Constructing a Game Plan for PFL’s Best Year Yet
2019 proved to be a keystone year in the Professional Fighter League’s company history — crowning its inaugural female champion, broadcasting on ESPN, signing a number of free agents, and continuing its catapult into mainstream viewership. With a multitude of changes for the company announced, 2020 can be the year in which PFL emerges as an exciting, viable viewing alternative to the UFC for high-level MMA. So, exactly what steps are necessary for the PFL to have a fruitful 2020?
Aggressively Pursue Free Agents
In late January, PFL received an additional backing of US $50 million, bringing its total funding to US $100 Million and enabling the company to further pursue free agents. At the end of 2019, the company announced that former Bellator Welterweight Champion Rory Macdonald had signed with the promotion to debut in the 2020 tournament. Sure, PFL is in business with many former UFC talents such as Daniel Pineda, David Michaud, Alex Nicholson, etc. – but never have they signed a free agent widely considered to be one of the best fighters in his weight class. With that being said, there are a number of free agents (and soon-to-be free agents) that would serve as outstanding additions to the 2020 PFL roster, including: Anthony Pettis, Gleison Tibau, Artem Lobov, Thiago Alves, among others. Even heavyweight superstar Francis Ngannou expressed dissatisfaction with the UFC and an interest in exploring free agency options. Overall, there are a number of fighters that have stepped away from the UFC for endeavors such as bareknuckle fighting, boxing, or retirement. However, a lofty offer from PFL and a spot in a tournament may certainly entice them to join the promotion.
Seize the International Market
Earlier this year, PFL announced that it would launch multi-country qualifying tournaments for up-and-coming fighters, awarding winners with promotional contracts and coveted spots in the 2020 regular season tournaments. PFL has partnered with the top regional promotions from select markets, with the first four-man tournament taking place on March 20 in Abu Dhabi. In a recent interview with PR Newswire, PFL CEO Peter Murray noted, “We’re excited to accelerate growth outside of the United States through the International Qualifier Series, a global fight twice in one-night tournament designed to identify and recruit the best MMA fighters from five priority markets around the world.”
With MMA advocates recently winning a long and tumultuous battle of legalization in France, it will be interesting to see how major promotions capitalize on the market. An expert chess move for PFL would be to gain a foothold in the French MMA pool immediately, akin to what Bellator is doing in Ireland. Bellator has done wonders for its business by focusing on markets outside of the U.S., which is firmly grasped by the UFC. Similarly, PFL can seek to slowly develop a foothold in the middle east, France, etc. to expand its viewership.
Since its inception, PFL has steadily been receiving financial and promotional endorsements from mega-celebrities such as comedian Kevin Hart, television executive Mark Burnett, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Recently, PFL signed a deal with fighting legend Mike Tyson, who will host a series titled Mike Tyson’s New Fight Game. Co-hosted by former PFL tournament winner Sean O’Connell, the thirty-minute episodes will air on ESPN2 and ESPN+ and will feature discussions of upcoming PFL fight cards as well as reflections on Tyson’s greatest career moments. Additionally, the deal with Tyson will see him take on a mentorship role for many of PFL’s top fighters. In an interview with Forbes.com, PFL cofounder Donn Davis said Tyson “is going to help recruit and sharpen the marketing of some of our new fighters. No one knows what it is like to be a champion more than Mike Tyson—how to become one and the pitfalls of being one, financially, emotionally and psychologically.” Since his retirement, Tyson has remained a must-watch entertainer and orator, and his presence on the PFL team will surely bring more eyes to the promotion.
Tweaking Dates and Times
The PFL ended its 2019 on a high note, garnering 361,000 live viewers for its New Years Eve season finale. This was the largest rating in the company’s history since its transition from the World Series of Fighting brand in 2018. However, the promotion has received backlash for its insistence on holding the tentpole event on New Year’s Eve in America every year. The majority of people are likely to be out to dinner, at family/friend parties, or watching television coverage of the new year celebrations. Ideally, PFL should simply hold its tournament finals on the last Saturday of the year, as opposed to the exact date of New Year’s Eve. This could potentially lead to a viewership explosion as far as ratings are concerned.
PFL has held some great fights in its short two years of existence and has done a stellar job of convincing the community of its elite talents (Magomedkerimov, Harrison, Palmer, Schulte, etc. are all world class competitors). Additionally, PFL has been extraordinarily receptive to media and fan feedback (i.e. the elimination of the first-round winner advancing in the event that the quarterfinal fights are a draw). They have proven to be amenable to change, and if they listen to what the fans want, 2020 can be the biggest year yet for the ambitious startup company.