From its inception in 2008 until 2014, founder Bjorn Rebney was at the helm of Bellator MMA (nee: Bellator Fighting Championships). Although Rebney was much maligned by fans, and occasionally some fighters, the tournament approach to building champions and contenders proved effective. Fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Ben Askren and Michael Chandler, among others, used the promotion to build their names in North America. The promotion bounced around a variety of TV partners during its early years. However, Viacom purchasing the company in 2011 saw it move to MTV2, and eventually a familiar home to MMA fans, Spike TV. After a year-and-a-half on Spike, Viacom replaced Rebney with Scott Coker as president (and Rich Chou as matchmaker). At the time, many hailed the move as a signal that the company was headed in the right direction. Coker had garnered a reputation as a fighter-friendly promoter through his years at the helm of Strikeforce. He had used established stars like Fedor Emelianenko to draw viewers in while attempting to create new stars on their heels. Luke Rockhold and Tyron Woodley cut their teeth in Strikeforce and became UFC champions. After experiencing success in Japan, Gegard Mousasi, Jacare Souza and Gilbert Melendez raised their stateside awareness in Strikeforce. Massive gains were made in the realm of women’s MMA with the likes of Gina Carano, Cris ‘Cyborg’, and of course, Ronda Rousey. It was a successful endeavor until parent company Silicon Sports pulled the plug. That led to Zuffa purchasing the organization and swallowing it into the UFC. After his contract ran out, Coker was let go and hired to run Bellator. Coker has attempted to steer Bellator in a similar fashion since coming onboard. However, instead of having relevant big names to draw in viewers, he’s been forced to reach even further, Tito Ortiz being the least egregious example. While he was signed during the Rebney era and fought as the third bout on Bellator’s lone Pay-Per-View, Ortiz –- who hadn’t headlined a UFC event since 2011, and even then only as a late replacement –- has headlined both events he’s competed at since Coker took over operations, and he is scheduled to do so a third time in January 2017. The series of 2015 and 2016 “attractions” involving Kimbo Slice, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Dada 5000 appear to be where Coker lost the pulse completely. While those bouts indeed drew eyeballs, they failed to advance the product in any discernable way. Bellator’s younger talent was either completely overshadowed by these spectacles and talked of worked fights (Bellator 138), or left off the card entirely (Bellator 149). Rather than building another wave of Rockholds and Woodleys, there was (is?) seemingly no end-game in sight. As a result, in an attempt to build stars and marketable fighters Coker (and Chou) has been forced to utilize a tactic which was employed in Strikeforce, but on a much grander scale. The squash match. Now don’t misconstrue. A squash match isn’t inherently a bad thing. They can be quite enjoyable if you’re not a friend or family member of the party on the receiving end of the booking. Often they result in finishes, and fans love finishes. Overuse of them can be a massive detriment. For instance, current Bellator and former Strikeforce fighter Bobby Lashley has had 11 of his 17 career MMA fights lined. Nine of those lines have seen him a -500 favorite (bet $500 to win $100) or bigger. After a while, those fights simply become uninteresting. Michael Page is seeing a similar pattern emerge, even in spite of his highlight reel potential. These two fighters are not alone on the Bellator roster, it seems that mismatches are becoming more and more commonplace in the circular cage. The most recent Bellator card (Bellator 169) featured three fighters who were greater than -600 betting favorites. Those lines, after seeing a -700 favorite on each of Bellator’s previous cards (Goiti Yamauchi and Darrion Caldwell, respectively) are what prompted this deeper look into the matchmaking and betting odds in recent Bellator history. To ensure this was not just an illusion based on recent memory, betting lines for the first 30 months of Coker’s tenure with Bellator (June 2014-December 2016) were compared with the first 30 months that lines were offered for Strikeforce bouts (September 2007-March 2010). During their respective periods, Bellator saw 230 fights with betting lines while Strikeforce held 100. Taking the average of each of those sets of odds, Bellator saw a mean favorite of -375 and underdog of +287 (bet $100 to win $287). Strikeforce’s numbers during their timespan showed an average favorite of -329 and underdog of +250. Those may not seem like particularly large discrepancies, but laying an extra $46 each time you bet a favorite can add up quickly over time. To establish a baseline, let’s take a look at a similar metric in the UFC. During the entirety of 2014 (the last year I have a full database of odds available) UFC favorites averaged to -290, with the comeback on underdogs at +254 across 502 bouts. Due to the popularity of the UFC compared to other organizations, it receives more betting action, which is why the spread between the favorite and underdog is smaller. The most interesting number among the three organizations is the significant jump in underdog prices in Bellator. To see if this was a function of fights simply being booked at a consistently higher price, or something else, the next step was to see how often lines exceeded certain thresholds. Among those UFC bouts, there were 62 favorites of -500 or greater (12.35 percent of fights), and only 8 that sat at -1000 or above (1.59 percent). Strikeforce during that ‘07-’10 period saw slightly higher occurrences of each, as 15 percent of fights saw a -500 or higher favorite, while 3 percent were -1000 or greater. Finally, Bellator’s recent history has seen a drastic increase in both metrics. In fewer than half the number of fights that were measured in the UFC, Bellator has seen nearly as many -500 favorites (52). That number accounts for more than 1 in every 5 fights (22.61 percent). Bellator has actually had almost double the four-digit favorites of the UFC, as their 15 across 230 fights equates to a rate of 6.52 percent. These numbers are all fine and well heading into fights, but what are the results? Across those 230 Bellator bouts, there were two draws, one No-Contest, and one Pick’em. That leaves 226 bouts with a favorite, underdog, and a result. Favorites have won 169 of those, with underdogs taking the remaining 57. That equates to a 74.8 percent winning rate for favorites. The betting odds of -375 and +286, which are the Bellator average, equate to an expected winning percentage of 75.3 percent for favorites. So even with those inflated numbers and expectations, favorites are meeting them. Part of that is the fighters who are being made favorites doing what they’re supposed to do, but part of it is also the booking and who those favorites are being booked against (and why those specific matches are being made). So not only does the recent iteration of Bellator see higher average lines than Coker’s previous organization, but the instances of large favorites have been drastically increased as well. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of Coker or Bellator, merely an observation drawn out with some basic data. The concern moving forward is that if the trend doesn’t correct itself, fans will become disillusioned with the product and lose interest, if that hasn’t started already. Perhaps some stars will emerge through the organization’s current process who can carry the brand, or perhaps this is a stopgap solution while the roster can be developed. Whatever the reason for this particular method of booking, there is no disputing that it is beyond the norm we’ve become accustomed to in MMA. If, or how long, that works remains to be seen.
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