PFL Using Traditional Season/Playoff Format, Technological Innovation and “Olympic Storytelling” to Stand Out in Crowded MMA Space


The Professional Fighters League (PFL) wraps up its second season this evening (Dec. 31) with six title fights on ESPN2 (from 7-11p EST). The winner of each bout will be crowned champion of their respective weight class and take home a cool $1 million bonus for their efforts. The card is the culmination of the PFL postseason. The mixed martial arts organization use a traditional regular season format (runs May-August, each fighter fights 2x) and a bracketed playoff (occurs in October, includes 8 out of the 12 fighters per weight class) to determine their champions.

Howie Long-Short: The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act exists to prevent rigged rankings (in addition to exploitation and rigged matches), but those protections are limited to boxers (as we noted in a recent story entitled 'UFC's BMF Champion says Promotion is "Just a Big Factory"') and without them, promoters - like Dana White - can still arbitrarily decide which fighters get a shot at winning a championship belt. The PFL’s merit based format provides mixed martial arts with some much needed transparency, while ensuring every one of the league's athletes has the opportunity to win the $1 million grand prize at the completion of the season. One can also argue that the PFL’s meritocracy incentivizes fighter performance. 40% of the bouts that took place during the 2019 regular season ended in first round stoppages.

It’s certainly noteworthy that the champion of each weight class (there are 6 in total, 5 men’s and 1 women’s) will take home a check for one million dollars (in addition to their regular season and post-season show and win totals). For perspective, Murray says “you can count on two hands the number of mixed martial artists that have made $1 million - excluding PPV points - on a single fight within the last two decades.

As a challenger brand, the PFL's strategy is to “lead with innovation.” Their trademarked ‘smart cage’ (which measures athlete performance in real-time), ref cam (since adopted by other fight sports promotions) and custom mobile viewing experience (think: ability to control viewing angles, corner audio) work in unison to enhance the event broadcast. Unfortunately, state commission guidelines prevent the data being captured by the ‘smart cage’ from being used by the judges and so ambiguity remains in scoring fights.

A unique format (for fight sports), technological innovation and “Olympic-like storytelling” are the three pillars on which the PFL intends to lean as it looks to stand out in a crowded MMA space (see: UFC, Bellator, One Championship). Murray explained, “to grow our audience, we have to tell the viewer more about the athletes. We have to take the fans through [the fighter’s] emotional journey leading up to a fight. Their physical journey. We need to explain where these fighters come from and how they got into the sport; interesting nuggets of information that make people care [about the fighters and ultimately the fights].” The addition of marquee names - like the recently signed Rory MacDonald - will also give casual fans reason to care about the league.

The PFL business model is “focused on the live video experience and the creation of premium content”, so the organization is counting on media rights to drive company revenues. In 2019, the organization inked distribution deals with ESPN (every event is shown domestically on both linear and digital) and “approximately 25 other major media partners outside the U.S.” ensuring that the league is seen in 150+ countries. Unlike many start-up leagues, the PFL’s deal with ESPN is not a time buy. Murray explicitly stated that “[the PFL is] getting fees from ESPN, as well as from some of our other [international] media partners.”

Brand partnerships are the PFL’s other significant revenue stream. Anheuser Busch Inbev (which signed a “multi-million dollar long-term deal” with the league), Geico, the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Rich Energy Drink all signed on for the 2019 season. Murray said that the organization intends to make ticket sales a bigger part of their strategy as they move into 2020 and 2021.  

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