In an era in which traditional sports are facing a battle for audience share and to attract younger fans turned off by the subscription television model that has helped prop up the industry for so long, mixed martial arts has been a rising force, with UFC, in particular, pulling in viewers across the globe for its mix of high-octane action and compelling personalities.
It has also spawned other series such as Professional Fighters League, which has adopted a distinctive season format, and claims to have established itself as the clear number two in the market, with a large international audience, even after having postponed its 2020 campaign as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Professional MMA, a full-contact combat sport incorporating a cage, has its roots in various established fighting disciplines but was widely condemned as too violent, and indeed banned in a majority of US states, when it emerged in the 1990s.
However, greater regulation allied to intelligent marketing and presentation, drove greater acceptance, and, as it has become more mainstream, investors and broadcasters have been drawn in.
Dana White’s UFC, now in its 28th year, was the subject of a $4-billion takeover by Endeavor, then WME-IMG, the combined Hollywood talent agency and international sports and entertainment company, in 2016, and in USA its events are now shown by ESPN, the renowned sports broadcaster, in a five-year linear TV and streaming deal worth $1.5 billion that came into effect at the start of 2019.
The PFL, which began in 2018 as an evolution of the World Series of Fighting launched back in 2012, is aiming to ride on the coattails of the MMA boom, also armed with ESPN coverage, but with a different approach to the other promotions.
While the league cannot yet boast the longevity of UFC nor household names such as international star Conor McGregor, chairman and co-founder Donn Davis believes it has overtaken rival Bellator (which launched in 2008), and is continuing to attract new fans with its regular fights, transparent rankings and technology innovations.
The PFL’s unique selling point is its season format, which comprises 10 rounds held in USA, with fights for men and women and various weight divisions, culminating with playoffs and an end-of-year championship, along the lines of popular US leagues such as the NFL and NBA.
This represents a contrast with UFC, which is best known for its one-off pay-per-view events, and means the nascent series can provide greater continuity and meet the demands of the increasing global MMA audience, according to Davis.
He tells Sportcal Insight: “What's been very interesting is the PFL is only a two year old MMA organisation, and our 2019 championship on New Year's Eve where we awarded six $1 million prizes and crowned six champions in six weight classes had a 400,000 average audience on ESPN2, and 3 million viewers around the world in 160 countries.
“That’s 40 per cent of the audience of an average UFC broadcast, and UFC has been around for over 25 years, and the PFL has been around for two years… I think that [audience] is testament to the fact that even though our brand is relatively new, still a first-grader, our fight quality and our fight excitement is already in college, and is on a par with UFC.”
PFL investors include Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, David Blitzer, a partner in Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and Mark Lerner, the principal owner of MLB’s Washington Nationals.
Last December, the PFL closed a $50 million Series C funding round led by Swan & Legend Venture Partners and Matterhorn Private Equity, taking the total investment in the series to $100 million. This has been regarded as a vote of confidence in the potential of MMA and the format of the league, which has carved out a niche for itself in a still developing market.
Why the PFL has grown so fast is: one, it's the highest level MMA along with UFC and Bellator; and two, it's differentiated MMA with a sports season format
“We actually see that MMA is not crowded for fans at the highest level,” says Davis. “UFC is the clear leader and Bellator was a distant number two. Together UFC and Bellator only put on 50 MMA events a year, and there’s 300 million MMA fans around the world.
“That’s the third largest fan base globally, after soccer and basketball, and there’s 6,000 basketball games if you look at the NBA and the NCAA Division 1 [college competition] and 3,000 soccer matches if you look at the nine major leagues.
“What we said is 'MMA fans want more high quality content, and wouldn’t it be great if that was delivered in a sports season format instead of just one-off entertainment events?' So why the PFL has grown so fast is: one, it’s the highest level MMA along with UFC and Bellator; and two, it’s differentiated MMA with a sports season format.”
Davis cites PFL TV ratings being up 50 per cent last year, while Bellator’s were down 22 per cent, and the former having 14 per cent of top 20 fighters as against 10 per cent for its rival, as evidence that the league is already the number two series in the world.
Canadian Rory MacDonald, a former Bellator champion who has also fought in UFC, is now on the PFL’s books alongside other stars such as Ray Cooper III and two-time Olympics judo gold medallist Kayla Harrison.
Davis says: “Bellator’s a more well-known brand, but the PFL has better fighters and more exciting fights.”
He adds: “It’s clear on the metrics in terms of audience that the PFL, with 50 per cent growth year-over-year 2019 to 2018 is the fastest growing sports league in the world, and the PFL 2019 championship audience beat every single Bellator event, and the PFL roster is now demonstrably better than Bellator.
“We’re excited that we’ve become the number two MMA organisation in the world. We have huge respect for UFC but there’s room for a clear number two, and our first three years were about how do we become a clear number two.”
Given the apparent momentum built up in 2018 and 2019, the PFL will have been reluctant to have to delay its third season to next year as Covid-19 took hold in the US and beyond. However, Davis insists that it did not make sense for the league to serve up a diminished product in 2020, and that it was better to return with a fully-fledged offering in 2021.
He says: “In order not to have a shortened season, or a truncated season, but a full season that takes six months we wanted to reschedule this year to start in the spring of 2021 to maintain the integrity.”
While UFC and Bellator have proceeded with some events behind closed doors, the PFL’s stakeholders are said to be supportive of the league’s decision to wait until next year, while the fighters have the compensation of a monthly cash stipend until they are back in action.
Davis explains: “Before we announced anything we thought of all three constituencies - the fighters, the fans and our partners - media, sponsors, advertisers, and other partners. All of them were extremely pleased with our decision.
“They are extremely pleased for two reasons – we have fighters from 25 countries training, travelling and competing in a full season, and the first time you’ll really be able to do that with wellness and safety is in the spring of 2021.
“The second consideration is just how uncertain everything is. Yes, things are getting better, and they will get better in the summer but we don’t know about the fall. With certain sports leagues that started their seasons, like ice hockey and basketball, it’s understandable they might try to finish them in a truncated or shortened way.
“But, for those who hadn’t started their season, how do you do it in an organised, systematic and smart way? People respected that we did it [postponed the season] and respected that we thought about them, whether they’re the fighters or the partners.”
The PFL has not ruled out its fighters competing in one-off events later this year, possibly also involving the other series, but its priority remains 2021.
“The PFL is an innovative and entrepreneurial company, we always consider all alternatives,” says Davis. “But our focus is on the integrity of what we do and what we do only, which is a sports season for MMA. So whether it's UFC or Bellator, what they do is one-off events. Those events don't have any context, they just match people up.
“Would we ever consider the PFL champions taking on the top fighters from Bellator or UFC? We might consider that as an entertainment product. But a sport is a regular season, playoffs and a championship. If LeBron James just played one game, it wouldn’t mean anything.”
Typically sports leagues are very US-centric. From the very beginning, the PFL did the opposite, with a global league, global athletes and global distribution.
In the absence of live action, the PFL has looked to maintain engagement with fans with various original content series, including ‘Inside The Knockout’, ‘Run It Back’ and ‘MMA At Home’, which feature some of the top fighters and are airing on ESPN2 and digital and social media platforms.
These complement other content initiatives involving the likes of Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing world champion, and Randy Couture, the ex-wrestling and MMA star.
Otherwise, thoughts are turning to next year and how the league can enhance its appeal to audiences around the world, building on existing technology, live in-fight statistics and customisation.
Davis says: “Typically sports leagues are very US-centric. From the very beginning, the PFL did the opposite, with a global league, global athletes and global distribution. Obviously that was a big and expensive undertaking but it’s why the PFL has been globally successful.
“The PFL has done two things to engage that global audience. First of all, we've used technology to make the fighting more interesting to fans. We were the first to wire the cage. We call it the PFL SmartCage, and it displays fight analytics and data such as kick speed and heart rate. Whether you’re in Russia, whether you’re in Africa or whether you’re in Chicago, everybody likes to understand athlete performance and competition analytics, and those are displayed on the screen.
“The second thing we’ve done is broadcast in multiple languages. So on the PFL app and on streaming devices you can customise your language, as well as customise your camera angles. The PFL from the very beginning has been about customisation for the consumer.”
It is with flexibility and accessibility that the PFL has sought to compete with UFC, and further enhancements are expected for 2021, including opportunities to bet on analytics and more insight from those in and around the cage.
Davis says: “We wanted to make the PFL the most broadly available MMA organisation in the world, and we’ve done that. UFC is available in 160 countries and the PFL is available in 160 countries but the difference is 50 per cent of the UFC fights you have to pay for. One hundred per cent of the PFL fights are available free on either streaming or broadcast TV.”
Last year, the PFL comprised events in Long Island, Atlantic City, Las Vegas and the championship at the Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York. It hopes to have spectators back if and when possible in 2021 but tickets make up only around 5 per cent of revenue so this is not the priority it is in other sports leagues.
“The PFL is a made-for-TV product. We’re focused on being a global media company,” says Davis. “We are not focused and nor have we ever been on fan attendance or ticket sales.
“[In 2021], you’ll see our focus in two areas. One is continued innovation. You will see the PFL SmartCage give fans more interesting data. They will see the top kick speed and be able to gamble in real time on all the Cagenomics.
“The second thing is access. We’re very transparent as a sports league. We don’t make up rankings… Championships are earned in the PFL, but likewise we’re going to provide transparent access. You will hear from the fighters in the locker room live on your mobile phone on how they have win their next fight.
“You will get enhanced viewing from the ref cam live in the middle of the fight and their angles as they’re scoring the fight, and you will have enhanced access to fighters, judges and commentators.”
ESPN replaced Fox as the US home of the PFL in a multi-year that came into effect in 2019, and has been offering extensive coverage on ESPN2, Spanish-language network ESPN Deportes and OTT service ESPN+.
Davis says that the broadcaster has been “a fantastic partner” for the PFL to date and hopes to stay with it “long-term”, while being prepared to consider other options.
He points out that there are “a dozen great media companies in the world” and “the PFL focus is how do we expand and how do we grow.”
The same applies outside USA, with Davis concluding: “We’re a very partner friendly company. We have 30 media partnerships covering those 160 countries, and I think why we’ve been successful is we’re very easy to deal with and we’re very reasonable. We always want to have success for our partner so we’re not heavy-handed at all. We’re very flexible and we craft a deal that’s win-win, and we’ll continue to do that in each of those territories.”