• Andy Marston

PFL has the blueprint for challenger leagues

This article was originally featured in the Sports Business Journal as a thought leadership piece by Sports Pundit founder, Andy Marston.


Recently valued at $10 billion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a behemoth. Since its establishment in 1993, the competition has become synonymous with mixed martial arts. Under Dana White, the UFC has either acquired rivals or forced them into submission.


There is, however, a challenger that the UFC has failed to hush.


In just three years, the Professional Fighters League already has 25% of the audience of the UFC. While still a long way from being able to compete pound for pound, the PFL believes that it has the makings to become the No. 1 challenger to the UFC’s dominance.


Here are few of the reasons why, and what lessons other teams and leagues can take from the PFL.


Lesson 1: Simplify the Format

The PFL has re-imagined MMA, featuring elite MMA athletes across six weight classes, with each fighter having two fights during the regular season. Unlike the UFC, the PFL presents MMA in a format where individuals compete in a true sports format with playoffs and a championship, ensuring every fight counts.


This strategy can also be adopted in other sports where a league structure does not already exist. Take the Racing League, which started last month, the horse racing competition will see teams compete for points, which are distributed in a similar fashion to Formula One’s constructors’ championship.


Lesson 2: Increase Access

The PFL is televised live on ESPN2. This is unique for a combat sport, which often uses a pay-per-view model; however, it goes a long way in explaining how the league already has a sizable audience.


While the UFC has a contract to show fights on ESPN, its premium fights are PPV only. This minimises the potential audience size and can be limiting for a sport, or league, that is looking to scale.


Visibility is a major reason why DAZN, who recently acquired the exclusive rights to stream the UEFA Women’s Champions League, is going to offer a majority of their matches free on its YouTube channel. The increased accessibility of women’s football develops greater awareness and demand.


Lesson 3: Equal Representation

The PFL offers an equal $1M prize in each weight class for men and women. This has led to a greater buy-in from fighters who respect the transparency and gender equality. As a result, the league has been able to attract fighters, such as Rory MacDonald.


In 2011, Dana White was asked whether he could imagine seeing women in the UFC, he responded with a sharp “never.” He has since been forced to eat his words, with UFC’s modern landscape unimaginable without the women’s divisions and Ronda Rousey, now one of the most marketable faces and dominant forces in the UFC.


New competitions, such as The Hundred, the ECB’s new, innovative short-form competition, are focused on equality. The tournament launches with a standalone women’s fixture and the ECB will also offer equal prize money for the men’s and women’s winners.


Lesson 4: Embrace the Data

Few in the sports industry has adopted data integration to the extent of the PFL, with fights taking place inside a ‘Smart Cage’ with broadcasts overflowing with metrics, such as punch speed and heart rate tracking.


The data provided helps to illustrate the quality of a fighter’s performance. It also provides commercial opportunities, particularly in attracting betting partners. As part of a recent deal with DraftKings, betting odds will be integrated into broadcasts.


Other leagues have also sought to integrate biometric data into their broadcast proposition. The PGA Tour has shown live Whoop heart rates from players such as Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. There is huge potential for data to be used by leagues to improve their performance too, as Ospreys or Hull City have shown.


Lesson 5: Profile the Athlete

The PFL has built up a strong narrative around the fighters. Compared to the UFC, where only a select few of their top stars are focused upon, the compactness of the PFL means that it is able to build a profile around each fighter.


Through their docuseries on Netflix, F1 has managed to also create a narrative around each of their drivers. In return, they have gained huge loyalty from a new generation of fans. A recent study by Nielsen Sports cited “Drive to Survive” as a key reason for the sport’s increasing popularity among people age 16 to 35, who accounted for 77% of F1’s audience growth in 2020. This personal connection is absolutely key for any sports organization looking to grow in 2021.


Takeaways and Opportunities

I’m a huge fan of the “My First Million” podcast and in their recent interview with Scott Belsky, chief product officer at Adobe. He said: “When everyone says interesting is dead, it means that something is being born.”


To apply this to sport, now with sport on its knees as a result of the pandemic, there is an opportunity for challengers to disrupt the status quo and do things differently — for the better. The PFL is one of many organizations that is demonstrating how.