The Professional Fighters League (PFL), a professional mixed martial arts league who’s investors includes rapper Wiz Khalifa, comedic actor Kevin Hart, former MLB star Alex Rodriguez and NFL Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis, kicked off their fourth annual one million dollar playoff-style competition this month with big announcements, shocking upsets, amazing action, and new updates on the league’s biggest stars.
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The PFL will be expanding into Europe in 2023 with the initiation of a long-term plan that will turn the brand into an international league. “Our vision to advance and grow the sport is now being put in place with the launch of our first international regional league with PFL Europe in 2023, and there’ll be more regions to follow,” details PFL CEO and founder Peter Murray. “This is what the sport needs to truly advance and to grow, starting with developing great athletes from around the world and committing to regions around the world and those stakeholders to develop the sport at the grassroots level.”
The league’s global launch arrives with anticipated returns of the brand’s premiere stars Kayla Harrison (14-0), the undefeated reigning champion, and greatest of all-time women’s boxing champion-turned-MMA fighter Claressa Shields (1-1-0). Shields, 26, will return to the octagon in November after receiving the first loss of her career to Abigail Montes (3-2-0) last October.
The PFL launched in 2018 and become one of the premiere MMA leagues in United States with television deals with Direct TV and ESPN. The leagues annual playoff series is a bracket-based competition in multiple divisions that awards the contest winner a championship belt and one million dollars. As the contest’s popularity continue to grow annually, it evolving, making it one of the most exciting events in sports.
The Source’s Bryson “Boom” Paul spoke with Murray via Zoom before the New York City-extension of the 2022 Semifinals Playoffs. Read the full interview below.
Launched in 2017. Just announcing a new expansion. As CEO, how do you feel about the growth of PFL?
Yeah. I mean, this is our fourth season. We’ve been operating under five years. I’m very pleased with the growth of the company. We’ve secured the number-two position, globally. Number one, we’ve grown our fanbase – particularly in the U.S., 100% in terms of audience year over year. In addition, we’ve launched new franchises – leveraging our brand, capabilities and platforms – so this year, we increase from ten events to 18 with the launch of the challenger series on Fubo (FuboTV), and our season on ESPN. All of that content, all of those events are distributed to 160 countries around the world on premium sports platforms. And with respect to international, we’ve expanded our overall reach with quality distribution – as I mentioned on premium sports platforms. In the U.K., we’re on Channel 4, we’re in Latin America, DirectTV, all new deals. In the Netherlands as an example … in Europe – really top media companies distributing the PFL product.
In a short period, the PFL has produced several legitimate superstars. And with plans to find the next real superstar as you embark on international regions like Europe and the Middle East. How do you feel about the current PFL roster as you head into the playoffs?
Well as you said, the PFL, as the #2 in the world, and we’re certainly poised to be co-leader. We’ve proven we can develop stars. Kayla Harrison is a great example of that. Two-time Olympic gold medalist in Judo, now undefeated and two-time PFL champion, and competing perhaps for a third time – we’ll see what happens in the playoffs, but Kayla is a great example for the PFL’s ability to create stars. It certainly starts and ends witht the athlete, and Kayla is an exceptional athlete, and she’s earned it for sure. But we do have that expertise at the PFL to identify, sign, and develop top talent from around the world. We have other great examples as well. We’ve also proven that we can recruit top stars from other organizations, you see Anthony Petits. Anthony Petits will be fighting this Friday at MSG – and competing to get into the championships. Now, he was faced with some adversities last season. He felt, for the first time, the level of competition in the PFL, and it was eye-opening for him. So this year was very much about a pivot for Anthony and how he trained for the PFL, our high-caliber top ranked talent, and this format. And so I’m excited to see how Anthony – and certainly his opponent, Stevie Ray performances – same thing, another top athlete we recruited, now two years ago, Rory MacDonald. You know, Rory been really fun to watch, his first season – last year – in the PFL and our format, and this year, you know, he has a lot to prove. So fans will get to see Rory compete in the U.K., after our August 5th event, so we’re excited about that as well. But those are two great examples of our ability to recruit top stars from other organizations, and even around the world. You know, you got Jarrah, The Jordanian Lion, and former BRAVE CF champion now taking on our format, and trying to work his way into the championships. As it relates to our ability, Ray Sefo is our President of Fighter Operations. Ray’s a former six-time world champion K-1 kickboxer, he’s a respected force in MMA, in training elite MMA athletes – and, as well as signing and developing. So it’s really in our DNA as a company.
Now expanding and looking for the next big global fighter, there is currently a huge rise in popularity in women’s combat sports as well right now. Does the PFL have any excitement towards finding the next “female” global superstar – alongside Kayla Harrison and Claressa Shields?
Sure. Well Claressa, certainly proven, another two-time Olympic gold medalist in U.S. Boxing. She’s the only U.S. athlete to achieve that in U.S. history, in terms of two gold medals. You know, and she’s the greatest woman of all-time professional boxer, so it’s exciting that last year Claressa went pro with the PFL. She’s taking on MMA while she competes at the highest level in boxing. Not an easy thing to do, while they’re two combat sports, there two very different sports. And to see her commit to MMA, and do it in a professional but very humble way, because it’s not easy to start back at the bottom and work your way up. And she’s still working on that – so that’s been exciting. But there are other women in the women’s 155lbs who are competing in the playoffs that we’re excited about. Our Ukranian fighter, Olena Kolesnyk, she’s exciting and I think she’s fighting for a bigger cause, candidly, the emotions beyond what she’s passionate about as a professional athlete and competing through the season. She’s been exciting. And others. And then, what I can tell you, we will be signing other women in different weight classes starting next year.
Most companies explore expansion after at least a decade in business, whereas, the PFL is only five years in and already moving forward with expanding globally. What made you decide to begin expansion plans so early in the league’s development?
It’s always been part of our global vision. Our vision is to advance the sport and grow the PFL, while giving fighters at different level of their pro career throughout the world the opportunity to compete. To compete on a – opportunity for potential to go global stage in the PFL in our main season. But also around the world, in regional leagues to develop, essentially, their experience and capabilities – but to compete at a high pro level, regionally. The opportunity to become a regional champion within MMA – and within the PFL system, and then have a path to get into PFL Global to take on the next level of athlete and competition. That’s what sports – in my view – is all about. And so, for us, we do envision, in-region competition, pan-regional competition, and having multiple regional leagues around the world competing under the PFL brand, and being challenged by our format.
What are some of the adversities the PFL face in the new expansion?
Well… it’s a matter of dialing in one at a time. Things don’t happen over night. Our global expansion – while it’s always been apart of our original vision – now is the time to execute it after four successful seasons. Candidly, there’s a need in the sport by top athletes around the world are looking for major alternatives, regionally. And so we’re there to support athletes, that’s job one, but as it relates to adversities, it’s really more about staying focus, and not only executing our global events at the high standard that we have, but, you know, rolling out regional leagues. Maintaining the PFL gold standard and brand, and product, and caliber of talent, and competition. So that’s our focus. And it doesn’t happen overnight, and, you know, you really need to execute, not all six overnight or six to eight regional leagues, but one at a time. And that’s what we’re focused on.
The global sports landscape – it’s exciting, you never know what’s going to happen, it’s all about the thrills, but, most of all, it’s all about the competition. Starting the PFL in 2017 and being on your fourth playoffs now. How do you maintain that competitive nature taking your brand to the next level while competing with related brands?
We’re passionate about our vision and our mission as a company. And that’s what fuels the PFL. This is a high gross venture, we’re entrepreneurial, we’re fast moving, and we’re the most innovative fast-growing sports league, not just in combat, but in overall sports. It really takes a great team to propel this type of growth in the time that we’ve accomplished it year-to-date or since we’ve launched the company – I should say. And it takes the power of a team to propel the next phrase of growth, and what I can tell you is that’s just passion. Passion to build one of the most incredible and successful leagues that’s ever been created, at least in modern times.
Now you can’t have a league without great fans. Give me your thoughts on the love and support that the PFL fans have shown since the beginning?
Well let’s look at it like this. The fighters are looking for alternatives to compete, right? Different options in competition – so we certainly fulfill that. With respect to fans, this is “underserved” fanbase. There are over 600 million fans around the world today, over 80% outside the U.S.. It is the third largest fanbase in all of sports, behind the world’s #1 sport, soccer (futbol) and basketball. And what I can tell you, this fanbase, they want access to more quality MMA, and quality fights, and really that is our focus. This sport, meaning MMA, is still very much in it’s early days when you compare it to other major sports, right? NFL, where I have great history, is over 100 years old. NBA to other major sports leagues have been around 100 years or decades to decades. This sport is very much still in it’s early days and there’s so much growth ahead because of that underserved fanbase. There’s a consumer that demands more quality product. We serve up a premium product, meaning the PFL, that’s innovative on a different night of the week then perhaps the UFC or other promotions, and we’re not asking fans to choose one or the other. We’re providing different occassion – and a completely different experience. Candidly for a young fanbase that expects more from MMA. As it relates to the product that’s around the world, and it really is a 2.0 experience.
What has been your favorite moment from previous PFL Playoffs?
Listen. Our version of the playoffs – it really is March Madness-meets-MMA in August. It’s win and advance, lose and go home, everything is on the line. All these fighters have had to compete in the regular season two fights, this is their third fight and if they win, their in the million dollar championship, and the opportunity to win the 2022 belt for their respective weight class, so there’s pressure. There’s added intensity … this is it. So for me, the experience every year is different. Watched all these fighters and, at the end of the day, there been upsets in the past, and there are favorites come this Friday, but we’ll see how it all goes down because a fight a fight. And everyone who is in the PFL has the capability, and certainly the desire to be champion. So we’ll see what happens when that cage door closes and that bell rings. Honestly, every year is unique and supporting the fighter’s journey.
What is the PFL doing differently this year from previous Playoffs formats?
What we did differently this year is really the big thing we did launching the “Challenger Series,” which was a new format. So when you think about things that were new in the sport. I mean the “Challenger Series” was another breakthrough format from the PFL. It was American Idol-meets-MMA. Eight consecutive weeks of fighters had to prove themselves, and not only win, but perform to earn a PFL contract. And, you know, we had icons of combat sports, including former MMA champions, other major sports stars, like Ray Lewis, as well as fans weigh in on who got those contracts. So that was breakthrough. That was breakthrough for the sport, that was breakthrough for the fighters because these are earlier stage fighters, aspiring to get into the PFL season. And we’ve had fighters front the “Challenger Series” on Fubo actually make their way in. Nine fighters on the “Challenger Series” on Fubo that we launched in February actually made it on to the PFL 2022 season. And there are fighters like Jarrah, who are in the hunt. So we’ll see what goes down with those “Challenger Series” fighters.
Another thing that goes hand-and-hand with combat sports is the support of social media. How is PFL becoming more engaging with social media as you enter new expansions and the playoffs?
As we continue to grow our PFL league, along with our fighters, we have over 15 million followers today, number one. Number two, we have a great new leader on the team in Sean Loughlin. Sean was an executive at Barstool for the last six years – leading their digital and social platforms, and growth. He’s brought over a new energy and voice for our brand across all social channels, which is helping to drive further interest in the league. In our live events. And following our fighters – that’s the beauty of social. There all unique channels that fans engage in different ways and they can access the PFL, and all those stories because in the end, it’s about stories and conversations.
Outside the cage, does the PFL have any plans to embark on the podcast world?
Yes, definitely. We will be launching a podcast. We will be making that announcement, candidly, in conjunction with leading up to the championship.
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Definitely excited about that. As the CEO, what is some advice you would give to these fighters that are entering into the PFL 2022 Playoffs?
Listen, I wish them all, you know, the very best. And they know what’s on the line. So they need to put on the performance of a lifetime or of their career come the playoffs because when you have a belt and a million dollars on the line, and it’s win and advance, lose and go home, you know, they have to be the very best verison of themselves as professional athletes. And it’s all about preparation, and the dedication, so based on my understanding and what Ray Sefo tells me that this group that we have coming into the playoffs, they’re absolute pros, and, you know, they’ll come prepared.
Fighters are putting everything on the line for this million dollar journey, so I have to ask this related question. What are the PFL’s plans of involving themselves in the sports betting world – another popular outlet for combat sports?
We’re already in the betting business in a big way. Draft Kings here in the U.S. is our sorta – corner stone partner. And we’re activating those rights internationally as well. And we brought innovation to betting in MMA – in being the only league to be able to activate our “smart cage” fighter data and fight analytics, so as an example, strike speed and kick speed, those are new “prop bets,” as well as bets related to traditional sport’s leagues. We have the ability to, essentially, expand engagement, and create those opportunities – with best-in-class partners like Draft Kings.
Kayla Harrison responded to the results of the Amanda Nunes-Julianna Pena fight at UFC 277 that was held last weekend, (Saturday, July 30th, 2022) on Twitter when fans offered up a trilogy – she (Harrison) made her presence felt to be like: “I’m around too.” As the PFL CEO, how do you feel about Harrison’s tweet and are you guys open to a possible collaboration with the UFC on a fight with Kayla Harrison?
Yeah we’ve said that before. Yeah, you’ve heard me say that before at the end of the day … well, let me just reframe. You’ve heard me say before we are open to creating fights that fighters want and fans want to see. And if that means cross promoting with other major organizations – and top fighters – we’re all about it. And more to come on that.
The PFL 2022 Playoffs continue Saturday (August 20) in London at Copper Box Arena. Watch it on ESPN+.