EXCLUSIVE: The Professional Fighters League, MMA’s fast-growing new entrant and the first to run a regular scheduled season like other sports do, has extended a deal with ESPN starting with its 2022 kickoff event April 20.
The entire 2022 PFL playoffs and majority of regular season events will air live on ESPN, already home to the UFC, and simulcast on ESPN+ with additional event coverage broadcast on ESPN2. ESPN platforms will carry pre and post-event coverage and exclusive PFL content along the lines of last year’s four-part series on Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields’ PFL debut and quest to become an MMA world champion. They will also push into pay-per-view.
The agreement runs through 2023 with an option to extend, PFL CEO Peter Murray told Deadline. Under the previous deal, more events aired on ESPN2 than ESPN proper and not all were simulcast on ESPN+. PFL events will also run on ESPN Deportes and on TSN, ESPN’s Canadian stand-in.
“After two successful seasons of providing fans with premium MMA content alongside ESPN, PFL is proud to extend and expand our partnership,” Murray said. “As MMA continues to grow as a major sport and rights property, innovative and differentiated product fulfills the demand among fans for access to the world’s best fighters and events.”
“As the home of combat sports, ESPN looks forward to continuing to deliver exciting, live PFL events and powerful storytelling to fans, across all platforms,” said Matt Kenny, ESPN VP, President of Programming and Acquisitions.
PFL was founded in 2017, launched the following year and hooked up with ESPN in 2019. It sat out live events in 2020, using the time to advance its proprietary Smart Cage technology and create PFL Studios for original content. PFL can measure fighter strike speed with proprietary chips and gloves, measure kick speed, and is working on tracking biometric data like fighter heart rate and calories burned — new benchmarks, analytics and tools that “create an interesting experience for fans, more gamification, more content and storytelling,” Murray said. A “ghost cam” makes it look like cage fencing has disappeared when a fighter’s up against it.
Murray said ratings surged last season and he anticipates revenue quadrupling in 2022 from 2021. He declined to share financials for the privately held business.
“MMA is the growth sport of this decade. There are 550 million fans around the world, it’s the third largest sport behind soccer and basketball and it’s the youngest of all major fan bases,” he said. Half of that base watches a lot and is underserved.
“ESPN has committed to being a destination of MMA with its UFC relationship and now PFL [which] presents a premium product on a different night of the week that is complementary and differentiated from UFC, to help to fill that demand and grow the space,” Murray said — referring to PFL’s much larger MMA rival, Ultimate Fighting Championship, owned by Endeavor. UFC has 1,207 athletes listed on its website and revenue pushing $300 million.
PFL’s format is unusual for the sport — regular season, playoffs and championship. Athletes “know who they are fighting, when they are fighting,” he said. “They have two guaranteed fights a season and if they make the playoffs we measure their performance with points,” including extra points for finishing fights versus leaving it to the judges. “That means more exciting fights.”
Championships winners in six weight classes each season each get checks for $1 million.
Murray said the PFL retains its top performers each year, eliminating about 40% of its roster (of 60 fighters plus alternates) and repopulating it with fighters. It recently signed 50 more fighters for a new series, PFL Challengers, on fuboTV.
PFL says 25% of its fighters independently ranked in the top 25 in the world last season, which was broadcast and streamed live in 160 countries with partners including RMC Sport, FPT and Sky Sport.
Sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, IBM, Geico, DraftKings, Bose, Socios.com, Air Force Reserve, and the U.S. Marine Corps.
PFL is backed by investors including Ares Capital, Luxor Capital, Elysian Park Ventures, Swan Ventures, Knighthead, Legends and several NBA, MLB and NHL team owners. In early 2021, it completed a $65 million financing round, bringing total funding to $175 million.
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