- Fresh details have emerged regarding Professional Fighters League and its business in 2022.
- The company has committed to broadcast deals in the US, UK, and Latin America.
- The season begins April 20 and concludes the day after Thanksgiving.
LAS VEGAS — Fresh details have emerged regarding the Professional Fighters League‘s plans for its upcoming season on ESPN.
PFL MMA is an outlier in the combat sports landscape. Traditionally, fights are standalone matches designed to propel winners up the rankings until they, eventually, challenge their division’s titleholder in a championship bout.
PFL differs as the structure is designed to mimic American sports leagues like the MLS, NBA, or NFL, where fighters are pooled together in a group for regular-season matches.
Those who collect the most points from their wins advance to the playoffs, where the winners from those bouts then collide in end-of-season championship fights that yield $1 million checks for those who triumph.
In most years so far, those end-of-season fights take place on New Year’s Eve. Last year, they were held in October.
PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis told Insider this week that, in 2022, the season will begin April 20 and conclude the day after Thanksgiving.
Last year, pandemic-era events were held at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, before they transitioned to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida.
Though Davis kept this year’s locations under wraps ahead of an announcement in March, he did tell us that the 2022 season will feature three host cities and locations that can hold 4,000 fans in attendance at each event.
Two of those locations are new territories for PFL. “One is a place we’ve been to before, which has worked well for us,” Davis told us.
It begins a new era for PFL — one in which the company is keen to boldly claim that it is the only real rival to the Las Vegas-based UFC, a $4.2 billion fight firm that dominates this marketplace.
PFL is signing broadcast partnerships and is eyeing a PPV division
Davis said the broadcast deals it has agreed “around the world in 160 countries” are often with a top-three outlet in those territories, “and not usually behind a paywall.”
Approximately 316,000 viewers tuned in to ESPN2 for the PFL’s New Year’s Eve show in 2019, according to Front Office Sports.
The company put its live event operations on hold in 2020 because of the COVID-19 disruption but returned in 2021.
Though PFL insiders were hoping for aggressive year-on-year growth, the 2021 PFL championship in October drew 166,000 viewers, Mixed Martial Arts reported at the time.
That setback failed to knock the company’s confidence to grow, as it points to its potential audience caption share of 10 million viewers from those 160 countries — including Fubo Sports Network, ESPN in the US, and Channel 4 in the UK.
With MMA being such a young sport, Davis said it’s integral that fans — and potential fans — can easily access fights, and events, on TV.
“MMA is only 30 years old, and the next youngest sport is basketball, which is 75 years old,” said Davis.
“This sport, and importantly the business of this sport, is just getting started. Then, when you look at big territories like India and China, it’s really only just getting started.”
He added that fight fans will “never see a championship fight for free from the UFC” and said the PFL wants “to keep our best product around the world easy and free to access.”
Regardless, the company “wants to launch a pay-per-view division” in the future.
“There’s room to have big fights and expensive fighters in a pay-per-view division,” he said. “But we will keep a vast majority of our fights in this year, but in many years to come in free access TV.
PFL’s new Challenger Series feeds into its full-season format
PFL aired a new product — the Challenger Series — on Fubo TV earlier this month, and it’s a new concept that is exciting Davis, as well as his boardroom colleague Peter Murray.
Speaking to Sporting News, Murray described the series as “American Idol meets MMA,” whereas, for Davis, it creates real-life Rocky moments where unknown commodities breakthrough and can compete on the regular circuit on April 20.
“The Challenger Series features next-gen, emerging pro fighters — a real-life Rocky story where celebrities pick winners, and fans pick the winners,” said Davis.
“It’s not just one person deciding what talent is,” he added, in reference to Dana White’s Contender Series, which is a separate entity to the UFC and designed to funnel talent into that promotion.
Fighters can win in their Contender Series bouts but must do so in a manner that impresses White so much he hands out UFC contracts at the end of each show.
“If you win a contract in the PFL Challenger Series, you’re in the PFL this year,” Davis emphasized. “You don’t have to go to the back of the line, never to be seen again in the UFC. So you can go from being an unknown, fighting for $5,000, to a $1 million check in the same year, this year.”
For the PFL’s upper brass, the benefit is that it can create their own homegrown stars.
Davis points to the way in which Ray Sefo, who is head of fighter operations at PFL, discovered Ray Cooper III on the local circuit, fighting for $10,000 checks.
Cooper is now a two-time MMA champion and a PFL multi-millionaire. “Someone like Ray Cooper is what the PFL produces,” Davis said. “Fans love him, and he’s damned good. He’s an earned champion, not an awarded champion. That’s what the PFL is all about.”
Who is the next Ray Cooper?
One of the storylines fans should look out for this year, Davis says, is who out of the more unknown athletes in the PFL roster can become the new Ray Cooper.
He also said there’s a clear “revenge tour” going on as big-names who failed to win the $1 million check last year will be gunning to prove they still belong at the championship level in the sport.
“You’ve got Rory MacDonald, Anthony Pettis, and Magomed Magomedkerimov — they all lost, and lost big,” said Davis. “Not a little. Big. And those are three [former] champions.
“They’ve got something to prove, and something to show. They’ve all been working extremely hard. Rory, Pettis, Maga — on a revenge-proving tour. That’s storyline one.
“Two, you had cinderella champions — three champions that were 10/1 odds to win. Are they flashes in the pan, or are they the real deal? We shall see.
“And I think you always new talent. Jeremy Stephens,” who is formerly of the UFC, “and others,” Davis said. “We discover new talent every year, better than anyone else. UFC doesn’t like new talent coming in.
“It requires a lot of marketing knowledge, and they’re not a meritocracy-based organization. New talent makes their name in PFL exciting in maybe two years [with the promotion].
“So who is going to make their name and become the next Ray Cooper III?”
Additionally, Davis highlights fan experience innovations for those who watch along at home on TV — regardless of whether that’s ref cam, making the cage disappear, or seeing what a ring walk is like from the point of view of a combatant.
“We invented the ghost cam, which makes the cage disappear when they’re grappling on the mat, so you just see contestants, fighters, not even the cage.
“This year we continue that with the walk-out cam where you see the fighter’s view from the walk-out to the cage. We show you what it feels like for those last 60 seconds from the locker room, to when the cage door closes.”
For Davis, these are things “you don’t see in the UFC.”
But only time will tell if they can close the gap on the market-leading brand.