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Sky acquires rights in UK & Ireland to Bellator MMA

MMA promotion Bellator’s US-based events will be shown on Sky in the UK, adding to a deal for Europe-based events with Channel 5.

Bellator’s deal with pay-television operator Sky is not understood to include a rights fee and covers 2019 only. Under the deal, Sky will receive exclusive live rights to all of Bellator’s US-based events, plus at least two Europe-based events.

Sky has historically been reluctant to show live MMA on its channels, and even more reluctant to invest money in the sport. Bellator hopes the deal will work well for both parties, prompting Sky to pay a rights fee in future.

The deal will mark the first time Sky has shown a live broadcast of an American MMA promotion’s event since 2002, when it struck a one-off deal to show an Ultimate Fighting Championship event held at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Sky previously bid for exclusive rights to the UFC back in 2016, but experts are split on whether Sky’s ambition was to acquire the rights or to increase the amount its rival pay-television operator BT had to pay.

Bellator’s deal with commercial broadcaster Channel 5 covers six European events it will stage in 2019. Experts believe that a small, per-event fee will be paid by Channel 5, but that the significance of the fee is limited given that the two companies share a parent organisation, media conglomerate Viacom.

The deals mark the first time Bellator’s events will be shown live in the UK on a consistent basis since the promotion began in 2008. It is thought Bellator plans to stage 22 events in 2019. Channel 5 has previously shown live Bellator events, but has struggled to show events occurring between 3am and 6am – the usual UK timeslot for MMA events held in the US.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulatory body, forbids free-to-air broadcasters from showing mixed martial arts during the morning, and this has forced Channel 5 to cut its live MMA programming at exactly 6am, regardless of whether the event is still ongoing. As a result, Channel 5 will only show events held in Europe.

Bellator’s deal with Sky is understood to have been brokered by the Room9 Group, which is owned by former UFC executive James Elliott. Bellator’s deal with Channel 5 was agreed internally.

While Bellator won’t earn a large amount for its media rights in the UK, its aim was to increase its exposure and build its brand in the UK ahead of sales and/or renewals in 2020. The promotion is tasked with growing in an MMA market dominated by the UFC, which has a lucrative three-year deal with BT, from 2019 to 2021.

As of 2019, Bellator and the UFC are the only MMA promotions which will be shown live on UK television. For the next three years, from 2019 to 2021, UK promotion Cage Warriors will be exclusively shown on the UFC’s OTT service, Fight Pass.