For a long time, K-1 was considered to be the pinnacle of kickboxing. It was the breeding ground of legends. The best fighters in the world wanted to be there, and when you were K-1’s World Grand Prix Champion, you were considered the world’s very best kickboxer. Those days may be gone, but when Spike TV agreed to a multi-platform broadcast deal with the kickboxing giant, they knew that they were getting a very marketable brand of combat sports. If you’re one of those romantic fans that would love to see a return to glory for K-1, you might be disappointed by what you see on Spike’s airwaves. But for the uninitiated, which most North Americans are when it comes to kickboxing, it could be the start of a whole new era for the sport.
Spike TV found themselves in a similar position in the early 2000’s when they landed the TV rights to a young promotion with a cult following called the UFC. The sport was still in its infancy, but armed with the right marketing, an innovative new reality show, and a legitimate means to reach their audience, it grew into the juggernaut that we know today. K-1 now finds itself in a similar position, but may already be ahead of the curve. They’ve got a better-established brand, and better-developed market coming in than the UFC did, plus they’ll have some similar programming on the channel to help lure those combat fans over.
Also arriving on Spike is Bellator Fighting Championships, which was purchased last year by Spike TV owners Viacom. As the demand for MMA content grows higher and higher, Spike and Viacom saw a unique opportunity to exploit that demand and introduce something relatively new to North American viewers, while still satisfying their MMA demographic. “Spike has the most passionate and knowledgeable fans of combat sports,” said Jon Slusser, Senior VP of Sports and Multi-platform Events at Spike TV. “We are confident that they will enjoy the high-action of K-1, which serves as the perfect complement to our Bellator coverage next year.”
The biggest problem faced by K-1 in this new stage of their existence is their diminished status as the world’s biggest name in kickboxing. Glory World Series had already outgrown K-1 before their acquisition of rival promotion It’s Showtime earlier this summer. Now boasting It’s Showtime’s roster of top-shelf talent, K-1 has been reduced to “other guy” status. It’s a turn of events that may have killed smaller promotions, but with K-1’s brand power, and this new deal with Spike TV, it merely presented them with an opportunity to change who and what they are. K-1 may not be the preeminent force in the sport anymore, but they could become the face of it in the world’s most lucrative media market: The United States.
It’s unlikely that the added exposure would be enough to shift the balance of power back into K-1’s hands. Glory simply boasts too deep a roster to rival on a sheer competition level. Where K-1 can excel is in the talent development aspect of the sport. Starting September 8th with the K-1 U.S. Grand Prix, American kickboxers will play a bigger role than ever before in the title picture (four of sixteen available slots in the World Grand Prix will go to American kickboxers). An important part of both the sport and the promotion catching on is going to be having competitors that viewers can identify with, and the added American flavor should serve that purpose. These guys may not be the cream of the crop per se, but they will be the figureheads that help stimulate the growth of the sport at the grassroots level here in North America.
K-1 is also scheduled to hold their next World Grand Prix finals in New York City, the first time one will ever be held outside of Japan. New York State remains the single largest market to have not yet sanctioned mixed martial arts, even though their fans have been clamoring for it. K-1 may be able to thrive there by bridging that gap. It’s clear as day that they feel there is massive untapped potential in the American market, and they’re exploiting every possible angle they can in their attempts to set roots there.
One huge part of what made the UFC so successful on Spike was The Ultimate Fighter reality series. It allowed fans to meet, and connect with emerging talent, while simultaneously providing that talent with a platform to shine competitively. Today, The Ultimate Fighter continues to be a popular show, but it’s also an integral feeder system for the promotion’s talent ranks. Bellator FC will indeed have a reality show included in their deal with Spike, although the format of that show has not been discussed publicly as of yet. The hope is that if the Bellator product is successful with its reality series that K-1 may be afforded one as well, and if it is, the possibilities could be endless.
Fans won’t be getting the likes Peter Aerts, Remy Bojansky, or Alistair Overeem. Name power will take on a different form in the new K-1, with guys like an over-the-hill Mirko Cro Cop, or MMA convert Seth Petruzelli highlighting upcoming cards. More importantly, as legendary author Marshall McCluhan once said, the medium is the message. The power of a Viacom-backed broadcast deal may outweigh the draw power of household names, while simultaneously generating new ones. It’s a big step forward for the sport, even if the promotion has taken a step back in recent years. Kickboxing fans, old and new, shouldn’t expect Spike’s K-1 to be necessarily better, just different, and different might be all it takes to bring the entire sport to a whole new level.