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When the Professional Fighters League instituted its plan to offer $1 million paydays to the winners of its tournaments, the calculation seemed simple. The PFL isn’t a nonprofit organization; it isn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to make select fighters’ lives better. Nor does it make much sense that the million-dollar paydays themselves would induce fans to tune in. There are a number of reasons not to expect that to be a hook in and of itself for viewers.
PFL fighters aren’t that well-known, and one relatively unknown fighter being able to pay off a house rather than another isn’t that compelling of a hook. In fact, the million-dollar prizes might actually be counterproductive in that regard because all the focus on what life-changing money this is accentuates the idea that these aren’t big-time stars but average people trying to make ends meet. Larger-than-life characters historically have been what draw in combat sports, not everymen.
Thus, the plain and simple reason to offer up large cash prices is to compel higher-caliber and bigger-name fighters to join the league. That’s what the influx of cash has the hypothetical potential to do, just like an NBA team clearing out plenty of cap room in order to try to sign some major free agents. The problem for the PFL, like so many of those NBA teams, is that it still needs to convince those athletes to sign. If stars pass on signing and you just hand the money to whomever else is available, it doesn’t tend to work out very well. Ask PFL stakeholder and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis about Ian Mahinmi, for example.
MMA fighters know that the brightest spotlight and the biggest potential paydays are available in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Thus, other organizations that want to beat out the UFC for talent need to offer them more money in the short term. By offering six million-dollar paydays a year, the PFL has the chance to do just that. Fighters do need to emerge from a field of 12 to secure one of those prizes, but the fields are not that deep. One would expect that there are high-caliber fighters outside the PFL who are confident they could walk in and in a few months make more money than they would make in a much longer period of time for beating a lower caliber of opposition.
That leads to the big question. One might call it the million-dollar question: Why aren’t there any fighters jumping on the opportunity? It’s understandable there would be skepticism at first since plenty of promoters have made big promises to fighters and not followed through on them. If something sounds too good to be true in MMA, it pretty much always has been. However, the fighters have now been paid for the first season and confirmed it publicly. If there were any issues, they almost certainly would have surfaced by now. In spite of this, the fields are out for the PFL’s second season, and it’s pretty much the same crew as the first.
The highest-profile additions to the field this year are former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman and former Olympic gold medalist Satoshi Ishii. Both fit the profile of an accomplished competitor who would seem to benefit from the PFL’s format. The surprise isn’t that they have joined but rather that more fighters like them or fighters of an even higher caliber have not. Notable fighters continue to sign extensions to stay where they are while the highest-profile free agency moves have been towards One Championship. The PFL’s bold million-dollar gimmick hasn’t seemed to impact the landscape much at all.
While it’s nice to see hard-working veteran fighters get career-high paydays, there’s a significant opportunity cost for the PFL. With the money that went to Magomed Magomedkerimov, Philipe Lins, Sean O'Connell, Natan Schulte, Lance Palmer and Louis Taylor, it could have locked up marquee star Kayla Harrison far into the future and still retained funds to sign Cris Cyborg to be her top rival. Nothing brings attention to a fight promotion like a major individual fight. The PFL has big-money investors behind it, and with that money comes the opportunity to make select major moves. The PFL’s play was the big-money tournaments, but to this point, they haven’t resulted in what should have been the desired effect.
There’s no indication that the PFL plans to give it up its strategy anytime soon, so it could pay dividends down the line. However, the results to this point have been strange. Rather than offering up big money to bring in a higher-caliber talent, instead the promotion has just given select existing talents exponential pay raises. The PFL hasn’t elevated the level of star power on its shows in the process. It’s great for the fighters who win the tournaments but questionable as a functional long-term strategy.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.