Fight fans have always loved watching fighters going for glory and holding nothing back, and mixed martial arts has seen its popularity spike in recent years like virtually no other sport in the world.
One of the reasons for this recent growth in the industry is the innovative entertainment brought to MMA fans by the Professional Fighters League (PFL), whose million-dollar bouts that close out their seasons attracting big audiences and creatin stars.
It’s no surprise to Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL that part of the company’s success has been due to the innovative approach he and the team have taken.
“There’s been no innovation in the sport in decades,” he tells us. “Based on the demand of MMA fans around the world, we decided to launch our product three years ago and it’s really taken hold with fans. We’ve very excited about the opportunity ahead and proud of our success to date.”
That success has included a phenomenal rate of growth. Distributed to 160 countries and building an audience on ESPN, PFL is growing both in linear broadcasting avenues and more direct digital on-demand services. Last year’s Championship event on New Year’s Eve surpassed 500,000 viewers and a digital audience that is growing all the time is loving the regular season, post-season and Championship format the PFL provides.
“When we launched the company, we talked to a number of stakeholders, including fighters and fans. We talked about our vision with distributors too and with all their input, we decided to launch our product and we’ve been relentlessly focused during the last period. We’re the only organization who present the MMA with a regular season, postseason and Championship.”
Let’s talk about that Championship, where the winner takes home a spectacular seven-figure sum of money and where fans really get the show of the year in MMA.
“Our Championship is a pivotal event; six world title fights in one night that has gone out on New Year’s Eve the last two years. In that time, we’ve crowned 12 champions and each winner has earned a million dollars. As a result, we’re in conversation with the top ranked fighting talent in the world.”
The buzz about PFL isn’t just restricted to fans. There’s ‘a line of fighters’ trying to get into the PFL at this time, and Peter Murray and the team are excited about the future of the sport.
“We’re going to elevate the product both the level of fighter in terms of rank and the technology. We’ve spent a lot of time further developing the presentation, the SmartCage technology and the next innovations.”
SmartCage technology provides real-time data directly to fans on the attributes the fighters are showing, but rather than being presented at the end of the fight to tell fans what happened, PFL viewers will see this data during the fight itself. It’s a really exciting development.
“Last season we were the first organization to monitor our fighters and measure real-time analytics and integrate that into the broadcast. With our proprietary chip that we’ve created, we measured punch speed for instance, and it provides a more immersive experience for fans and context. I’m happy to say we’ll have kick speed in the 2021 season. That new data will also make the PFL allow our betting partners to allow more prop bets in each fight which has never been done before.”
Murray is very excited at the interest in PFL, with the company growing the distribution with premier sports networks on the linear side and digital partners, who will have an even better product in 2021 in terms of bringing content to fans.
When Coronavirus struck the world, it impacted hugely on sport in general and sports companies had to adapt. It’s something PFL did very quickly.
“We’re a very aggressive and mobile organization, so when the pandemic hit, we were very decisive early in rescheduling our season. This was guided by two principles; the safety of the fighters, staff and fans and also that we didn’t offer anything less than the full eight-month regular season, post-season and Championship. Anything truncated didn’t make sense. One-off events absolutely did not make sense. Our pivot was really the surrounding content. We launched content dedicated to telling great stories about our fighters and the sport, both in long-form and short-form.”
This sort of thinking is something fans love. No longer living on re-runs alone, MMA fans could access over 400 hours of content on the PFL OTT app and there have been new episodes of original content coming later this month.
“Fans want access to more thrilling content. The PFL will deliver that not only through our live content, but we’ll also deliver that all year round across all channels both in the U.S. and internationally. We’ve taken advantage of the demand for sports content during the pandemic. We launched our OTT platform, which was initially scheduled for 2021. We expedited and now have over 400 hours of content on the PFL app from full fight archives and seasons in addition to original content. It’s all about fulfilling the demand MMA fans have for this sport.”
Not only are PFL providing content, however, but they’re also keen to center everything around a strong narrative. It’s a real focus of what they’re bringing to MMS fans.
“With our SmartCage technology, we’re providing that context and storytelling. I started in the NFL and we all have the image of the National Football League of telling stories of great players to inspire fans with their back-stories and making people care. We’re applying that to this sport.”
MMA may be hugely popular, with 450 million fans worldwide, but to a lot of the mainstream sports media, it often feels like a sport that exists purely in the present without perhaps getting the respect for its history or promotion of its future as much as it should do.
“It’s very transactional today and we’re applying an Olympic billing to MMA. That combined with the seasonal format which has worked for 100 years in others sports such as the National Football League and NBA means fans can follow that there’s a beginning and an end. It’s so dramatic.”
Not only that, but the PFL promises big fights, and ones that ultimately pitch the best against the best.
“Fans are assured that players will compete against the best. It ends in a big finish with a lot of money on the line. That’s an exciting narrative and we can put out stories all season around the fighters. Kayla Harrison is a great example of that, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo for the U.S. went pro two years ago as we ushered her into the sport of MMA. She’s now women’s 155 weight class champion and top three in the world of all women in MMA and there are many stories like that to be told.”
The PFL format is one built to create stars, with other athletes such as Ray Cooper, one of the million-dollar-winning champions, proving that.
“We can recruit champions in their prime, too. Rory McDonald is a great example of that, in the prime of his career and yet to peak. Next year, fans will get to see what he can do in the top format in MMA.”
Fighters have to fight four to five times in a season in the PFL, with fighters at the highest level fighting on an average of three times a year. With the PFL it’s clear that while fighters have the opportunity to control their destiny, there’s no opportunity to dodge the biggest fights such as has been recently accused of heavyweight boxing for example.
“There’s no hiding in the PFL,” says Murray. “Once you’re in, its win and advance or lose and go home. It’s quite simple.”
One innovation that isn’t simple is the amazing ‘Ref Cam’ idea. A camera is mounted to the referee, so fight fans can see the fight from the point of view of the adjudicator in the middle of the action. It’s a magnificent idea, but who was behind it?
“We were the first ever to do it.” Laughs Murray. “George Greenberg, who’s our executive Vice President and Executive producer of all our live events has 17 Emmy awards and has done everything from the Super Bowl to Olympics to the World Series. He’s the most amazing storyteller of sports. He’s an MMA enthusiast and for the last 10 years, he led all the production for UFC on Fox Sports. He pushes the boundaries of how fans experience the action. We have an exceptional team at PFL.”
In 2021, the PFL will be launching betting partnerships both inside and outside the U.S., focused on activating our content with the gambling fans, bringing innovation to that marketplace and to fans watching and betting on the PFL.
“Our SmartCage proprietary technology delivers real-time information like punch speed and kick speed; that info will be used as prop bets next year. Fans didn’t have the opportunity to engage on that side of things before and we’re very excited about it.
Unlike other companies relying on heavy subscription fees, the PFL is supported by ad revenue and micro transactions. Murray sees this as a way of recognizing that the future of any sport is the consumer base.
“There will always be a role for linear as well as going direct to the consumer, but we’re tracking with the trend and going direct. Our model is driven towards aggregating a massive number of fans. We have 450 million fans around the world and half of those fans are not watching the English Premier League or the NFL or NBA at all. They’re true fight fans and that’s how they spend the significant amount of their free time – engrossed in MMA. We want to make sure that we give them the type of premium content that they are looking for.”
While Murray agrees that ‘live sport is live, no matter what’, he sees that while live sports being watched by an audience at the same time will always be the most voluble form of entertainment across all platforms, sports broadcasters now need to deliver content how and when fans want it more than ever.
“The only question is what’s the balance and that will evolve over time. We’re focused on our vision and that’s the reimagining and growth of the sport – not just PFL – on a global basis. We’re expanding in terms of number of events beyond our season format and that’s our focus. There’s absolutely more room for more than one leader in this work and we have a product that’s premium, innovative and differentiated.
PFL appeals to fans who don’t have enough access to premium MMA content, but that’s clearly going to change. Murray is passionate to a fault about growing the sport as a whole, with a healthy respect for UFC as well as an ambition to provide alternative entertainment alongside live fights. “We’re going to grow the sport as well as our league and have reached the number two market position in the sport in less than two years. That’s because we have a great product and an exceptional team. We’re excited about it.”
Perhaps revealing what a big fan he is of the sport itself; Murray concedes that in the end, most fight fans care about one thing – who gets into the cage.
“In the end, fight fans want to see great fighters and the PFL has great fighters and we’ll be continuing to offer top-ranked signings. For MMA athletes right now, PFL is an aspirational global stage. Having the ability to control their destiny and having a transparent path to becoming champion, fighters simply have to earn it and there’s a lot on the line.
The PFL are a path to athletes that did not exist two years ago. Murray and his team may be fighting for a growing share of the market and the overall growth of mixed martial arts, something that comes with its share of unknown factors, but those who step in the cage can be sure of what to expect.
“Fighters know when they sign with the PFL who they’re fighting, when they’re fighting and most importantly, what they’re fighting for. It’s a lot of hard work, but we’re having fun doing it.”
The Professional Fighters League is going to be immense fun to follow in the last few months of this year, as well as in 2021 and beyond.
Now, where did we put our gumshield?