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The Professional Fighters League has had a rollercoaster of a second season. The promotion started off 2019 by announcing a huge multi-year media rights deal with ESPN in February, splitting broadcast time between the network’s ESPN+ streaming service and ESPN2 cable channel. The PFL also picked up several notable additions to its roster, including Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans Sarah Kaufman and Jordan Johnson, as well as Dana White’s Contender Series standout Brendan Loughnane. In addition, the organization inked deals with former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson for a streaming series on its website and Anheuser-Busch for an official beer sponsorship. By all accounts, it appeared as though the rebranded World Series of Fighting was heading in the right direction.
Things started to take a wrong turn, however, shortly into the second season. Multiple fighters missed weight throughout several events, resulting in canceled bouts and athletes being released from the organization. Prominent MMA manager Ali Abdelaziz’s apparent conflicts of interest with the company were revealed in an investigative piece by Michael Fiedel at The Body Lock shortly after Abdelaziz was charged with battery following an incident with rival manager Abraham Kawa at an Oct. 11 PFL event. During the league’s 2019 playoff events, several fighters failed drug tests and had their licenses suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, including featherweight finalist Daniel Pineda, who will now be replaced by Alex Gilpin on the promotion’s final card of the year. Ratings and live attendance haven’t been great for the PFL, either. The first round of PFL playoffs on Oct. 11 didn’t register in the Top 150 of cable programming for the night, and its second postseason event on Oct. 17 drew a measly 0.04 rating among adults between 18 and 49 years old. In fact, the highest-rated PFL events all year were regular-season shows PFL 4 and PFL 6, which both averaged around 227,000 viewers. While these numbers are in line with previous PFL and WSOF events, the promotion had hoped for a boost of some sort given the extra marketing and partnerships it had secured.
The live gate and attendance trend is far more distressing for the organization. First reported by ratings expert Jed I. Goodman, this season’s three playoff cards gate and attendance were cut by more than half each subsequent event. PFL 7 brought in a gate of nearly $145,000 on around 3,300 tickets sold, while two cards later, PFL 9 yielded under $30,000 in total gate and only 411 tickets sold. Despite PFL 9 being hampered by the fact that it took place on Halloween, the downswing of these numbers is so severe that it can’t look good to current and potential investors.
In April, the promotion raised $30 million in Series C funding for the organization, bringing the total amount raised to $82 million since the company was created. The PFL has used that money to finance operations and develop proprietary stat-tracking technology such as its SmartcageTM and CagenomicsTM system, which it introduced for the 2019 season. With high-profile investors such as Beats Electronics co-founder Jimmy Iovine, actor/comedian Kevin Hart and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis participating in the latest round, there has been added pressure on the promotion to deliver results that would secure further funding from them and other entities. Given the way the second season has turned out so far, additional investment from those sources could be in jeopardy.
The promotion’s New Year’s Eve show in 2018 drew its highest ratings for the season, despite starting at 7 p.m. ET. This year’s event will have the same starting time, and although the storylines may not be as compelling as 2018, it could see a similar spike in viewership for the organization simply due to a lack of competing sporting events. If the promotion can deliver exciting fights without much issue, it may be able to end the year on a high note -- something that would reassure investors and partners that the organization can weather a storm. Although marketing for the show has been mostly quiet due to the long gap between the promotion’s final two events, one would expect a hard push from the company to drive viewership over the holidays and pull out all the stops to ensure a successful end-of-the-year show.
Moving forward into next season, provided there is one, there are several ways in which the organization can alleviate some of these woes. While scheduling events on New Year’s Eve may drive high viewership, other holidays like Halloween may best be avoided, especially when trying to capture the 18-49 demographic. The promotion may also find it best to lean into its brand differentiator by keeping the overall timeframe of its regular season and playoffs shorter, with less time in between events to drive fan engagement; however, this may cause more weight cut and injury cancellations if done improperly. Given that the PFL gives away a total of $6 million every season to its divisional winners alone, the company needs to continually increase its viewership and live numbers in order to stay viable. As the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last show, so for the sake of PFL and its fighters, they had better hope their New Year’s Eve card is a banger.