PFL CEO Peter Murray discusses the company’s Bellator acquisition, global expansion, and emerging as a co-leader in MMA with the UFC.
Peter Murray was in a celebratory mood, and why shouldn’t he be? Not long ago, he wrapped up one of the most successful weeks in his three-decades-long professional career.
The CEO of the Professional Fighters League oversaw the Nov. 20 acquisition of rival MMA outfit Bellator, reportedly for under $100 million. The deal gives the five-year-old PFL a combined stable of athletes that makes up 30% of Fight Matrix’s top 25 fighters in the world in their respective weight classes — the same percentage as the UFC.
The following weekend, PFL held its 2023 season-ending championships in six weight classes, with winners claiming $1 million each. It was the culmination of the brand’s unique format where fighters compete in a regular season and postseason to determine the sport’s premier competitors. It’s a stark departure from the one-off, pay-per-view format the UFC and boxing have used for so many decades.
“We’re really creating a global powerhouse and we’re poised to be co-leader,” Murray told Boardroom. “This acquisition of Bellator really will be an accelerant for the PFL to realize our global vision. The deal is not just transformational for the sport and for the PFL, but it’s great for fighters, media companies, our commercial partners, and ultimately our fans.”
Murray’s decades of sports industry experience includes 13 years in business and content development at the NFL, three years as a WME executive, and nearly four years as Under Armour‘s vice president of global brand and sports marketing. He’s coming off a year with PFL that saw 30% viewership growth year-over-year in the U.S. on ESPN, and strong, entrenched commercial partners like AB InBev, GEICO, Bose, and Celsius Energy.
But the Bellator acquisition undoubtedly begins a new, pivotal phase for the company under Murray’s watch.
Bellator was founded in 2008, owned by Paramount Global since 2011. But with broadcaster Showtime discontinuing its sports division, a sale to PFL had been rumored for months. Its confirmation last week shook up the combat sports landscape.
Bellator’s champions will face PFL’s champions in a special fight night in 2024, Murray confirmed, and its fighters will compete in PFL’s season format beginning next year. Though he didn’t reveal further details, he’s looking forward to iteration, innovation, and re-imagining the Bellator brand while giving more meaning to its competitions and events.
To Murray’s delight, 2023 brought PFL strong ratings, attendance, and international distribution. The season format not only brought excitement and unpredictability, with fighters needing to win four times in eight months to take the title and the $1 million prize, but also a better business model for fighters than the UFC.
“Every season, we don’t know who’s going to get to the championship because it’s all about meritocracy,” Murray said. “You talk to these fighters and they’ll tell you they joined the PFL not only for the opportunity to manage their careers differently, control their destiny and take on the talent that we have, but they also want to take on the format.”
Brazilian Renan Ferreira won the heavyweight title last weekend and immediately called out PFL’s splashiest new signing, Francis Ngannou. Larissa Pacheco won her second straight women’s division title, this time in a different weight class, and is poised to take on Bellator superstars like Chris Cyborg and Kayla Harrison in the future. Light heavyweight champion Impa Kasanganay came from PFL’s challenger series two years ago, and worked his way to the crown.
“UFC’s model is really built on an old boxing model, a one-off event with not a lot of transparency for the fighters or the fans,” Murray said. “Fans don’t know who’s fighting, why fighters have been matched up, or what the matchups lead to. We’ve really tried to bring true sport principles to MMA.”
It’s not just the success of this format that earned PFL a multi-year extension with ESPN, announced Thursday, but the promise of a new PFL PPV Super Fight Division slated to pit PFL and Bellator’s stars against each other starting early next year, highlighting a roster Murray called second to none. That includes megastars like Ngannou, Jake Paul, Vadim Nemkov, Johnny Eblen, Jason Jackson, Ryan Bader, Patrício Pitbull, and Patrick Mix on the men’s side, and Claressa Shields, Amanda Serrano, and Savannah Marshall on the women’s side. ESPN+ PPV will distribute these fights in the U.S.
PFL’s broadcast technology also gives it an edge over competitors like UFC. Gamified through proprietary SmartCage technology, it integrates fighter data, AI scoring, and analytics into the broadcast and streaming product, and offers betting companies new real-time prop offerings thanks to new information like strike speed and kick speed.
In addition to the renewed domestic strategy, Murray and PFL maintain vast global ambitions in addition to the 150 countries it already broadcasts in with 20 premium media distribution partners. The brand started with 10 events when it first launched in 2018, which more than doubled to 22 in 2023. That included the PFL global season, the challenger series, and the new PFL Europe series.
With Bellator coming into the fold and other series expanding, PFL projects 36 events in 2024. The European regional league is the first of a planned six regions PFL plans to expand to over the next three years that will push the company past 50 annual globally distributed events, with more than half of those taking place internationally.
If this plan comes to fruition, there will be additional leagues in regions all over the world. PFL will launch next year in the Middle East, in Africa and Australia in 2025, and in Asia and Latin America in 2026. Murray and the PFL call this concept the champions league of MMA — discovering, developing, and promoting a pipeline of up-and-coming talent with a chance to advance to the global season and super fight divisions while building passionate fan bases with local year-round content airing in prime time.
“With respect to MMA, there was really no innovation in the sport until we launched in 2018,” Murray said. “Our mission is to advance and grow the sport, and we’re doing it with a very clear point of view on what we’re solving for.”
PFL Europe is its first regional league concept, and Murray sad the outfit’s third-ever event in October in Paris was the most-watched MMA event in French television history, surpassing UFC. He called this a strong proof of concept, with Ngannou acting as the African league’s chairman, and a $100 million investment from Saudi-backed SRJ Sports Investments to help launch the Middle East product.
When asked about whether he and the PFL had reservations about partnering with a country whose billions in global sports investments are seen as a distraction from its human rights abuses, Murray said the company is excited about SRJ’s investment.
“It will fuel our global growth in launching pay-per-views, as well as international league expansion, including creating a world-class ecosystem in MMA within Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East,” he said. “It’s a growth region for the sport of MMA, and we’re excited to be at the forefront of that and to build that with our partners at SRJ.”
For 2024, Murray’s biggest goal is to stage 36 year-round events and accelerate the company’s overarching vision through PFL’s five franchises: Super Fight PPV, global season, Bellator, international leagues, and challenger series. Those franchises will help PFL identify, recruit, develop, and promote athletes at different stages of their careers. PFL president Ray Sefo and his team lead those efforts, and the Bellator acquisition will certainly help.
MMA has 600 million global fans, per Nielsen, with 80% of those outside the U.S. The median age of 35 is vastly younger than traditional sports, making a league like PFL not only mainstream, Murray said, but right in the wheelhouse of the coveted male 18-34 demographic. Because of that, you’re seeing more MMA athletes expand their endorsement portfolios as the sport’s reach and impact grows.
“It’s night and day versus what it was five years ago,” he said, “and there’s so much more growth ahead from premium distribution and audience growth.”
PFL’s season-long format is already familiar to the mainstream young male audience, appealing to both avid and casual fans. The plan is firmly in place for PFL to grow in a big way in 2024, with the Bellator acquisition putting it in an even better position to cement itself as UFC’s chief rival in MMA. Next year, the most important of Murray’s career, it’s up to PFL to execute and assert its place as one of sports’ most ascendant, relevant, and impactful brands.
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