With the commencement of the 2014 Bellator MMA season on Spike TV with Bellator 110: Rampage vs. M'Pumbu, TSL thought it was time that you received a glimpse behind the curtain with a 2-part series on the company. So we interviewed Bellator MMA Chairman & CEO, Bjorn Rebney who dished on his football past, how the real-life Jerry McGuire inspired him and how he positioned an idea for an obscure sport into a powerhouse. For your consideration, Part 1.
Bjorn Rebney is a man full of relief and contentment. Walking into the conference room for our interview in midtown New York this afternoon he carries with him the aura of accomplishment and busyness as he settles into a gourmet turkey deli sandwich and Diet Pepsi. He has flights booked leaving tomorrow to London, Paris, Amsterdam and Russia to solidify his passion project, Bellator MMA’s, reach even further beyond the borders of the domestic U.S. market and his elation at the future creates a visage of enlightenment. The most recognized father of enlightenment, Buddha, is too polarizing of a comparison to Rebney’s awakening; it’s more like that of a professional gambler that figured out how to keep an edge consistent.
This is probably because Rebney has taken and prepared for educated risks his entire sporting career and his normal penchant thus far has been to succeed against the odds. For those uninitiated to the wiles of Mr. Rebney you might have scoffed when hearing that someone was brave enough to challenge the dominance of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in the mixed martial arts industry. Coupled with an obscure name, Bellator (meaning ‘Warrior’ in Latin), most were too lazy to try and define the brand let alone believe that they would become a legitimate player in the MMA space. But then those who don’t know Rebney or his philosophies would make that mistake once but guaranteed not twice.
“My Dad has a saying that he has said for many years to me and that ‘is if you can ever get paid to do what you other wise use to pay to do then you’ve won in life.’ That wasn’t part and parcel of his tirades on Winnebago Man but that was one of the things he said to me that didn’t terrify me. He said that and it always stuck with me.”
Jack Rebney, Bjorn’s father, holds a special distinction of being the star of one of the world’s first viral videos, before YouTube, that chronicled in a cult favorite documentary, Winnebago Man, a frustrated Winnebago salesman going on an expletive filled tirade towards himself and his film crew shooting a sales commercial. Looking at the passion with which the elder Rebney delivered his angst it is no wonder that the son evolved into a wunderkind and the total antithesis of his current business nemesis.
“I got a full ride on a football scholarship to Ohio University and was able through a great culmination of circumstances to be able to squeeze in a Master’s degree in Sports Business into my scholarship. I was a fifth year senior and was able to get done with all my undergrad work in about 3 ½ years, so got a full Master’s degree out of my football scholarship” said Rebney still in amazement. “Went to work on the East Coast in Boston for a couple of years and then recognized the one thing kind of missing from my arsenal, the bullets that were missing were that I didn’t have the legal knowledge. I was still young enough and I didn’t have any debt because I’d done everything on scholarship in undergrad and grad school and (said) I’ll just take out loans and go to law school. Literally the biggest expense we had running the business that I was in at the time, was legal. If I could learn this I literally could do all the pieces of it and so I went to law school and by some freak of nature passed the bar exam which I still think they may have mistaken mine for somebody else’s but I’ll take it.”
The Southern California native then made the very linear move back home gaining employment at former Orange County based Steinberg, Moorad & Dunn, the pinnacle of sports agencies whose lead partner, Leigh Steinberg was the inspiration and faux mentor quote composer for the blockbuster movie, Jerry McGuire. It was a pairing that led him closer to destiny.
“It was eye opening and illuminating. But I was very lucky I started working with them as part of a marketing team that would market the athletes trying to get sponsorship relationships and brand building alliances for the athletes and then really got into combat sports vis a vis Oscar De La Hoya who was Southern California based looking at Leigh Steinberg as the guy he wanted to advise him” Rebney pauses. “I jumped in what I always like to affectionately call Bass Ackwards instead of getting into combat sports promoting little tiny events in a Convention Room in front of 300 people selling tickets I got in working with Oscar De La Hoya who at the time was legitimately the first major league crossover superstar who had general market appeal and Hispanic market appeal and was beating up people inside of the ring and was enjoying tremendous success and was starting to fuel pay-per-view. So I came into it with this guy at a very high level and that was kind of my indoctrination into the business of fighting sports.”
His next two acts would be fueled by the confidence built from his time at one of the world’s greatest sport agencies and his preparation, research and tireless execution led to the actualization of his next pivotal steps in sports. Transformation into a fight promoter.
“I had run a boxing promotional company for some time that had put on nearly 50 shows on ESPN 2 it was the highest rated fight program that was regularly scheduled on the ESPN 2 network. I had made money in the boxing business, which is closely akin to saying you made money in the horse racing business it just doesn’t happen to most people. I had a savings, not an enormous savings but I had enough and I also was with a woman, my best friend and partner in life who looked at me and said go for it. There was no concern on her part. So we took out a first (mortgage) and then we took out a second; we depleted the savings and she just kept saying go for it make it happen because it’s a good business model.”
Following that loving guidance of his wife led to 61 meetings with potential investors which all yielded no investment. But on the fortuitous 62nd meeting, Rebney found his doppelganger in finance and the two have created a closeness that would eventually yield the elder Rebney’s philosophy to true success.
“I was pitching most of the people and they looked at me like I had rocks in my head because they didn’t understand the business or the potential upside. Finally I got with a group out of the Connecticut area, Plainfield Capital, who had a very young Senior Vice-President there who was a mixed martial artist, trained in mixed martial arts and competed as an amateur, which is a complete anomaly especially for the investment banking industry, who had been at Credit Suisse who was a legitimate player in the space, a young player but a real player in the investment banking world who had been pitched by Elite XC and the IFL had been pitched by many of the failures who understood what models would fail and why. His name is Tim Danaher who is now the President of my company,” Rebney said emphatically. “Midway through my pitch he stopped me and I thought I was off my game I had never been stopped mid-pitch and he was like, ‘you can stop, how soon until you can be in New York?’ I was in West L.A. on a conference call and I said I can be there tomorrow morning and he goes ‘you should come because I’ve listened to all the other presentations and your model has viability so I’d like to meet with you face to face.’ I flew out to New York met with him the next day, took a red eye and the rest was history.”