Inside PFL, the High-Powered MMA League Taking Aim at the UFC

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterAugust 29, 2018

Workers prepare for July 5's PFL 3 in Washington, D.C.
Workers prepare for July 5's PFL 3 in Washington, D.C.Scott Harris

When Andre Harrison saw the date for his next fight, he immediately noticed the problem.

It was the same day as the pizza party he'd already organized for his daughter's fifth birthday. Was there any chance his employers would reschedule the fight? Plenty of bosses wouldn't consider the request much beyond whether to laugh, shrug or sneer. Harrison understood that but figured he should ask. At least when he gave his daughter the standard talk about grown-ups sometimes having to do things they don't want to, he would know he'd done his due diligence.

Then a funny thing happened: The bosses helped him out.

"There were a couple other cards coming up, and I asked them could I fight on one of those that wasn't specifically on my daughter's birthday," Harrison said. "They did everything to get me on the right card. Other people might have said, 'So what if it's your daughter's birthday?'"

Harrison (19-0) is one of the marquee fighters in the new Professional Fighters League. As his story suggests, there are things that set the PFL apart—sometimes rather sharply—from other MMA organizations. In the cage and behind the scenes, the PFL seems equipped and determined to make a run at the top of a stagnating MMA hierarchy.

If Harrison wins the featherweight championship in this first season of the PFL, he'll earn $1 million—an eye-popping number for anyone unaccustomed to the main event of a UFC pay-per-view, and even then a single such appearance doesn't usually do it. By the end of 2018, six PFL fighters will each take home $1 million, out of a total prize pool of $10 million.

That's a lot of money—unsustainable, even, for an upstart promotion. Until, that is, you look at the fearsome cadre of sports and entertainment heavyweights who recently signed on as PFL investors.

In August, the PFL announced $28 million in investing from a group including actor-comedian Kevin Hart, television mogul Mark Burnett, celebrity motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and the NBA's Washington Wizards, among other things.

Ted Leonsis
Ted LeonsisManuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

"We can see the best of what the UFC has created, then do what we know how to do as entrepreneurs," Leonsis told Bleacher Report. "There's clearly a giant in the space, and there's been no major number two. If you try to do what the giant did, you'll always be number two. If you learn what they did well and come at it with new things in mind, you can do something good."

It says a lot about both the PFL and the persistent potential of MMA that established sports titans like Leonsis felt confident enough to partner with an organization that was essentially in ashes just one year ago. Instead of being a foundering afterthought, PFL now has the pluck and energy of a Silicon Valley startup.

That makes sense for reasons other than newness. Several executives fit that mold, including Leonsis, who helped establish America Online. New PFL CEO Peter Murray served as an NFL executive for 13 years before he moved to an upstart apparel company called Under Armour.

"Under Armour is a large and growing brand around the world, but it's also an underdog, a challenger brand," Murray said. "We really started by bringing a fresh perspective and we feel the [PFL] format does that."

That format is fundamentally different from that of the UFC or any other promotion: the MMA league. Instead of matchmakers hand-assembling cards based at least in part on what they think will sell, the league format features fixed regular season, postseason and championship structures.

PFL 3 in Washington, D.C.
PFL 3 in Washington, D.C.Scott Harris

Over the course of a seven-event regular season, 72 PFL fighters in six weight classes gather points—three points for a win, one for a draw, zero for a loss and extra points for stoppage wins, the faster the better. The top eight point-getters in each weight class advance to a single-elimination postseason, culminating in a championship event at year's end in which fighters compete for six separate $1 million prizes.

"It's no different than the NFL," Murray said. "It culminates with six title fights in one night. It's like six Super Bowls in one night, all over the air. We make compelling events and energy year round with storytelling. We feel our product illustrates that our fights are more exciting because of our true sport format. Every fight counts, every round counts."


Startup Energy

It's the day after Independence Day in the nation's capital. PFL 3 is getting underway in the 5,000-seat Charles E. Smith Center in Washington, D.C., home of the fighting Colonials of George Washington University and snugly in the backyard of several PFL execs. 

UFC events are pulsing, cavernous affairs. Trails of stone-faced staffers and fans weave across the floor, no one ever seeming satisfied with their current location. It has its own intensity, and it's the fight fan's Mecca. When Stemm's 2002 nu-metal masterwork and de facto UFC theme song "Face the Pain" kicks in, you happily realize you're in the right place, then wonder about the particulars of the extended conditioning process that resulted in your knowing all the words like your mother's maiden name.

The PFL is a little different. PFL 3 is essentially a large MMA house party. On the Jumbotron, the spotlights are bright and summery below a how-could-you-ever-be-mad-at-me blue Facebook logo. Rihanna's on the speakers and the VIP area is packed.

Workers wave to each other, smile and shake hands. Fighters who have the night off hobnob with visitors. Fighters who do not have the night off take selfies with girlfriends, then a fan, then another fan. They might as well set up a ping-pong table in the center of the cage, with free avocado toast for the first five rows. 

This is Carlos Silva's party.

Silva, president of event production and business operations for the PFL, is a veteran of sports media who helped create Universal Sports Network, which eventually was folded under the NBC Sports umbrella and became the Olympic Channel. 

Now, he's in the middle of the action. Dressed in a natty blue suit, a grinning Silva, who bears a slight resemblance to actor Stanley Tucci, bounces from press row to the TV van before disappearing into the VIP, only to emerge some time later to re-initiate the sequence.

Producers in the PFL broadcast van for PFL 3.
Producers in the PFL broadcast van for PFL 3.Scott Harris

"I've been around the fight game for six years," Silva said. "We wanted to create a true format for MMA. ... It has March Madness-style excitement. Our investors know what an investment is and what it takes to put things together over the long term."

It's fair to say that Silva is a believer in not just the product but the presentation. Like other aspects of the PFL, that commitment isn't widely reflected across the MMA landscape.

"It is hard to maintain interest in anything over time," Silva said. "But built into the season format is a whole new intrigue in the next round. It's new storylines, new stories. We're not a promotion. We're a sports league, and that embodies the difference."


Behind the Scenes

The PFL came into being after its prior iteration, the World Series of Fighting, sunk to the bottom of the sea on an unsightly raft of financial trouble, legal trouble and general shadiness.

The ship began to turn when Washington, D.C.-area investors Russ Ramsey and Donn Davis acquired a controlling stake in early 2017. Right off the bat, there was a strong push to turn the page, embodied by a rapid hiring process that included Murray.

"I really can't speak to the past," Murray said. "I can only speak to the acquisition of WSOF by PFL, which then brought a new vision with it as well as new top management."

Despite the turnover, some WSOF fingerprints remain, including, interestingly, the PFL's key idea: the MMA league. PFL leaders will tell you this structure holds several benefits: It offers a predictable schedule for fighters and fans, it provides more prize money for more fighters, and it does it all with transparency, empowering everyone to understand stakes and fighter positions more clearly.

"It's just more geared to fighters," Harrison said. "The fighters feel like they're important. Other places, it's 'do as I say or you'll get penalized.'"

Andre Harrison
Andre HarrisonMichael Owens/Getty Images

Executives see this as a way to differentiate the PFL from the UFC.

As primary owner of the Capitals and Wizards, Leonsis is a public figure in Washington, gaining a reputation as an owner who understands his role but also famously fosters warm relationships with his players and other employees. It is no secret that the UFC, for all its success and profit, does not have the same reputation.

"There are high levels of trust between our players and our ownership," Leonsis said of his time with the Wiz and Caps. "You don't feel that in other promotions or with boxing. Usually it's the opposite. We're putting fighters first and that is giving us a concrete edge."

The UFC declined to comment for this story.

There is evidence that the actual PFL fighting action is different. Because finishes lead to immediate point dividends instead of the longer odds of a UFC post-fight bonus, the point system incentivizes stoppages. Of the season's first six PFL events, stoppages occurred at a rate of 79 percent. That's not unheard of for UFC cards, but no one would expect that sort of rate with any consistency.

Dovetailing with the increased ease of following a fighter over the course of a season, special content and features like video packages and training look-ins can help familiarize fans with fighters. Each undercard airs free on Facebook Watch, and each main card airs on NBC Sports, making every fight accessible to anyone with basic cable and a smart device. New data-gathering capabilities tabulate everything from striking impact to aggression and present them during broadcasts, further deepening engagement. Where legal and possible, viewers can open gambling and fantasy windows—and it's certainly not lost on anyone that sports gambling is about to have itself quite a boom in America. 

Ted Leonsis @TedLeonsis

Podcasts on gaming; gambling created and announced; via Action Network.. you will see and hear more of these.. https://t.co/ddbEA0td2W

"If you watch our fights you'll see a lot of real-time information built right into the scoring system, and that's modifying behavior," Leonsis said.

The investors provide more than just money, name value and promotional horsepower. Leonsis' championship experience speaks for itself, as does the resume of someone like Burnett. If you're wondering where you've heard that name before, he's the mastermind behind Survivor, the groundbreaking reality competition show. He may know a thing or two about ways to best leverage the PFL format.

"You have stars that are made with regular programming, and then you can have it be a meritocracy," Leonsis said. "I would get a little bored with MMA because fights were undifferentiated. I didn't know the stories or who to root for."

These investors see MMA as a growth industry, but not everyone shares that view.

Gauging audience numbers is a nebulous exercise, but the PFL estimates MMA has approximately 300 million fans worldwide and 40 million in the U.S.

Meanwhile, UFC ratings are at startling lows. As one might expect, PFL ratings aren't any better, sometimes struggling to break six figures. There are broader issues as well, with the sport as a whole seeming unable to generate consistent mass appeal.

The measuring tools of success reach well beyond television ratings these days, and the PFL is obviously playing the long game. But there's a formidable leap of faith here, as there is with many startups. Nevertheless, PFL leaders see promise in the tea leaves. Given MMA's profitable but stale status quo, fresh air in the space would appear healthy.

"I have a good perch into what is happening in pro sports and entertainment, and I value creation. This launch and this new league lit up a lot of the big trends I was seeing," Leonsis said. "This is a digital-first, mobile-first sport. It doesn't have to be retrofitted backward. MMA has high awareness on a global basis, not just on a North American basis. ... Young people like short, high-energy programming. This is three rounds and moves along quickly."


Punching Up?

No one comes right out and says it, but no one needs to: No discussion of MMA is complete without a clear-eyed assessment of the monolithic UFC, which has held the sport in a chokehold for most of its existence, and one's place in relation to said monolith.

Several other shows around the world have found a healthy place in the ecosystem. In the U.S., Bellator MMA is a respected promotion with a solid pedigree and is generally considered the nation's No. 2 MMA show.

UFC President Dana White
UFC President Dana WhiteJohn Locher/Associated Press

But the UFC is the clear leader by any metric. Bearing in mind the recent self-proclaimed $7 billion valuation, any direct charge at the UFC would be a kamikaze mission. 

That adds perspective to the PFL's unique format, of its repeated assertion that it is building on the UFC's success, not flying in its face.

"The UFC has helped shape the sport," Silva said. "We took all that good and smart knowledge and we made it into PFL."

The PFL isn't looking for a fight. They aren't intimidated, either.

The PFL is a relatively small player in the MMA space. But when its leadership picks up a stick and pokes the UFC bear, it sort of feels like there's a bear on both ends.

"The big player is the UFC and they haven't been pushed," Leonsis said. "Fans can suffer because of that. All great markets have a number one and a number two competitor. Right now there's a big number one player and no one else is close. If we are smart and patient, we have a great chance."


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