- Promotion has mothballed third season until May 2021
- Series plans to create prop betting markets around fighter data
- PFL could host pinnacle events in overseas markets
Challenger mixed martial arts promotion the Professional Fighters League is in the middle of a concerted promotional push.
Urged on by new recruit, Loren Mack, former senior director of public relations for One Championship, executives from the two-season start-up have seldom been very far from the sports business pages recently – attempting to keep the series front of mind while Covid-19 prevents it from holding any live events.
The PFL took the decision in April to postpone its official third season until May 2021 to avoid the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. In the interim, executives have described their plans for the organisation which pits MMA fighters against each other in a regular season, playoff and championship format.
Here PFL chief executive and board member Peter Murray explains what has motivated figures including Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner to invest in the promotion and outlines its media, sponsorship and hosting strategy.
Prior to joining PFL, Murray served as vice-president, global brand and sports marketing at Under Armour. Before that he was executive vice-president, marketing & new business at William Morris Endeavor, and spent 13 years as senior vice-president of business & content development and senior vice-president of global brand partnerships at the National Football League.
What’s the thinking behind not trying to restart the PFL before the end of this year? Was it easier to mothball the series, given your backing from private investors?
There were two things here. Number one was the safety for our fighters. We have fighters that come from over 25 countries and there is a lot of complexity with those back-and-forth logistics over an eight-month window. Number two, we wanted to preserve our sports season model with the regular season, the playoffs and the championship, which takes eight months to execute. For us, in an early stage as a league where we have two successful seasons under our belts, where we’re growing ratings and where we’re growing distribution, we thought anything less than a full season would not serve us well from a business standpoint.
You recently launched an OTT service: the PFL MMA app. How do you plan to commercialise the app?
The app really positions the PFL as not just an event-based company, but also now a destination for MMA fans. The app is based on a free model for fans, providing that access to an expansive fanbase. It will be advert-supported and sponsorship driven but we plan to have microtransactions tied to more exclusive content and perhaps events, in addition to gaming opportunities.
Ted Leonsis, one of the champions of legalised betting in the US, is an investor in the PFL. One of his other investments, the Washington Wizards, have pioneered the integration of gaming into broadcasts on NBC Sports Washington. Can you expand on how you plan to integrate betting into your content?
We will be signing multiple official betting partners within the US and then within various countries outside the US, activating the PFL betting and gaming rights.
We are uniquely positioned in the PFL in that we’ve created our Smartcage technology platform. We’re the first ever [MMA promotion] to integrate real-time data and analytics measuring our athletes’ performance within broadcast and streaming of our live events. In the last year, we became the first ever to measure punch speed in real time on every fight and every fighter. Next year, we’ll be rolling out kick speed and then in the coming seasons, we’ll be rolling out heart rate and calorie burn. We call this data ‘Cagenomics’ and it obviously provides a more immersive experience and context on the fights and fighters within a real time fight situation.
That data can also be used for prop bets, particularly strike speeds. We’ll be activating that next season.
Are you looking to have exclusive betting partners, or are you planning to license your IP on a non-exclusive basis?
We will have what I would call an exclusive gaming partner that has expansive and exclusive PFL marketing and content rights, brand activation [rights] in and around all our events, combined with fantasy.
And then beyond that, we will have non-exclusive official PFL gaming, authorised partners. They will be authenticated so that fans know there’s an integrity to the data and the feed they’re using. That will provide expansive reach and broad-based engagement. We will be announcing a partner shortly – multiple partners – so we’re excited about that.
Are there plans for your broadcast partners to offer prop bets on your linear coverage, or will betting just be a feature of the coverage on the PFL app?
We will activate both with our broadcast partners in the US and internationally as well as on the PFL OTT platform.
Other attempts by sports start-ups to gamify coverage and introduce prop bets around player data have met with mixed success. What makes you think you can make this work where other ventures like the Alliance of American Football have failed?
They [the AAF] failed as an overall business model. There was too much saturation in American football.
MMA is the growth sport of this decade. It’s yet to reach its peak in the United States or internationally. There are 450 million fans who are interested in consuming more premium quality content than, frankly, our competitors can supply, so it’s a completely different landscape and business opportunity. And with respect to betting, what we’re excited about is bringing innovation to not only MMA, but sport and how we activate rights and engage fans with new data to open up the aperture of the gaming experience.
How difficult has it been to launch a new OTT service when there is no new live sports content being created?
We have such an expansive archive. All PFL fights are on the app as full fights – every event from the 2019 season to the 2018 season. In addition to the World Series of Fighting [the former name for the PFL] archive, there is ancillary content that the PFL has created. There’s over 400 hours of content on our PFL OTT app, which we just launched. For fight fans looking to binge on full fights, to get more access to our fighters and their stories, the PFL app is the perfect destination for that, particularly when there’s less sports programming being executed as a result of Covid. But come 2021, we will also add live fights to the platform.
You have also created your own content division, PFL Studios. Is that to have control of your own story and messaging?
Absolutely. The inspiration came to me from my time at the National Football League, where I started my career, at NFL Films. We know across all sports, that fans want more access and storytelling is critical to the promotion of the league and, most importantly, the fighter story.
At PFL we have the expertise in-house. George Greenberg is our executive producer of all live events and long-form programming. George is a 16-time Emmy-Award-winning producer, having produced everything from Super Bowl to the Olympics. He was part of the team leading Fox Sports’ production of UFC events. And now George and his team are focused not only on telling stories in the cage, when we’re live with our events, but year-round to give fans day-to-day access.
Dan Ghosh-Roy, our chief digital officer, was in a similar role at Complex Networks. He brings a lot of culture and entertainment to the PFL. And now that gets dialled into how we tell stories across all of our social channels from YouTube, to Facebook, to Instagram, and our PFL OTT app.
In the UFC, kit branding is centralised and fighters get a share of those sponsorship revenues. Do you operate a similar model, or do you allow fighters to strike their own sponsorship deals?
Unlike other organisations we do give our athletes the ability to bring on up to two sponsors per event. And the PFL supports its fighters and we provide sponsorship [inventory], we embellish those approved, individual fighter sponsors and we think the model really works well for everyone. They have the ability to integrate up to two sponsors on their kit for walking in [before they fight] and for when they’re competing.
The popularity of the PFL in Russia has been attributed to the large numbers of fighters from the country who compete in the promotion. Do you have any aspirations to take fights to specific markets and charge a hosting fee?
Absolutely. We launched the PFL as a made-for-TV product. We didn’t need to prove we can fill an arena to get on regional television coverage and then grow from there. We continue to focus on that, which insulates us from Covid, should that be protracted into 2021, as well as other macro factors.
But beyond that we do envision having massive sports entertainment spectacles around our major pinnacle events like our championships when the landscape is safe. We are in conversations with a number of different potential destination partners in different countries outside the US to host our pinnacle event: The 2021 PFL World Championship on New Year’s Eve.
Which markets are you targeting in particular?
We see the significant majority of our growth coming from international markets and Europe is critically important. The UK is a priority for us, and we’re focused on that as it relates to expanding our distribution, and developing and recruiting top fighters from Europe, as well as the UK, and planning for future events.
Would it be accurate to say the series is in growth mode and still isn’t washing its own face at this stage?
We’re absolutely in growth mode and we’re investing in the product, which means investing in fighters, investing in new technologies, and investing in all the marketing capabilities, both in the US and outside the US. And right now, we are super-focused on enhancing the product in 2021, as well as expanding its distribution.
Are you favouring broadcast reach over the largest financial return in your current broadcast negotiations?
They’re equally important. Our distribution strategy is quality distribution and reach. However, the monetising the live content and the ancillary products is critically important and our media partners do pay rights fees.