How Bjorn Rebney refused to let 61 rejections stop him from making Bellator MMA a success

Bjorn Rebney was not to be denied, even after spending 16 months meeting with 61 investors and walking out each time without a financial commitment to support his dream.

“I characterize myself as pleasantly relentless, and I tested the limits of my pleasantly relentless personality when I was going out trying to get funding,” Rebney says.

He had been hoping to get funding to launch a mixed martial arts business, a sport of which his passion for stretches back 20 years.

“It’s as pure and straight forward as it gets,” Rebney says. “It’s one man vs. one man in a ritualized combat scenario. Mixed martial arts is the most perfect example of those attributes, drivers and factors that we love about sports.”

Rebney fell in love with mixed martial arts as a fan, but now he wanted to turn that love into a thriving and successful business. He spent three years from 2005 to 2008 analyzing the mixed martial arts industry to figure out what was working, what wasn’t working and what he needed to do to build the right business model to succeed.

Bellator MMA is the product of all that determination. Rebney founded the company in 2008 when he located an investor who believed in his vision. Up to that point, he fully understood why it was taking so long to find support.

“It was so new and the only player in the space that worked was UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), which was privately held and closely guarded their financials,” says Rebney, founder and CEO of Bellator. “There was no way for investment groups to look at any kind of tried and true track record of other businesses and say, ‘This would make sense from an investment perspective.’”

There were two other companies involved in the MMA business at that time, both with financial records open for inspection, but in this case, that wasn’t going to do anything to help his plight.

“They were failing miserably and were losing tens of millions of dollars each year,” Rebney says. “Anyone who looked at their financial models as publicly traded companies and looked at their books would say it looked like a complete disaster.”

His tenacity certainly played the biggest part in his ultimate victory. But it didn’t hurt that he met an investor who may have been an even bigger MMA fan than he was.

“He was tracking the UFC, understood their business model and had been pitched by all of the other failed entities as they were getting ready to go out of business,” Rebney says. “When he listened to me, we clicked immediately. He said, ‘This could work.’”

 

Be truly unique

Rebney can point to a number of factors that help explain why Bellator appears in more than 100 million homes across the nation each week. But his ability to provide consumers with a real and different point of view from UFC is perhaps the biggest reason for his success.

“One mistake people make in business that I see often is they try to create a point of difference for the sake of creating a point of difference,” Rebney says. “Sometimes, they lose the connectivity to realizing that even though it’s different, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be attractive to consumers.

“It doesn’t mean people are going to buy the product or watch the product or log on to learn more about the product. Your point of difference has got to be substantive. It has to be something that people point to and say, ‘Whoa, that’s a great reason for me to watch this content as opposed to the other content.’”

Rebney wanted to create an organization that was built on the premise that athletes would advance through skill and competition. This would differ from how it was setup in UFC.

“The UFC uses a formula where they have a guy who sits behind a desk and decides who fights who for what and when,” Rebney says. “They choose who fights for the world title based on what they think they can sell to consumers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but that’s very entertainment-centric.

“That’s like a casting agent who picks a certain star for a film because they believe people will buy tickets to watch that star perform. What I did was create a dynamic and a model that said this is going to be pure sports competition. It’s going to be tournament-based, and if you win the tournament, you’ll earn the right to fight for the world title.”

Rebney’s goal wasn’t to put UFC out of business, nor was he claiming that it had a flawed business model. Clearly UFC has experienced success with the way it does things. But being a copycat of another business, even a successful one, is not always the best way to build your own profitable business.

“More often than not, when someone just tries to duplicate that model, it results in failure,” Rebney says. “If they try to look at what that other group has done and establish a substantive point of difference, even if it’s a slight difference, it can catapult that second player into a very prominent position in the industry. And in some instances, it can catapult that second player into the first position.”

 

Be willing to adapt

As it turns out, Rebney’s idea struck a chord with MMA fans. In fact, the growth took off to such a degree that it became a bit overwhelming. The company launched in 2008 and today has a presence in 117 countries around the world. It has 70 employees, as well as 25 local hires that are brought in for each event the company produces.

“We were coming out of the tail end of our alliance with Fox and getting ready to make the move over to a new alliance we had with Viacom,” Rebney says. “There was an amazing amount of movement going on at that moment. I recognized very clearly that it was a seminal moment for the company in terms of what the future would hold.”

The biggest aspect of this challenge was the fact that as Bellator continued to grow and draw interest from potential media partners such as Viacom, the parent company of the Spike TV network, the company’s key leaders were spread across the country in New York, Chicago and the company’s headquarters in Orange County.

“We were crisscrossing the country with key information,” Rebney says. “It wasn’t just about setting conference calls to solidify the understanding of what needed to happen next. It was the development of content, the production of TV shows and the orchestration and operation of events that were in arenas with 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000 people.”

Bellator does 25 to 30 live events a year with million-dollar production budgets and countless support staff, in addition to the fighters. Rebney quickly understood the distance was adding a lot of unnecessary stress to everyone’s work.

“From my perspective, you can never underestimate the power or importance of being able to sit with your people in the same room and strategize with them and talk to them about objectives and goals and how to deliver on both of those,” Rebney says.

So he made the decision to move his teams out of New York and Chicago and bring them together under one roof in Southern California. It solved a big problem, but Rebney still faced the challenge of finding the other people he needed to fill positions in an industry that was still very new.

“It was a lot of times finding people for positions who we thought would be great fits because they had great intensity and motivation,” Rebney says. “But you still couldn’t look at someone’s resume and say, ‘Oh, I see in our exact business, you did A, B, C and D.’ That made it difficult.”

So Rebney had to get creative. He had to think about the potential pitfalls and challenges that exist in the MMA world and pose those hurdles to job applicants in their interviews.

“The scratch-and-sniff tactic I’ve employed has been to give people legitimate tasks that apply to our company in a real world situation,” Rebney says. “You could say, ‘This is the conundrum we’re facing. Let me know what due diligence questions you’ve got so I can supply you with all the substantive data from Bellator and what we’re trying to do. Can you get back to me with some answers and a memorandum that addresses these issues?’”

Rebney dug deeper to increase his odds of making good hires and he ended up with a stronger team as a result. But that doesn’t mean he’s eased up on his own workload.

“It was 5 ½ years ago that I took my last vacation with my wife,” Rebney says. “To the detriment of my personal life, I’ve kept my personal connectivity to the business.”

Rebney says he doesn’t see himself as a micromanager since his involvement does not stem from fear that his people can’t make important decisions on their own.

“The big difference is in trusting your people and recognizing that you’re not always right,” Rebney says.

 

Takeaways

  • Find a true differentiator.
  • Make the tough decisions.
  • Find people you can trust.

 

The Rebney File

Name: Bjorn Rebney
Title: Founder and CEO
Company: Bellator MMA

Born: Los Angeles

Education: Undergraduate degree in philosophy and master’s degree in sports business, Ohio University; juris doctorate degree, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Passed the California bar exam.

Why did you pursue a law degree? When I was young, I looked around the landscape of top executives, CEOs and chairmen of major companies. There was one standard thread that seemed to run through almost all of them. They had their law degrees and they were attorneys.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life? My wife. She drives me to be a better person and a better man. I’m in a very aggressive business and industry. She’s kept me very grounded in terms of interpersonal communication skills, working with people and analyzing things from a very calm perspective.

What one person would you really like to meet? I had the privilege, really the honor, of having dinner with Nelson Mandela in a small group of about six people around 15 years ago. I literally became tongue-tied. What he did and what he was willing to give up for what he believed in and his desire to achieve something was so dramatic and so powerful. I only wish I had been able to have a bit more maturity and age to have been able to ask him more questions and engage him in more conversations.

Rebney on his tenacity: Very seldom do you hear someone say, ‘Well, I came up with a business plan, and I wrote it and I had three meetings and on the third meeting, they gave me $25 million.’ It just doesn’t happen like that. As my dad used to always say, ‘If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.’ It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly satisfying.

 

How to reach: Bellator MMA, (949) 222-3400 or www.bellator.com

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