2020 has not been an easy year for the Professional Fighters League (PFL), but all signs point to 2021 being its best year to date.
The PFL presents MMA in a seasonal format like those used by the NFL or NBA and hands its champions million-dollar checks at the culmination of each year.
Like just about everybody outside of the world's foremost epidemiologists, the league's key decision-makers were taken by surprise by the coronavirus pandemic and were forced to make some difficult decisions as a result. The hardest of those was whether to proceed with the 2020 season or press pause until 2021.
Under the leadership of CEO Peter Murray, the PFL went the latter route.
"It was a difficult decision to reschedule the 2020 season, but as a result of COVID-19, it was the right decision," Murray told Bleacher Report. "No. 1, to keep our fighters, their teams and our operational staff safe. No. 2, to maintain the integrity of our format with a regular season, playoffs and a championship. It takes eight months to execute, so this was the right decision."
While 2020 was far from the year anybody expected for the PFL, the old adage about clouds and silver linings holds true in this instance. Without any fights on the calendar, Murray and his team have been able to focus on ensuring the 2021 PFL season is the league's biggest yet.
The most visible result of these efforts has been the expansion of the PFL roster. This year, the league has bolstered its stable by signing a throng of rising stars like South Korean featherweight Sung Bin Jo (9-1) and Nigerian-American heavyweight Mohammed Usman (7-1), established names like former UFC lightweights Olivier Aubin-Mercier (11-5) and Johnny Case (27-7-1) and legitimate combat sports superstars in former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum (24-9-1) and three-division boxing champ Claressa Shields, who will make her transition into MMA in the PFL cage.
"Ray Sefo, our president of fighter operations, he and his team have received significant interest from top-ranked free agents to join the PFL," Murray said. "Why? First, we provide a global stage. Second, we provide top talent [to fight]. Third, we provide a transparent opportunity to fight for the title and become champion and enjoy all the things that come with that—meaning the opportunity to make more money and win that million-dollar prize, plus competitive show and win money.
"Our fighters have the opportunity to control their own destiny."
Beyond these roster expansion efforts, the PFL team has also worked hard to further differentiate its product from the offerings of other MMA organizations.
The PFL's earliest innovations to that end surrounded its seasonal format—one that isn't used by any other MMA organization on Earth. More recently, the league has sought to leverage technology to give fight fans a unique viewership experience.
In late 2019, the PFL introduced its proprietary SmartCage, which uses biometric sensors and cutting-edge technology to track and deliver real-time fighter performance data—information the league has dubbed Cagenomics.
More recently, the PFL inked a partnership with Flagship Solutions Group, a firm that will apply IBM's suite of advanced cloud and AI products to enhance the SmartCage and the PFL viewership experience by tracking things like punch and kick speed. That data will later be used to create new and exciting prop bets via the league's soon-to-be-announced official betting partner.
"Flagship Solutions Group has a deep history with technology, specifically where it meets sports innovation and, in particular, working closely with IBM," Murray said. "[This partnership] really started with our vision for SmartCage, No. 1, and how we can enhance the experience for fans. Then No. 2, as a media company, how we can advance our overall content operations.
"We'll also be announcing, for the end of the year, our official betting partner, which will leverage this new fight data and analytics to create new prop bets that have never before been incorporated into combat sports or MMA."
This kind of innovation has been the name of the game for the PFL since the league rose from the ashes of the defunct World Series of Fighting in 2018. And Murray, who has previously served as an executive for the NFL and sports apparel giant Under Armour, believes it's crucial to the success of any sports organization in the technological age.
"In every major sports league, this is a top priority, and if it's not, there's a real disconnect because we live in a world where every company is a technology company," Murray explained. "Technology unlocks so much access experience, customization and personalization. And we're at the forefront of that.
"Our vision is to reimagine and grow the sport. There's been no innovation in MMA in the last two decades—zero. So therein lies the opportunity for the PFL."
While 2020 didn't go the way the PFL—or anybody, for that matter—planned, the team behind the league has been working tirelessly to ensure 2021 is a banner year.
"2021 will be next level, as it relates to the PFL, for all fans," Murray concluded, previewing the year to come. "Expect an enhanced roster, a next-gen experience and continued explosive growth around the world."