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‘With OTT there is no better time to be doing this’: Why the PFL is betting big on DTC

The Professional Fighters League has just started its second season, with 68 fighters across six weight classes vying for a US$1 million prize. Chief executive Peter Murray explains what this new MMA league offers.

27 May 2019 Joe Levy

The Professional Fighters League (PFL) is barely two years into existence but has its eyes set on being the vanguard for the evolution of mixed martial arts.

It is the first-ever MMA competition that utilises the typically North America regular and post-season format. The league has also recently secured major sponsorship deals with Geico and Kaged Muscle, as well as a media rights agreement with ESPN.

With a forward thinking attitude towards over-the-top (OTT) streaming, rewarding their athletes, smart technologies and Olympic representation, the PFL is applying a fresh attitude to a sport that despite a wealth of popularity, is not exempt from stagnation.

SportsPro spoke with Peter Murray, PFL chief executive, to find out more about the league’s plans and what the future holds for MMA.

Kayla Harrison, a Judo gold medallist from the Rio Olympics, now competes in the PFL for a US$1 million grand prize

What different business opportunities does promoting MMA in a league-style format offer?

One of the primary drivers why brands are interested in the PFL is because it is a true sport, it is not a promotion.

Promotions are one-offs, there’s no beginning, middle or end. The consumer doesn’t fully understand the journey of those athletes and it makes it difficult to connect. In the PFL format starting with the fighters, they know what they are fighting for, they’ve got guaranteed contracts and have an opportunity to earn the standard marketplace fee but there’s also the performance model – it’s a meritocracy.

They can fight their way through the regular season and aim to get to the championship where the reward is a US$1 million. That’s big money in this sport and to advance this sport you need to incentivise the fighters.

Going back to the brands our format is programmatic, our format is built to create stars and it is easy activate – so they are some of the main drivers as to why brands want to be involved with the PFL.

How did this new, major Geico sponsorship deal come about?

Last season we established a relationship with Geico around our championship as a proof of concept activation and it has met all of their KPIs and now it has evolved into a long-term brand partnership. Our consumer base at the PFL is at a great intersection with their typical consumers. Our ability to not only supply exposure for Geico at our live events but also to produce custom-made content with them.

We are excited about Geico and we are focused on partnering with industry leaders as a premium brand.

The PFL is supported by major brands such as Presidente and streams on OTT platform ESPN+ across the US

You have another new partner that has just come on board in the shape of Kaged Muscle, how excited are you about this new partnership?

It is yet another brand that we can help grow and a brand who have a mission that we believe in and that they can support our athletes through this new partnership.

You’re working with ESPN+, do you see OTT as a key avenue in terms of distribution for the PFL?

Being on ESPN is an absolute game changer. OTT is critically important to our strategy to distribute our product both domestically and outside of the US. We are on ESPN2, ESPN+ and Deportes – all of our regular season, play-offs and championship events. It is really the new PPV model.

What ESPN+ is doing is providing year-round content every day of the week and we are part of their portfolio of combat and hopefully we can help increase and engage their subscriber base by giving them quality content.

Outside the US, in terms of OTT it is an incredible platform. We are distributed to over 150 countries through premium sport network distribution partnerships – combined with OTT. The OTT experience that we offer isn’t just the streaming of the content because of our relationship with Kiswe we can offer PFL fans a customised experience tied to the live event.

They can hang with friends in communities, they can interact and customise in ways such as gaming, whilst streaming the live content. I would say to sum it up with OTT there is no better time than today to be in the sports business and there’s no better time to be involved in the fastest growing sport in the world.

OTT is so important not just for an early stage organisation like ourselves but any major property today. We are all in sports looking at DTC and look at how it can co-exist with linear. We want to be providing maximum reach for the PFL whilst delivering content that fans want to consume today. It is an ever changing landscape and we look forward to activating across a number of OTT platforms.

OTT is absolutely disrupting the traditional models and PFL are taking advantage of that – we are moving quickly and will drive innovation through those platforms.

What are your engagement targets for linear and OTT broadcast, if any?

Like any business we have KPIs and goals to hit. Based on our first event this season we are well on our way to achieving those goals. For context, our championship last year, and we had only been in existence for seven months, we reached five million fans around the world with that one event.

We expect to outperform on an average event basis this year and going forward.

The SmartCage/Cagenomic additions to your broadcasts sound intriguing, why did you want to provide this type of data for your viewers?

If you look at MMA, there has been no innovation in terms of the actual cage. When we look at innovation it comes through the lens of advancing the sport. With SmartCage there are three pillars. Firstly, providing and integrating athlete performance data and analytics. Secondly, customised experiences for fans. Thirdly, dynamic storytelling.

We will realise that vision over the coming seasons but this season, from our second matchday fans will be able to witness the first-ever consistent MPH for strikes and tracking of athletes in the cage. This will kick off a number of different data modules and analytics that are tools for athletes when training but they also provide an incredible live, immersive experience. It really provides context for fans illustrating how great these athletes are and what it takes to compete.

The second piece of these analytics is gaming. We are planning to launch our gaming and gambling strategy later in the season and not only will It leverage the typical wins and losses and how bets are placed but will also be leveraging our SmartCage data analytics as another platform for gaming.


Revenge season starts tonight. @chriswademma #PFLmma #PFL2

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How important is filling arenas for the PFL, or is the focus more broadcast orientated?

We reverse engineered our live experience so that it is really made for television and video production. Our events have 5,000 people and it is a great experience as a live event. There is energy, there is excitement, and we are doing things differently to the competition in terms of hospitality.

We have dedicated 25 per cent of the arena floor to create a cage-side club which has never been done before. It is VIP experience and a lifestyle play and fans really seem to like it and it looks great on television.

Those experiences are considered to be made for television, as we continue to gain awareness we will scale up the events to larger venues and overall attendance. Our focus right now is on the live video product and distribution to mass fan base inside and outside the US.

Six title fights with each winner earning US$1 million doesn’t sound cheap, is it difficult to maintain this USP as a relatively young company?

Our business model starts with advancing the sport and recognising our athletes. Our post-season purse helps us attract the greatest MMA fighters from around the world. You can’t create a premium product or a premium league without the best talent in the world. With that kind of money on the line, these fights are so much more intense and when you have this intensity it make for an exhilarating experience for fans.

The post-season purse also provides marketing amplifications for us and it is sustainable going forward as we look at developing our IP across media rights, sponsorship, licensing, gaming and attendance and consumer product. It is a cornerstone of what we are building.

How do you feel about MMA eventually earning Olympic accreditation? Is it even necessary anymore?

MMA will absolutely be an Olympic sport. The IOC is there to serve athletes and provide them the opportunity to compete. Combat is not foreign to the Olympics. MMA will be part of the Olympic landscape in the near future, in my view.

I think it will be the PFL format, or an iteration of, that is adopted. We have underserved athletes in MMA and if you look at what we are building at the PFL – we have 68 athletes this year across six weight classes with 15 countries represented.

Our fighters wear their countries’ flags loud and proud during competition on their shorts and we see the affinity that fans in different countries have by following their athletes. We believe we are a proof of concept for how the Olympics will position and format MMA when it is integrated. We are an advocate and we will be a leader of that conversation.

What do you want for the PFL over the next five years?

To fulfil our mission of reimagining and growing the sport. It comes down to that, that is our mission and role. We will be a leader in the next evolution of the growth of this sport. In our view this sport is barely two decades old and you have other major sports that have been around for 100 plus years and we are now on the cusp of the next iteration of growth and we will have a hand in that as a leader.

We will make our mark for these incredible athletes and for fans in providing them with quality content so what they come to expect from the PFL is year-round live quality content combined with storytelling.


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