In a span of just three years, the Professional Fighters League has gone from an exciting new startup to one of the most established MMA organizations in the world. With a mix of hungry, young talent like rising star Kayla Harrison, an innovative format that features a regular season, postseason and championship and a future-thinking executive in the form of Peter Murray, it should be no surprise the PFL has exploded onto the scene.
“MMA is the growth sport of this decade and the fastest-growing sport in the world,” Murray told Uproxx Sports. “We saw there was room for more than one leader and clearly, MMA fans are seeking to consume more premium, live and quality MMA events, fights and content.”
Immediately out of the gate, the PFL has differentiated itself from the UFC, Bellator, and other top MMA organizations. During the regular season, fighters from 25 countries accrue points across six weight classes, with more points awarded for finishing your opponent rather than letting judges decide the bouts. The top eight fighters in each division earn a spot in the playoffs, where the quarterfinals and semifinals are held on the same night. And in the championship, each division winner earns $1 million and the 2020 world championship.
As innovators in the space, the PFL has also already launched presentation adjustments like a ref cam that brings fans into the cage, punch speed metrics, and have kick speed and heart rate detection expected to roll out in 2021.
“It’s a great product, quite simply,” Murray said. “We’re the only organization in the world that presents MMA in this fashion and it speaks to not only the combat and MMA fans, but fans of other sports as well. It’s programmatic, with a beginning, middle and end, and a spectacle that includes belts and major money on the line. If you combine our sports season format with our cutting-edge presentation, integrating real-time fighter data and fight analytics, it really is MMA 2.0. It’s next-gen.”
In a short period of time, the PFL acquired the No. 1 streamed content on ESPN+ Thursday Nights in 2019 and more than 500,000 viewers to its championship event on New Year’s Eve, riding the popularity of fighters like Harrison, who is a top-3 female fighter in the world and Ray Cooper, who took home the welterweight crown in 2019. They also brought in top talent, with names like former UFC and Bellator contender Rory MacDonald.
“What comes with that is the opportunity to make more money. That’s why we’re seeing top-ranked athletes flock to the PFL. Year over year, it’s going to get harder to get in and it’s going to get harder to keep the top spot,” Murray said. “Our fighters are exclusive to the PFL, and in most cases, fighters are exclusive on multi-fight agreements. Over time, we are absolutely open to PFL champions competing against other organization’s champions. I think fans want to see that. Those would be fantastic event extensions and those are things we look forward to in the future.”
As the organization continues to grow and begins to reach even more fans with its talented roster, it’s important for Murray and the PFL to weigh in on national conversations, such as the upcoming election. That’s why the PFL has rolled out a league-wide, non-partisan initiative encouraging everyone to exercise their right to vote.
“Like any brand, and certainly I believe organization and sport, it’s on our minds, it’s on our fans’ minds and we think it’s a positive message,” Murray said. “We’re not asking anyone to pick sides, we just want them to get out there and support what this country is built on.”
What happens, though, when fighters do opt to pick sides, as the UFC’s Colby Covington has done time and time again?
“That’s up to the fighters,” Murray said. “We don’t own their likeness or political points of view. Our fighters, and other athletes beyond MMA, it’s up to them on how they want to leverage their own platforms to share their views on politics or otherwise.”
As for what actually takes place inside the cage, the PFL is ready to get going after rescheduling its 2020 season.
“We’re locked and loaded for April,” Murray said. “With respect to the pandemic, we made an early decision in 2020 as COVID became a real apparent factor to create destruction in the world and society and business, including sport. So we made the decision to reschedule our third season to 2021. The two guiding factors are the safety of our fighters as well as preservation and maintaining the integrity of our sports season format. Anything less than a full season didn’t make sense so we rescheduled. We had the benefit of seeing what worked and what didn’t in sports. So looking at what the NBA executed in a bubble, the NHL and others, even the UFC doing single-destination in Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi. So we took those learnings and are adapting to our model.”
The PFL plans to host a single-destination regular season with its own version of the bubble. Should the landscape change, Murray noted, the organization has the ability to open up to larger-scale, bigger events for the postseason. The first half of the PFL regular season is currently scheduled to begin April 23 on ESPN2, with scheduled bouts to be announced in the coming months.