Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Will The PFL Become Bigger Than Bellator, Or Even The UFC?

In March this year, the PFL pulled off what many did not expect. Kayla Harrison, arguably MMA’s biggest female star, was persuaded to remain with the promotion despite lucrative offers from both the UFC and Bellator.

It was a watershed moment for the PFL, signaling its growing power within the MMA landscape and newfound ability to compete with the big boys. The promotion, which was established upon the ashes of the World Series of Fighting just five years ago, now appears to be on a growth trajectory that could see it soon surpass Bellator as the number two name in MMA.

But if you ask PFL CEO Peter Murray, it already has.

“By a number of metrics, we’re the number two,” he told The MMA Hour earlier this month.

Murray, a former high-ranking executive at the NFL and UFC owner Endeavour Group, believes the PFL’s combination of top talent and broadcast partnerships with the likes of ESPN now make it second only to the UFC.

“How I value it; number one, it’s the quality of the production,” he continued. “Two, caliber of fighters and exciting fights. Three, distribution.”

So, is Murray right in saying the PFL has now surpassed Bellator? And can it ever become as big as the UFC?

Peter Murray Kayla Harrison PFL
PFL CEO Peter Murray awards Kayla Harrison with $1 million for winning the 2021 PFL Women’s Lightweight Tournament (Cooper Neill / PFL)

PFL Fighters Might Be Better Than You Think

Talent development, says Murray, is one of the key focus areas for the PFL. And the promotion’s strategy is to continually inject new talent into its roster.

“What I love about our format, the product’s fresh every year. Forty-five percent of the roster, new fighters,” said Murray on The MMA Hour. “One of the key KPI’s for us is, a minimum of 25 to 30 percent of the roster, to ensure that their rankings are in the top 25 in the sport.”

Perhaps the most notable inflow of talent has been from the UFC. And despite many considering the PFL a step down in competition, it’s not uncommon to see UFC fighters beaten by the promotion’s mainstays.

Former UFC featherweight Jeremy Stephens became the latest this month, losing to Clay Collard in what was an absolute war that surely converted many UFC fans to the PFL. It must be noted, however, that the 35-year-old Stephens is hardly in his prime, having been cut by the UFC after losing five of his last six fights.

But then there’s Anthony Pettis, who after defeating Donald Cerrone and Alex Morono in the UFC, has lost both of his fights since joining the PFL in 2021. Rory MacDonald, both a Bellator and UFC alum, has been similarly tested in the PFL. Additionally, former UFC-turned-PFL heavyweights Fabricio Werdum and Klidson Abreu have found it harder than expected to get their first win in the promotion.

The PFL Is Making Moves To Expand Its Fanbase and Talent Pool

One of the key strengths of the PFL over Bellator, and one that Murray highlights regularly, is the promotion’s distribution through the world’s biggest broadcasters.

In 2019, the PFL followed in the UFC’s footsteps by becoming a broadcast partner of ESPN. But while it’s yet to stage pay-per-view events, Murray says the PFL’s championship event this year will “100 percent” be a pay-per-view event. And next year, he says the pay-per-view structure will expand.

“Then we’ll launch a pay-per-view division in 2023 and we’re working on those details right now, including [signing] some fighters who are in our view and [are of] pay-per-view stature,” Murray told The MMA Hour.

Challenger Series 3 at the Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, Friday, March 4, 2022. (Cooper Neill / PFL)

But perhaps the biggest potential game-changer for the PFL is Challenger Series—the promotion’s answer to the UFC’s Contender Series, which launched this year. Like it’s UFC counterpart, the Challenger Series gives up-and-coming fighters the chance to compete for a PFL contract.

This means they have the chance to potentially make $1 million within a year, thanks to the generous compensation offered by the PFL’s seasonal tournament structure. For many, this is a refreshing change from the remuneration practices of the UFC, who are notorious for paying their new talent relative peanuts.

The Challenger Series hasn’t all gone to plan, however. Earlier this month, it was flagged for suspicious betting activity after the PFL announced that the final event of the series would be broadcast live, but was later discovered to be pre-recorded.

The PFL Aims To Capitalize On MMA’s Growing Popularity 

Despite the PFL still lacking several divisions offered by the UFC and Bellator, including middleweight and bantamweight, the promotion seems to have all the ingredients to challenge the big boys. And while Murray believes the PFL has already surpassed Bellator, challenging the UFC’s near-monopolistic hold on the MMA market is another thing entirely.

But Murray believes the PFL will only continue to grow and prosper alongside the UFC, thanks to the ever-expanding global MMA fanbase.

“Our thesis and why we launched the PFL four years ago; there’s room for more than one leader in the sport,” he told The MMA Hour. “600 million fans. This is Nielson data; three years ago, 400 million fans. So, in three years’ time, you have fan growth around the world of 200 million. So, it’s the third-largest fan base in all of sports, behind soccer and basketball, it’s the fastest-growing, it’s the youngest of all major sports in terms of the fans, and half of this fan base is not watching stick and ball sports.”

Anthony Pettis PFL
PHOTO: PFL

Murray says that the PFL’s goal isn’t necessarily to steal fans away from the UFC. By having a tournament-based structure, the promotion is simply offering them a different experience and more fights.

“So [MMA fans are] underserved; they want access to more premium MMA content and fights,” said Murray. “For the PFL, that is simply our business thesis, we’re fulfilling that demand with a quality product, with great fighters, and a differentiated experience.”

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