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Ed Dixon | Jake Paul’s PFL deal shows the balance of power has shifted towards influencer athletes

The MMA promotion has handed the divisive social media personality a stake in the company in return for his involvement with the series. As the presence of internet influencers across sport continues to deepen, SportsPro’s senior staff writer argues that deals of this ilk could be just the start.

16 January 2023 Ed Dixon

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Profiting off your notoriety is nothing new in sport, not least in combat sports, where the mix of controversy and spectacle has historically generated lucrative returns.

Upon resuming his career after being released from prison, Mike Tyson did little to dispel his billing as ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’. Ear biting, attempted arm breaking and threats to a fighter’s children, among other things, soon followed as Tyson sought to justify his rage and earn a pretty penny in the process.

In the UK, a heavyweight dustup between David Haye and Derek Chisora was made in 2012 after the pair’s mass brawl at a press conference for a separate fight. The subsequent event at London’s Upton Park was sanctioned by the Luxembourg Boxing Federation after the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) refused to grant licenses, arguably fuelling further intrigue.

Never one shy of fanning the flames, promoter Frank Warren billed the encounter as ‘Licensed to Thrill’, helping Haye and Chisora rake in millions.

Usually, such prosperous sporting infamy has been reserved for elite athletes. But not anymore. The march of influencers on sports, most notably in the fight game, has seen Jake Paul and others emerge as a new breed of competitor.

YouTuber-turned-prizefighter Paul polarises and provokes in equal measure with his brash and crass persona. For his critics, he is a nuisance at best. But the 25-year-old’s vast social media presence, which includes 21.6 million Instagram followers, has seen him pocket six-figure fees for his fights against undercooked opponents. World champion boxers have received far less for their biggest nights.

Turns out he’s only just getting started. Earlier this month, Paul, nicknamed ‘The Problem Child’, landed an equity stake in the Professional Fighters League (PFL) as part of a multi-year contract to compete in the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion. He is also set to take home at least 50 per cent of pay-per-view (PPV) revenue from his bouts, something that will also extend to other fighters who are part of the newly created PFL PPV Super Fight Division.

The union ticks plenty of boxes for both parties. It could help the PFL become the MMA promotion of choice for younger audiences and Paul’s appointment as ‘head of fighter advocacy’ seems like a subtle attempt to encourage tensions between the internet sensation and Dana White – the former has blasted the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president for the promotion’s fighter wage structure.

As for Paul himself, the PFL tie-up highlights something of far greater significance. It shows the balance of power is now shifting towards the influencer athlete.

That would’ve felt like a pipedream just a few years ago. When JJ ‘KSI’ Olatunji and Joe Weller squared off in 2018 at the Copper Box Arena, it gave the UK an initial taste of YouTuber boxing, but the novelty of the evening was undeniable. Viewership, though, was high, even if the buildup had been marred by KSI’s comments mocking Weller’s mental health, for which he later apologised.

Few would have then seen KSI going on to face Logan Paul (brother of Jake) in a headline contest at the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. We also probably didn’t expect promoter Eddie Hearn to reveal the event did “about two million pay-per-view buys” around the world.

That success prompted KSI to eventually form Misfits Boxing, his own promotional company, in 2022. It has piqued the interest of streaming service DAZN, which has just inked a five-year deal to exclusively air Misfits’ X Series, a lineup of combat events packed with famous faces from across the worlds of lifestyle, sport and entertainment.

The fact that DAZN has made the X Series a cornerstone of its boxing content and is putting select fights on PPV – a payment method it initially shunned – speaks volumes. Specifically, it demonstrates the confidence sports broadcasters now have in influencer athletes to deliver big numbers. KSI’s first X Series appearance in August, for example, pulled in nearly two million global viewers on DAZN, 90 per cent of which were first-time subscribers to the service.

The PFL will also feel it is on to a winner with Paul, who has become a shareholder in a business reportedly valued at US$500 million last May. Whether the deal would have happened without that component remains to be seen, but it is quite the investment in a man whose bark outweighs his bite in terms of fighting ability. Still, while Paul may not be an expert in MMA, it would be fair to describe him as an expert in growing audiences, and giving him equity means that it will be in his own interest to leverage his reach to ensure the number of eyeballs on the PFL continues to grow.

There remains a level of snobbery towards influencers who are crossing over into sport, but they are here to stay. If anything, such has been the rise of internet personalities in sporting circles, the PFL may have got itself a bargain.

The key thing here is value, specifically how sport wants to quantify it and what it will to pay to get it. Boxing and MMA have shown just how far the goalposts have moved when it comes to getting KSI and company on board. Influencers, who were initially treated as unwelcome guests, now have some of the biggest properties in the game coming to them.

In a way, that should not come as a surprise. Pulling in new, youthful fans remains a constant battle for leagues and competitions. While not a guaranteed silver bullet for attracting a younger demographic, influencers have demonstrated that they have an enduring appeal with large, often fanatical, audiences.

Combat sports and their broadcast partners have decided to take the plunge with significant investments. Perhaps others should take note before influencers are able to call even more of the shots.

Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.

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