it’s a smart thing to do, and it shows that PFL is open-minded into seeing, ‘Hey, let’s see where this goes.’
“Also, I think from a strategic standpoint — and this is just my opinion, I don’t know what their view is, why keep it — PFL is kind of set in its format, right? There’s the preseason and season, championships, titles, we’re done, start over. There’s not much flexibility there. With Bellator being a brand that runs outside of that format, now you have some flexibility. Now you can create some interesting matchups and some fights that fans might want to see that you can’t do during the course of a season, so you’re kind of limited there. So maybe they’re trying to see how that might work and see what happens, I don’t know. But I think it’s a smart thing. I don’t think it’s stupid.”
Kogan’s own fate — and the fate of other Bellator senior leadership — is less certain. Kogan said Monday that he’s meeting this week with Davis and PFL CEO Peter Murray to determine his future. He expressed interest in staying aboard and believes he has plenty to offer as the two rosters work toward integrating with one another, but admitted that his next move ultimately depends on what type of role PFL’s leadership has carved out for him.
“If I’m there to make a difference and make a contribution, my voice will be heard, then I’ll probably be very interested in joining,” Kogan said. “If I’m there to just kind of implement whatever strategies somebody else has, then I probably will pass. That’s not my cup of tea.”
Kogan expressed doubt that longtime Bellator president Scott Coker will join him in the transition but acknowledged that ultimately the decision isn’t his to make.
As for the more than 200 fighters Bellator still had under contract, he believes all of them will be able to find a comfortable position in PFL, at least for the short term.
“I believe the intent is to find everybody a home,” Kogan said. “Some of these people will stay within the Bellator ecosystem, so to speak. Some of them will get integrated into PFL’s tournament structure. But I believe at least the initial desire, from what I hear from PFL and Donn, is to make sure that they keep as many fighters as they possibly can. He’s a nice guy. I don’t know Donn very long, but what little I’ve spoken to him, he’s a decent guy. He’s not trying to hurt anybody. He’s not trying to do bad by anyone, right?
“Let’s be fair, Viacom announced that they will shut down sports by the end of this year, right? So, in theory, this man had no reason to buy anything. He could’ve just sat back and waited until they shut it down and pick up the pieces. But he felt that he started to be engaged in this process and he should finish it, and bring the fighters on board and then try to integrate them. So I think the initial thought is to try to keep as many of them as possible, if not all of them. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. You have to run a business.”
On that final note, Kogan admitted his surprise that PFL completed the Bellator deal as it did, despite it being public knowledge that Showtime was disbanding its sports division at the end of 2023. If PFL had waited, it likely could’ve picked through the carcass of Bellator’s roster to its heart’s content once all of Bellator’s fighters hit the open market in 2024. The fact that PFL’s leadership opted not to wait, however, is an encouraging sign for Kogan.
“These guys all come from a business background, right?” Kogan said. “I mean, they’re not fight promoters. They’re businessmen. From a business standpoint, it made all the sense in the world [to wait]. Even if you lose a Johnny Eblen or Patrick Mix — so you build a new one. At the end of the day, you would still acquire quite a sizable roster and could get better. But [Davis] felt like this was a better move because they were so far along already into it and promises had been made, so at least that shows he’s a good guy, he’s not a bad guy.”