The Professional Fighters League (PFL) is out to change the mixed martial arts (MMA) experience for sports fans.
The PFL is, at its core, a departure from the ordinary. The league uses seasonal format with playoffs and a year-end championship—not unlike those used by the NBA, NFL and NHL— that has never been implemented in MMA before. It also awards the champion of each weight class a million-dollar check.
Yet the league didn’t stop there. Innovation has been a crucial part of its strategy since it first launched roughly three years ago.
“There had been zero innovation in MMA until the PFL launched three years ago,” PFL CEO Peter Murray told VIVA late last week.
Many of the PFL’s biggest innovations were implemented in 2020. While the league unfortunately had to postpone its 2020 season due the pandemic, it made the most of its hiatus, creating a number of unprecedented features, such as a state-of-the-art “Smart Cage” that delivers data—such as punch speed and sustained damage—in real time.
Those new features have been rolled out over the PFL’s first three events of 2021, which have aired on ESPN platforms from a COVID-safe bubble in Atlantic City.
“That’s what fans deserve,” Murray said of the PFL’s many innovations. “When we look at sports, including MMA, fans want access. They want context to the fighters, they want fighter analytics and fight data. So we’re providing a more immersive experience. We are advancing the sport and providing a unique and compelling experience.
“Other sports are bringing fans into the action and providing context through technology,” he added. “So we said to ourselves, ‘why has an MMA done this?'”
The fan response to the PFL’s tech-driven innovations, Murray says, has been extremely positive—and that will likely continue as new features are implemented.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Murray said. “We’re excited about the second half of the season as it relates to the Smart Cage technology innovations.
“We will be launching kick speed [tracking],” he revealed. “Currently we’re the only organization in all of combat [sports] to measure punch speed on every fighter, in every fight, using a proprietary chip [technology], and now we’re going to be measuring kick speed—which will not require fighters to wear a ‘wearable,’ if you will. It’s a unique, scientific approach to measuring speed. It’s a process, tied to our technology, that we feel will be game-changing [for fans].”
The PFL has also gone to great lengths to strengthen its roster, developing homegrown stars like former Olympic judoka Kayla Harrison and Hawaiian knockout artist Ray Cooper III, and signing stars from other organizations like former UFC champs Fabricio Werdum and Anthony Pettis, and three-division boxing champion Claressa Shields.
“The roster is next-level with star signings like Fabricio Werdum, Anthony Pettis, even Rory MacDonald,” Murray said. “We also signed Claressa Shields. Claressa will make her MMA debut on June 10.”
The PFL’s focus, according to Murray, is delivering world-class MMA broadcasts to fans, wherever on earth they’re tuning in from. That being said, he can’t wait to welcome fans back to PFL events in-person, and is hoping it’s possible to do so by the time the league’s playoffs commence in August.
“Our focus is primarily on our global, live media product, distributing it here in the US on ESPN and to fans in 160 countries around the world,” Murray said. “That is our primary driver as a business. Even from the outset, we’re made for TV. We’re made live video streaming, whether it’s a TV or laptop or mobile device. That’s our focus—but fans bring energy. They add excitement. So we’re monitoring on a state-by-state basis and we’ll make decisions [in terms of fan attendance] accordingly.”
The PFL’s next event goes down on June 10. It will be headlined by a lightweight fight between Pettis and Alexander Martinez, and also feature Shields’ MMA debut, as she takes on the amply more experienced Brittney Elkin. The event’s preliminary card will air on the streaming service ESPN+, and the main card will broadcast on ESPN 2.