Before its New York City takeover on Aug. 5, PFL CEO Peter Murray speaks with Boardroom about the MMA promotion’s embrace of technology and an innovative competition format.
Year by year and card by card, the Professional Fighters League has increasingly distinguished itslef from its mixed martial arts peers by bringing both a new format of competition to mixed martial arts and partnering with technology companies to create a new kind of fan experience. And as the PFL draws nearer to the conclusion of its fifth season and kicks off its playoff phase that will eventually reward each division’s champion $1 million apiece, it’s doing so on the greatest stage in global combat sports: Madison Square Garden.
As the weekend’s fight card approaches at the Hulu Theater featuring men’s lightweights and light heavyweights — including former UFC and WEC champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis — Boardroom spoke with PFL CEO Peter Murray about the organization’s next chapter and its plans to continue expanding in all manner of directions.
RANDALL WILLIAMS: When you have a fighter as talented as Kayla Harrison what goes into developing a budding star to help them reach the highest heights?
PETER MURRAY: Ray Sefo, our President of Fighter Operations, and his team are responsible for identifying, recruiting, developing, and activating our fighters within the PFL system. The system starts with the Challenger Series we debuted last year. At every event, a fighter earned a contract with the PFL. These are early-stage fighters who are pros who are looking to develop and get a shot at getting into the PFL season format. This year was our first year establishing that, and we got eight fighters out of the Challenger Series that were actually good enough to get into the 2022 season. The series serves as a new property for fans to discover exciting new talent and a development platform for the PFL.
As it relates to the season format, year over year we’ll only retain the top performers — our champions, athletes who made it to the postseason, and other athletes that proved they have the skills, desire, and commitment to be great. Year over year, at minimum, we will refresh the talent pool; 40% of our fighters will be new.
RW: Free agency is a frequent topic of discussion in MMA. How do you all approach those conversations when it comes to both attracting out-of-contract athletes from other promotions and retaining your own?
PM: We’re no longer the new kid on the block. Our view is that at the end of the day, to sign and retain fighters, we provide top competition and opportunity for fighters to have a transparent path to becoming champion, and we support our fighters through their journey. That is very much a core tenet of the company. Not only are we competitive with compensation; we certainly have more incentives than any other organization.
RW: The PFL announced plans to host a combine for amateur athletes. Where did that idea come from?
PM: We really want to open up the sport of MMA and provide fans access behind the scenes to get a view and understand what it takes to become a top MMA athlete in the world. Part of storytelling is providing access, and the combine presents another opportunity for that. It will be an invitation-only platform to identify and measure and compare some of the best athletes in the world who are on the come-up to see if they have what it takes. It will be broadcast on ESPN+ as well.
RW: One of the things I’m fascinated to see you all debut is the pay-per-view, tell me more about that and how it will function as it relates to the business behind it?
PM: The amount of opportunity is endless. We will partner with our fighters when it comes time for the PPV. There is no reason fighters shouldn’t be participating in a greater share of the upside so we are going to provide that. There is plenty of money to be made for our organization, our business partners and our talent.
RW: Why did the PFL decide to venture into leveraging technology and analytics as part of the viewer experience?
PM: With respect to technology, there had been zero innovation in MMA — and, candidly other combat sports — until the PFL launched in 2018. We created a product for this generation’s fan. It’s all about innovation to simply enhance the experience with the right context on these amazing athletes with their fights.
RW: Is there anything regarding tech that you haven’t yet done that you would like to do?
PM: What I’m really excited about that fans can expect from the PFL is we’ll be rolling out biometric data. Things like heart rate, calories burned — we are testing the technology now and we will be opening up access for fans to see that technology evolve. It will also be integrated into our live broadcast and streaming experience for fans.
PFL’s men’s lightweight and light heavyweight postseason card takes place Friday, Aug. 5 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. The bouts begin at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with the main card beginning at 9 p.m. ET.