PFL MMA hopes to continue its mission of reimagining the world of combat sports when its new season begins in April 2021
- Professional Fighters League hopes to continue its mission of reimagining the world of combat sports when its new season begins in 2021.
- The PFL has been an outlier this year as the MMA firm postponed its 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
- During the year it has enhanced its digital offerings and added significant names to its roster for the new season, next year.
- The CEO Peter Murray told Insider this month about what's to come, and spoke about the detail of its behind-closed-doors residency in Las Vegas from April.
The Professional Fighters League (PFL) hopes to continue its mission statement of reimagining the world of combat sports when its new season begins in April 2021.
PFL MMA was the only major fight organization to postpone operations for the entire year because of the coronavirus pandemic.Other MMA companies like the UFC, Bellator MMA, and ACA use standalone matches during a fight night, with the winners and losers moving up and down divisional rankings.
Peter Murray, the CEO of PFL, told Insider earlier in the year that the company focused on its digital offerings, PFL Studios, and an OTT app, while also exploring the free agency market to enhance its roster when operations restart.With the new season five months away, Murray spoke to Insider again to look ahead at his firm's offer for the new season - its third since its founding in 2018.
He told us about:
- Details of a Las Vegas residency for events in 2021
- Talent management and new PFL signings
- Tech innovations and market response to 2020 digital offerings
- Hopes to double its audience share on the ESPN platform in the US
Creating a bubble environment at a Caesars Entertainment venueWhen Insider interviewed Murray earlier in the year, he spoke of his excitement at the potential for a vaccine arriving, which could drastically alter the live event industries.As the FDA has now approved Pfizer and Moderna as vaccine candidates for mass rollout in the US, and considering partial fan allowances are already in place for some big boxing events in the country, is there a possibility PFL could shift away from a behind-closed-doors bubble environment before or midway through the 2021 season?
It is, for Murray, too early to say.
"We are first and foremost planning for the worst, and should the landscape change as it relates to safety for fighters, operational staff, and of course fans, then we will open up our events in 2021 to fans," he told us this month."But, at this point, we're planning a live, made-for-TV and streaming experience at a single site in Las Vegas, in partnership with Caesars [Entertainment]."
According to Forbes, the site's frontrunners will be Caesars Palace - which has a rich fighting history having hosted mega-fights involving Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard - or Rio - a casino that held MMA events under the Final Fight Championship banner.
"We're excited," Murray told us."Las Vegas is, in my view, the pinnacle of combat events and for legacy. And we're looking forward to coming back and having Las Vegas as the home for the 2021 PFL season."
PFL's talent management testedThe PFL's ability to manage talent was tested in October when Lance Palmer, a two-time PFL tournament winner, tweeted that fighters were suing the PFL because of how it postponed the season due to COVID-19.
—Lance Palmer (@LancePalmer) October 5, 2020
PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis previously told Insider that it would be paying fighters not to fight, with a monthly stipend of $1,000 paid to the athletes under contract.Murray added that the PFL has sympathized with the fighters on its roster, honored the stipend, and allowed fighters to compete in other regional MMA promotions or different disciplines outside of MMA.
He added: "There's a sub-set of fighters who voiced concern and frustration, and of course, we get that."Candidly, that's in the rear-view mirror, though. There have been no lawsuits imposed on the PFL - no litigation. We'll be back in the cage with the best season ever coming in April, and that's what the conversation [with fighters] is about now."
There have been significant additions to the PFL rosterThe former Bellator MMA welterweight champion Rory MacDonald, the former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, and the former two-time Olympic gold medal-winner Claressa Shields are three significant athletes who will be making their debuts in 2021 for the New York-headquartered firm.
Signing Shields may have come as a surprise for some, considering she is an undefeated boxer in the prime of her career in that sport.
However, it is a relationship Murray has fostered for years.Murray, a former senior executive at Under Armour, has worked with many big-name athletes in sponsorship and knew Shields well as he helped outfit the US Olympic team in 2016.
"I signed the USA Olympic team, we outfitted the team, and Claressa was a prominent athlete. I was inspired by her years ago."
Murray said her debut in the PFL would likely be "a massive, global event" in June. She will fight twice in MMA at a minimum, but there could be scope for a third bout before she heads into the 2022 season in the 155-pound division."She's going to absolutely leave her mark in the sport of MMA," Murray said.
At 43 years old and with 34 matches under his belt, he's also a veteran. But his addition has excited the PFL's heavyweight division."He was an incredible signing by [PFL President] Ray Sefo," Murray said. "And I know our other fighters in the heavyweight division are also excited."
Considering the hype surrounding Shields and the roster's interest in Werdum, it is easy to forget that 2019 addition MacDonald is still to make his first fight for PFL."Boy, Rory is chomping at the bit," said Murray. "He wants to be top dog, and he's ready to prove, in his view, that he can run through the welterweight division."There are also more signings to come.
"There are big, new signings in every weight class," Murray said. "We've announced some of them … but there are more to come [next 60 days]."
The market response to its digital offerings has pleased PFL
Integral to the PFL's content drive in 2020, during a year when its live events business was on pause, Murray launched PFL Studios, which tells audio-visual stories about MMA, the PFL, and PFL's athletes, together with the PFL MMA app, which is a platform for those PFL Studios stories, and the company's archival footage of live events."We're focused on our mission to reimagine the world of sport," he said. "And obviously, we're going to do that with our compelling live events, with our long-form storytelling distributed to our partners, including ESPN, which keeps the brand visible.
"For our OTT app, we're seeing excellent month-over-month usage of the app in the US and internationally. We have a full archive of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, every fight, every event. As well as the World Series of Fighting archive."
Murray said that the PFL would be celebrating the Olympic year in combat sports by distributing live events through its app, together with broader combat across different, single disciplines.This will include traditional Olympic combat sports like taekwondo and judo and kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu.
"We will feature regional MMA promotions around the world, as well as kickboxing and perhaps even wrestling."Other innovations in the new season include more extensive data pooled from its SmartCage, which will provide statistics for athletes in-camp and then fight fans watching on a live broadcast.
This, Murray said, provides "invaluable data for how athletes are measuring aspects of their performance against different opponents, like speed, for example."Athletes will have real data on themselves and their opponent, for things like average punch speed and the type of damage that can do, and what you can do to avoid that damage, Murray said."And the same goes for kick speed as well as other data."
Murray expects ESPN ratings to double
The 2019 championship - which saw six $1 million checks awarded to the tournament winners - drew 361,000 viewers on ESPN2, according to Front Office Sports.
The roster signings, tech innovations, and Las Vegas residency combined with the ESPN platform will see twice as many people tune in to watch the $1 million finals at the end of 2021, Murray hopes."It's going to be our most exciting season to date and we expect absolute, continued, explosive growth," he said.
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