They didn't hire him for his conference calls, that’s for sure.
Scott Coker was suddenly back in our lives on Wednesday, re-emerging as one of MMA’s most influential powerbrokers after the ouster of Bellator executives Bjorn Rebney and Tim Danaher. The former Strikeforce honcho had been flying under the radar since his lame-duck UFC contract expired earlier this year, but rest assured very little has changed with him.
At least that much was clear when Coker appeared alongside Spike TV President Kevin Kay on a late afternoon media call, officially becoming Bellator’s new president and taking over the fight promotion’s day-to-day operations.
The point of the call was to announce what Coker called "Bellator 2.0," but there was a nostalgic element to it as well. We hadn’t heard much from him since he sold Strikeforce to the UFC in March 2011 for a reported $40 million bailout.
In many ways, though, it felt like he never left.
"I know you guys might want to get into who’s fighting who or what’s happening with this event or that event but please try to understand, this has been my first day on the job," Coker said to open his portion of the call. "Work with me here a little bit."
Same old Coker. Ever understated. Ever stalling for time.
The new Bellator boss wouldn't comment on much during this initial meet and greet, stonewalling questions about fighter contracts, his new financial agreement with Viacom and whether he’ll take another swing at pay-per-view. More than once he fell back on various versions of the old refrain we knew so well back in the Strikeforce days: "Let me get back to you on that."
One of the few things we do know about Coker's Bellator "reboot" is that its long-running tournament format is no more. The veteran fight promoter said he'd be bringing a fresh "superfight format" to the company, confirming Kay's announcement earlier in the day that Bellator would “evolve...to a more traditional model.”
While nothing will suck the air out of the room quite as quickly as a Scott Coker conference call, the arrival of new leadership should stoke a bit of excitement about Bellator’s future. A promoter with as much experience as Coker endowed with the financial backing of Viacom and the established broadcast platform of Spike?
That could work. Maybe.
His hiring won’t be a magic elixir for Bellator. The B-list organization won’t suddenly kick up its heels and start running neck-and-neck with the UFC, but at least there is reason to believe it could finally find its stride under his guidance.
Ditching the outmoded tournament system is certainly a positive first step. Bellator’s bracket-based format was helpful while the company established a foothold with a national audience, but at some point it became a hindrance. Eliminating the strict tournament structure will give matchmakers more freedom to cut and paste—much needed with a roster as odd and aging as this one—and allow Coker’s team to move forward with a clean slate.
While Wednesday's call didn't give us many clues as to exactly what a Coker-led Bellator will look like, we know he's done this before and—for a little while, at least—made it work as well as anyone not named Dana White.
Before his business partners forced his hand, Coker had transformed Strikeforce from a small, regional kickboxing promotion into the second-largest MMA company in the world. He proved capable of navigating broadcast deals with CBS and Showtime, and he provided early exposure to a bevy of current UFC stars, such as Daniel Cormier, Gilbert Melendez and Ronda Rousey.
He also reportedly ran up considerable debts, though that doesn't necessarily distinguish him in the madcap, volatile world of MMA promotion.
With Bellator, Coker said his job is clear: to bring big fights to Spike TV and to begin establishing some depth on what has been a pretty thin roster. Just as he did at the helm of Strikeforce, he said he was open to working with other promotions to book fights and cross-promote events.
"We're going to look at the roster, build the roster...and start looking for new stars," he said. "We might share some, we might buy some, we might build some. That's been our motto in the past, that's worked for us. We're just going to re-engage and start mining for those athletes."
Coker takes over Bellator at an interesting time in the organization's six-year history. It is coming off its first PPV effort last month, and at least some reports indicate it was successful beyond our most charitable expectations. The promotion has a nice mix of recognizable names and quality fighters on its existing roster but so far hasn’t been able to establish much momentum in the fickle and overcrowded MMA marketplace.
The biggest factor in his relative success or failure will certainly be his ability to mesh with the Spike TV/Viacom power structure and to convince the entertainment giant to funnel more money into his product.
On that end, the previous Bellator regime ultimately came up short.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Rebney cited irreconcilable differences with the parent company over the "right strategic direction for Bellator." Recently, Bellator has made a habit of poaching UFC castoffs, and there were rumors this week it was in talks with Kimbo Slice, as reported by Middle Easy. After the recent hype video for Eric Prindle vs. James Thompson made the rounds online, it seemed like Bellator had embraced its inner freak show.
For a company that long prided itself on slow and steady growth, the shift was noticeable. It’s anyone’s best guess how much of that new direction came from Rebney and how much from Viacom, but Coker will have to chart a course for one port or the other.
It will take considerable work to prove to skeptical MMA fans that Bellator has something to offer on a consistent basis. It won’t happen overnight. It’ll take a lot of time, effort and money to succeed where Rebney and Co. faltered.
Will Coker’s low-key leadership fare any better?
Let us get back to you on that.