The Professional Fighters League (PFL) is a unique offering among elite combat sports companies.
Founded in 2018, the league is now firmly the number two mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion in the world. The PFL has attracted global MMA stars into its talent ranks, sponsors such as Bud Light and Bose, and broadcast deals from international players such as ESPN and DAZN.
Arguably, much of the PFL’s success has come from its format, which stands alone in the MMA landscape.
The PFL is the only MMA promotion with a “true sports-season format.” Fighters compete in a round-robin regular season with playoffs and an end-of-year championship, in the vein of other major US sports leagues.
James Frewin, the PFL’s senior vice president of international believes that this unique setup is a “net benefit for uptake in new markets.”
Talking to GlobalData, Frewin states: “Fans know who and when their favorite fighters will step into the [cage]. They also know the standings and what a fighter needs to do to advance."
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“The PFL format leads to some of the most exciting action in all of MMA and relies on a tried-and-true sports season format which is easily recognizable to fans.”
This unique selling point has helped the PFL surpass more established names such as Bellator, which reports state it is in talks to purchase, to become the primary competitor to the dominant hold of the UFC in the US market.
Outside the US, however, is where the company sees real potential for growth.
Regional leagues across the globe
Global expansion is the name of the game for the PFL, not just in securing broadcast deals but in the hosting of events across areas of the world traditionally overlooked by MMA giants such as the UFC. These startups aim to be mutually beneficial for both the PFL and its own talent.
Initially a solely US-based enterprise, the PFL now has an offshoot in Europe (PFL Europe) which is approaching the climax of its inaugural season. Further PFL regional leagues representing the sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions have also been announced and are in the works.
Frewin says: “Regional leagues such as PFL Europe, PFL Africa, and PFL MENA will tap into the underserved markets, grow our great sport, and provide opportunities to find the best fighters across the globe by creating a system for fighters to go from amateur to pro that doesn’t exist in the world today.”
The winners of PFL Europe’s titles at the end of the season will join the main block of the PFL to compete for even more prize money.
Frewin added that it is “incumbent” upon the company to bring MMA to these underserved regions.
PFL Europe, as PFL’s first continental division, has proven a good template for future global ventures. In its first season, the European league has secured local broadcast deals, commercial tie-ups, and agreed cooperation agreements with local MMA promotions.
Frewin credits international streaming service DAZN with proliferating PFL Europe’s success.
“[DAZN’s] vast experience in combat sports has paved a smooth runway for PFL Europe,” he explains. “We are proud to be partnered with DAZN and are excited to launch new products in 2024, as well as work together to continue to grow PFL Europe.”
DAZN is the joint-venture partner of PFL Europe, as is DAZN Bet, the platform’s sports betting arm that operates in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The service streams all European events at “prime local hours” in select European markets, and in 2022 agreed to broadcast the league in Japan.
It has been said by the PFL that PFL Europe is the genesis of a future “Champions League of MMA”, with the future champions from each continental division fed into a future main league, akin to European Soccer’s elite club competition.
While this will hinge on the growth of PFL Africa and PFL MENA, these prospective offshoots are as exciting as the European branch that is already underway.
PFL Africa’s marquee draw will almost certainly be that of Francis Ngannou. Undeniably the most sought-after free agent in MMA prior to his signing with the PFL, the 37-year-old heavyweight will be the chair of PFL Africa and will hold a minority equity stake in the venture.
Ngannou will also fight in MMA exclusively for the PFL’s pay-per-view (PPV) ‘Super Fight’ division, of which DAZN is also a partner and global broadcaster. This division is not categorized by weight but by status, with the highest-drawing fighters in the PFL signed on to fight other elite names in PPV events.
The Super Fight division boasts the names of established MMA stars such as former UFC champion Ngannou and former seven-weight boxing champion Amanda Serrano, but also more unconventional draws such as social media star-turned-boxer Jake Paul, who is the division’s co-founder.
The Super Fight division was made possible by the investment of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) through its sports arm, SRJ Sports Investments. The PIF, in its investment in the PFL’s parent company, is directly funding both the Super Fight division and the PFL MENA venture.
“MENA was always part of the plan for the PFL. The investment from SRJ allowed us to move forward at a quicker pace; while bringing premium content in the form of the PPV Super Fight Division to the region in 2024,” Frewin outlines.
PFL MENA is set to begin in March 2024, with Ngannou’s first PFL Super Fight event also set to come partway through the year. Although Ngannou’s PFL debut is yet to be announced, it will likely be hosted in the Middle East, with the area set to house a “substantial” number of PPVs over the coming years.
Europe, Africa, and MENA are not the extent of the PFL’s ambitions to touch underserved regions, according to Frewin.
Frewin says: “PFL is always looking for new and exciting locations to host events. There are a number of combat sports markets that make perfect sense as we continue to expand internationally.
“We are also excited to expand into markets that are incredibly passionate about MMA but have been neglected with live events until now.”
One such example would be Brazil, which has produced several of the world’s most successful MMA fighters.
Expanding across gender
PFL’s recent expansion holds a focus not just on location but on gender too. Alongside the launches of PFL Europe, PFL Africa, PFL MENA, and PFL Super Fight, the series also launched PFLW, a dedicated women’s division.
At present, the PFL has one women’s weight category, women’s featherweight, which sits alongside the five male weight categories in its main block. As such, a dedicated league for women’s fighters, one with the potential to span multiple weight categories, will continue to showcase PFL’s “commitment to empowering and leveling the playing field for women in combat sports,” says Frewin.
He explains: “PFLW is a dedicated platform for women to become PFL MMA champions. As more regional leagues take shape and the talent roster expands, we expect opportunities for women in MMA to continue to grow.”
With the announcement of PFLW came a slate of investments into top names to fill its ranks.
“As seen by the recent signings of Amanda Serrano and Savannah Marshall, the re-signing of Claressa Shields, the rise of Dakota Ditcheva, and the imminent return of Kayla Harrison, the PFL is dedicated to championing female fighters,” Frewin states.
This dedication spans beyond simply signing ready-made stars of the women’s MMA and boxing worlds but creating a sustainable division with opportunities for entry for younger, more obscure fighters.
Frewin added that PFL is making “substantial investments in scouting” with its aim to give opportunities to “the best” women’s MMA fighters.
Female fighters have headlined PFL events already, including the 2022 PFL World Championships, the final of the 2022 season, where the women’s lightweight title bout between Kayla Harrison and Larissa Pacheco sat atop the card.
While the UFC has more range in women’s weight classes and does regularly host international events, it has no dedicated women’s division, nor continental leagues that can feed into its main block.
It’s for this reason that the PFL has sought to break new ground for MMA, as Frewin summarizes: “Focusing on new and emerging markets will certainly grow the audience and appetite for MMA and will further propel PFL as a global leader.”