Ahead of the Professional Fighters League Championship event on New Years Eve at Madison Square Garden, I spoke with PFL CEO Peter Murray about the upcoming fights, what next season will look like (including a new event series) and the business of the PFL. The fights air on ESPN 2 at 7 pm EST.
What are your thoughts on the season on what you liked the most and what you would change?
“It was a great second season for us, our first season ESPN, number one. Two, expanded distribution internationally with major media partners giving us coverage in 150 countries, so that’s distribution. Secondly on innovation, we rolled out the smart cage. The first ever to have every fighter (measured), measuring strike speed. Every fighter, every punch, every fight, with real time tracking integrated into the broadcast.
“And then the fighters, we saw Kayla in her second season also with the PFL, her first in the regular season format. She’s undefeated, she’s on a run. We have a great event, obviously six world title fights in one night including Kayla against Larissa. I think that’s going to be one of the biggest fights of the night but every fight is a big fight when it’s a world title and a million dollars on the line and a belt. But we’re excited about her journey but Larissa is a formidable opponent and she’s very hungry and dangerous so that’s going to be an exciting one.”
“Going back to the season, it was our first time in Las Vegas, we had a residency with MGM Mandalay Bay, so that was important for the league in its second season to be in Vegas in the fight capital. I thought the brand league, the team, fighters fighting twice in one night was a fantastic showing. And we grew our ratings by over 50 percent versus a year ago overall.”
Is there anything you’d like to change or grow next year?
“I think you could expect from the PFL next year: number one, next level talent coming into the league. We are proud of the athletes who’ve been a part of the league last year and this year who continue to develop and shine and then other athletes coming in like Rory MacDonald, that’s a big deal for the league, its next level, he’s a champion.”
“Some of the things you can expect is us going to other markets outside of the U.S. including Canada with Rory.”
Will it be in Montreal next year with Rory?
“We haven’t announced that yet, that is all in the works, but we are excited to go to Canada with Rory.”
“We’re also excited about expanded events, outside of the U.S. in first quarter before the start of our season, we haven’t announced that yet either. But we’ll be doing within five or six countries some live events the first quarter.”
That will be non-season, correct?
“Non-season, as a build up to the start of the season in May. We’ll be staging some events and creating excitement in six countries.
Will the fighters have on those shows have an opportunity to join the regular season?
“More to come on that.”
With the expanding markets, can we expect a show in the U.K.? Especially now that you have Brendan Loughnane on the roster?
“We’re still mapping things out, Brendan is a great addition to the league and we’re excited to see how he does in his showcase fight before we get into the title fights. He has a huge following in Great Britain, he’s got a great style in the cage and a fantastic attitude so we’re excited with Brendan and other fighters from the U.K. coming on board.”
What percentage of fighters will be back next season?
“We’ll turn over 50 percent of the roster at least. So athletes who perform, fighters who got into the playoffs and in particular the semis and the world title fights, they’ll be back with us and competing again and we’ll be adding other top athletes from different organizations and also new countries.”
How healthy of a discussion is it for the PFL and its fighters to openly talk about free agency? The PFL has discussed acquiring top level athletes but also fighters like Lance Palmer have openly discussed free agency.
“I guess the first part of that is we’re excited to continue and partner and extend the athletes we are interested in for next season and beyond. And outside of that, absolutely the PFL is in every major conversation of fighters rolling off of deals from other organizations.”
Is it hard to remember that the PFL is only in its second season, yet there seems to be a high level of expectations for it?
“We have to remind ourselves, absolutely we’ve been around for 18 months. We launched in June of 2018. So to the fan and to the marketplace, it’s really been only 18 months. It’s been a couple of years in the making before we launched. In 18 months we’ve accomplished a lot, in validating the format, creating some noise in the sport but yea we have to continue to grow awareness, we’re doing that with ESPN as a partner here in the U.S., other media partners and new signings. That will go to the next level next year.”
Is the third year a pivotal year for the PFL and is there a time period where you need to hit a certain level?
“We have a long-term plan and we are happy with our KPIs, last year and this year. And next year as we look into growing the brand its growing awareness, growing audience, we’ll do that with our format number one. Number two, continue to lead with innovation, our technology story and how we deliver our presentation with technology under the smart cage platform. Number three, our story telling, we have some great fighters under six weight classes. They are amazing individuals, human beings, they are amazing fighters and the have stories. I think our team, under George Greenberg, our executive producer, Emmy winning producer in sports, not only covering the action but telling stories about the fighters to make people care and ultimately, that’s our job. So next year is all about growth and leading with those three differentiators and combining that with next level talent.”
How should we consider PFL in comparison to the UFC and Bellator?
“In a short amount of time, we are well on our way to being a leader in the next evolution of the growth of the sport to answer your question. In a short amount of time, we are on a global platform, distributed to 150 countries, we are a premium product and we are innovative. Talk to the fighter community, we are an alternative at the major league level for top athletes in the world to compete under a new banner. And for fans, talk to fans, we are considered a bona fide, credible product. Honestly our views there, it goes back to the demands the fans have. We talk a lot about the evolution of the growth of the sport over the next two decades, we are now on the next leg. Disney validated it, it is no longer a niche sport. ESPN is putting the programming and marketing muscle behind it. We play a role on their platforms to grow the sport and do it with distinction. We are a global player.”
Do you find it hard to differentiate from the UFC on the ESPM+ platform?
“We are complimentary and a differentiated product and we are on a different night of the week and have a different format. And our view is, its good for the sport. Our mission is to reimagine and grow the sport, that’s good for any stake holder. And we share a platform with ESPN and our goal there is to drive engagement among avid MMA fans on ESPN and bring in non-avid fans, those stick and ball fans. We’re good for the sport we believe we’re good for the UFC and for our media partner.”
What’s one thing looking forward to at the championship and one thing next year?
“On the championship. We’re looking forward to a great night of fights, ideally there will be potentially some new champions that will be crowned and stories that will come for that. It’s going to be a great night, there will be over two million viewers on New Year’s Eve and a new tradition on new years eve. Next year, expanded international distribution and next level fighters.”