When Endeavor paid $4 billion for controlling interest in mixed-martial-arts promotor UFC five years ago, Donn Davis had visions of nights like Wednesday. A regular-season and multiple playoff rounds, like other sports leagues, culminating in merit-based MMA title fights.
Wednesday marks the conclusion of the third season of the Professional Fighters League, with its World Championships that will crown six new champions, each awarded a $1 million purse.
The championship card sold out the 5,000-seat Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., at ringside prices up to $500, according to Davis, the PFL chairman and founder. It is a deep card, with 10 fighters in the Fight Matrix rankings top 20 in their respective weight classes. Rapper Wiz Khalifa, who is an investor and longtime MMA devotee, dropped a new PFL anthem last week, Million Dollar Moment, along with a limited-edition apparel collection. He’ll perform live from the cage Wednesday night.
But the real action is on the telecast for the “made-for-TV” company. The PFL is available in 160 countries via 32 media partners. Davis says PFL telecasts averaged 300,000 viewers on ESPN2 and ESPN+ this year, double the level from 2019, albeit when ESPN+ had a dramatically smaller reach. Its two-year ESPN deal expires in 2021, and Davis says he is currently negotiating media agreements for 2022 that will expand distribution.
The nascent MMA outfit has raised $178 million in venture funding from heavyweights in sports, such as Ted Leonsis, David Blitzer, Mark Lerner and Brandon Beck, along with celebrities Kevin Hart, Tony Robbins and Marshawn Lynch.
The PFL picked up a new partner this summer, when Legends signed a long-term agreement to run the PFL’s ticketing, sponsorship and venue operations. The sports hospitality, sponsorship and sales consultancy co-founded by the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys also bought a stake in the business.
“MMA is a global sport; it’s a young sport, and it’s a multicultural sport,” Davis said in a phone interview last week. “It’s got the best of all worlds.” Nielsen estimates that 610 million people are interested in MMA worldwide. It ranks eighth among all sports, with soccer (1.04 billion) and basketball (865 million) the top two.
The PFL is still searching for that breakout star, as it battles MMA’s 800-pound gorilla, UFC. Davis thinks they have her in two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, who is undefeated in 11 bouts and is gunning for her second straight title. “She is not just the most dominant female fighter right now, she’s the most dominant fighter period,” Davis said. He says the PFL issued a challenge to Bellator MMA and their women’s featherweight champion, Cris Cyborg, for a crossover pay-per-view matchup, but donning his promotor hat, Davis said, “They are too scared of Kayla.”
The PFL Championships mark the final fight of Harrison’s PFL contract, and she is the hottest free agent in MMA; UFC and Bellator will likely make runs to sign her. Retaining the 31-year-old Harrison is key for PFL’s ambitions moving forward, as Davis invests the Legends funding and $65 million Series D venture round from February into fighter quality, global expansion and technological innovations.
Real-time betting on the outcome of PFL bouts was available this year through DraftKings. Davis says the PFL will expand its gambling offerings in 2022 to incorporate features, such as kick speed and hardest punch, which are data analytics tracked by the PFL’s SmartCage.
“From your mobile phone, the PFL SmartCage 3.0 next year will continue to deliver great data, insightful analytics and also real-time prop bets that no other sport has,” Davis said.
–With assistance from Anthony Crupi.