Bjorn Rebney’s steep, steep march to success

Monday, April 22, 2013

This Underground Guest Blog was written by TUF, K-1, IFL, and Bodog veteran Santino Defranco. Santino is also a trainer of note, having worked with Seth Baczynski, Efrain Escudero, Yaotzin Meza, Danny Martinez, and Victor Mez, among many others. He is currently enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing program at Northern Arizona University, and recently finished a novel that is in the final stages of editing.

Here Santino offers an extended profile of Bellator and the man at its head, Bjorn Rebney.

His voice is calculated—precise—and he speaks as an educated man should. His words are carefully chosen and there is an absence of vulgarities one expects to hear when speaking with the president of a major Mixed Martial Arts promotion. After the formalities of our introduction are behind us I asked Bjorn Rebney, founder and CEO of Bellator MMA, how he went from law school to working as a litigator in the construction industry, then into the world of sports, where he worked at Steinberg Moorad & Dunn—a prestigious sports agency, that has since been riddled with lawsuits and internal scandal prior to its purchase and subsequent disbandment after Rebney’s departure. I wanted him to know that I did my homework and was familiar with the majority of his background. 

Smoothly, without a stutter or stumble over a word, Rebney explained that he received a football scholarship to Ohio University and while there, after undergrad, obtained a master’s degree in sports business.  Upon graduating he “came out of undergrad having been a good enough athlete to receive a scholarship at the Division 1 level, but not a good enough athlete to pursue the dream of becoming a pro and recognized that [he] wanted to be in athletics.” With the dream of professional athletics no longer an obtainable goal, Rebney landed a highly sought after internship, and subsequently a fulltime job with Sports Promotion International, where he brought Russian athletic teams (basketball, soccer, hockey) to the United States to compete against American talent during the cold war, while the Iron Curtain was still hanging. 

Even though he was enjoying his time bringing Russians over for competition he realized his repertoire for a life behind the scenes in sports was incomplete, as the need to constantly pay large fees to attorneys for contract negotiations was becoming burdensome. Fortuitously, his realization of the need for a law degree coincided with the fall of the Soviet regime, just as the luster of the Soviet vs. U.S. rivalry had lost its shine. He was young, and intended to stay in the sports industry for years to come, thus, he applied to law schools to circumvent the need to contract work out to others that he could do himself. Eventually he settled on McGeorge Law School at the University of the Pacific, in Sacramento, Calif.

I know this is not the first time he has told this story. I thought I would be hearing new information not told to others, as I informed him of my due diligence. I am expecting a secret of some sort; however, my journalistic questions were easily KO’d. His words pour out too easily. He talks to me from a distance—much further than the phone lines and satellites and iphones allow.  He is not unwelcoming, but rather is unfamiliar, and he continues in his calculated manner—that of a man that graduated law school and carefully planned his entry into the professional, and cut-throat competitiveness of sports.  He does not know if I am a friend or foe and he keeps me at that distance—at arms reach—in order to better guage me, and my purpose. That, or my timeline of events is so far off that he cannot, in good conscience, allow me to continue without the proper facts. 

With law school comes law school-sized debt, and Rebney was hired at a construction litigation firm after he passed the California Bar Exam—which he still maintains his good standing in to this day. He spent roughly a year working with the firm before fate would, again, reintroduce him to the world of sports. A friend he attended graduate school with introduced him to Lee Steinberg, who Rebney explains “was riding a big wave – he was the Jerry Mcguire at the time.” Steinberg offered him a job at his sports firm: Steinberg, Moorad & Dunn (SM&D), which Rebney accepted immediately. 

His life in combat sports was born. 

A hint of pleasure enters Rebney’s voice as we leave the mundane details of the road that paved his distant past, and move onto the destination that it brought us to. He eases a bit during our phone conversation. The words are not as precise. They are not as scripted, and the man behind the phone’s receiver is not as wary to be speaking with a stranger.

In 1993 SM&D took on a young, budding, future superstar, Oscar De La Hoya, and Rebney was forced to learn the ropes of promoting boxing events quickly. While gaining a reputation with De La Hoya, he met Sugar Ray Leonard, and left SM&D to pursue a promotional partnership with Leonard. 
For the next four years Rebney and Leonard had a deal with ESPN 2, where he promoted ‘Sugar Ray Leonard presents: Friday Night Fights’ which was the network’s highest rated combat sport programming during their tenure. Also, during that time, Rebney became, as some boxing aficionados would (today) label him, a traitor to the sport. He was promoting boxing fights, but he was also moonlighting as an MMA fan. “While boxing was what I was doing to make a living, the thing that I really enjoyed, and that I did on my free time, was go to, and watch, MMA events,” he relates. His collection of VHS tapes of old Pride FC events, collecting dust in his garage, are proof, even if he no longer has a VCR to play the old relics.

His split with Sugar Ray was, by most public accounts, anything but amicable. I do not question him regarding his split. It is not what I hope to gain from interviewing him and what worth is it to get involved in a “he said, she said” argument while only one party is present? 

If he never intended to enter the realm of MMA while promoting boxing, he certainly performed his due diligence after the split with Sugar Ray. His decision to seek investors for Bellator was not something he pursued on a hunch or, as have so many others before him that have gotten into the sport, to make a quick penny, or become part of the “scene” after being sideline fans. 

His knowledge of MMA promotions is vast. He knows the financial structure of the defunct shows, he knows how the International Fight League, Elite XC, Affliction, Bodog, and more, operated. And he knows why they failed. He saw the dotcom bubble, and understands that just because you throw some money at something, and add some fireworks, it doesn’t make it a viable business model. “Elite XC had huge overspends,” he explains. “They were spending too much money. Look, for the first number of years that I ran Bellator I was sitting in the exit aisles on Southwest and renting Sentras to get around to make sure we were fiscally conservative enough to make things work.”

Rebney also saw a flaw in the major marketing and promotion of the fallen promotions. “The biggest problems with the new MMA promotions was their desire to grow the brand of their organization as opposed to building stars, also their inability to produce and maintain a presence on TV by doing one-off shows.” He knew he needed a TV deal where he could build the stars of Bellator or he’d be doing Pay-Per-View shows two to three times a year like the rest, and never gain a loyal, consistent, following. “When the fall comes around, everybody knows they can turn on the TV on a Monday night, and even Sunday nights now, and watch football. They know when and where to find it.” The IFL was also not doing themselves any favors either with their portrayal of MMA. “Having ambulance sirens during the very first IFL show with the voice over saying, ‘someone will leave here in the ambulance tonight’ sent the sport back.  That didn’t help the networks become friendly with the sport.”

Rebney wanted to bring to television a fiscally conservative, fighter focused, professional show that produced championships by earning it through tournaments. Tournaments had been held in Japan, but they were over a stretch of months. He wanted them held over twelve weeks, and wanted multiple tournaments to be held at the same time. While taking a slight jab at other promotions (notably the UFC) he says, “This is real sports competition. This isn’t the theatrical matchmaking that takes place elsewhere where you can lose two fights at 185lbs, but because you’re very charismatic and can speak well you can talk your way into a world title fight against the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, at 205.”

Rebney took his new MMA model to sixty-one investors over a 15-month period with zero success.  Nobody wanted to take a risk on MMA at that point in time.

For over a year he was without pay, trying to get his dream in front of the faces of others in hopes they saw the financial potential in Bellator. “I took out a first mortgage on my home, then blew through my savings, and then took a second mortgage out on my home and an equity loan against the home.”

I ask Bjorn if he is married and he says yes. 

“What did your wife think of you depleting your savings and gambling with your home and future on Bellator after 61 rejections?”

His tone changes again. I am no longer speaking with the man that answered the phone thirty minutes prior. Rebney’s new voice is filled with energy. Filled with pride and excitement. Filled with love.

“My wife was and is the most supportive, unbelievable woman on the face of the earth. She was like… She is highly educated and owns a PR marketing company and is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management [Northwestern University’s prestigious business school],” he says, with a deep sense of pride. “She was like, ‘I think this will work and somebody will eventually get it.’ She was wildly supportive. She’s amazing. At the time, it took a lot of guts from that woman. She never one time said ‘I think you should go back to work as a sports agent and make a lot of money doing that.’”  

His voice stays upbeat, and the scripted responses that he has given to others seems to be set aside. I’m sure he has told others the information that follows, but it’s as though he is no longer wary of where the information is going. He is now comfortable speaking with me, the unknown voice on the other line. Speaking of his wife, his guard drops, and he enjoys the conversation about the great success story that is Bellator MMA, Bjorn Rebney’s great accomplishment.

On the 62nd meeting with an investor, just when the light was seemingly dimming, fate, once again, intervened in Rebney’s odyssey. 

While meeting with an executive at Plainfield Asset Management, out of Connecticut, his big break came. The executive was familiar with Mixed Martial Arts and was even a black belt under karate turned MMA trainer, Tiger Schulman. “The guy at Plainfield had actually sat with Elite XC and the IFL when they were just about to go out of business when they were begging for money everywhere and anywhere. He was a black Belt that trained MMA. And he was on board.”

He didn’t paint a picture to his investors that it was going to be an overnight success. Rebney laid out what it would really take, money-wise. “I presented a very real business model to the investors… I didn’t promise a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I was very realistic about it and said it was going to take years and tens of millions of dollars of investment capital. But if we do it right and if we follow the model, and if we approach it as a marathon and not a sprint, the opportunity to build a worldwide brand… we can become a very well developed, profitable brand.”

It worked. 

The investors were in.

With the capital to fund the venture, and his connections with ESPN and the television industry, Bellator MMA was born.  

Rebney approached his contacts at ESPN with the help of Bellator’s new President, and former Plainfield Asset Management executive, to seek a home. But there was still an uncertainty about the sport and the ESPN family of networks (ESPN, ESPN 2, CLASSIC) didn’t want to air MMA yet.  However, ESPN Deportes was willing to give Rebney and his start up a chance—knowing the Latino market has more of an affinity toward combat sports. 

After a successful first season, Bellator attracted a network with a wider audience, Fox Sports Network, where the promotion spent its next two seasons.  During the fourth season the show moved to MTV2 after the media giant, Viacom, purchased Bellator MMA, and subsequently moved Bellator to Mixed Martial Arts TV heaven, Spike TV. The quality of the roster of fighters has drastically improved over the last few years with the likes of Pat Curran, Alexander Schlemenko, and Ben Askren having defended their titles repeatedly. Bellator MMA is now comfortably sitting as the #2 promotion in the world, with its head, Bjorn Rebney enjoying his king’s chair at the forefront. 

Rebney’s tone changes again when I ask him about when he knew Bellator “made it,” when he thought to himself that the promotion was here to stay, and when he could breathe a sigh of relief, and feel proud.  His voice withdraws again. He isn’t distant, or even unfamiliar, but I hear the uncertainty in his voice. Not one to rest on his laurels after the first few (successful) seasons, he tells me, “that voice in my head didn’t tell me I had made it until we hit cash flow—until we were actually making money and didn’t have to spend investor capital anymore. That was just before the Viacom purchase while we were still on MTV 2.”  There’s a wavering in his certainty as he tells me this, and I’m not sure that I believe him that he feels that he “made it.” I think he may put every other promotion out of business, and I think he will still aspire for a better product, more viewers, and more accessibility. 

Rebney is a driven man. His career was carefully diagramed long before he knew the direction he was headed.  He had a vision—a dream—but unlike so many others, he actualized that dream by carefully plotting a course of action and implementing it. It was not without challenge, but he persevered and formed an MMA powerhouse with the dedication and passion and energy that he carefully holds close to him—void of flash and glamour. 

On the surface he is a pragmatic businessman, but underneath, he’s a kid playing football in the mud, and getting paid for it.