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On Dec. 31, 2019, the Professional Fighters League held the final event of its sophomore season, handing out six $1 million dollar prizes to champions in various weight classes. While there were plenty of familiar faces in the playoffs, with lightweight champion Natan Schulte and featherweight champion Lance Palmer winning their respective divisions in back-to-back seasons, there were a few new faces as well, with Ali Isaev taking home the heavyweight gold and Emiliano Sordi capturing the light heavyweight belt. The show also featured the face of the league, Kayla Harrison, claiming the inaugural women’s 155-pound title and fan-favorite Ray Cooper III taking home the welterweight prize. The show delivered a mixed bag of action and grinding style fights, but whether or not it was your cup of tea the event provided hardcore MMA fans something to watch before the ball dropped to ring in the new year.
By all indications, 2019 was a roller coaster of a year. Last February, the PFL signed a media rights distribution deal with ESPN, bringing the league to the same broadcast home as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The company also managed to secure an additional $30 million in Series C fundraising, a $2 million increase from its Series B offering the previous year. 2019 also saw the orginization sign a few more notable names to their roster, including UFC veterans Sarah Kaufman and Jordan Johnson as well as featherweight standout Brendan Loughnane.
Once the season got rolling, however, the league ran into several issues. It was plagued by fighters missing weight, which allowed multiple competitors like UFC veteran Ramsey Nijem and lightweight Daniel Pineda to enter the playoffs without actually ever competing during the regular season. In the playoffs themselves, a handful of notable fighters who won their quarterfinal bouts were forced to withdraw from competition due to injury, including 2018 welterweight champion and 2019 favorite Magomed Magomedkerimov. To make matters worse, five different fighters who competed in the playoffs failed drug tests, including Pineda, who was supposed to take on eventual champion Natan Schulte in the finals. Ratings and gates also disappointed throughout, especially during its three playoff events.
Given the turmoil and the fact that the PFL seemingly relies on outside investment to fund its operations at the moment, I posited that the league would need a big New Year’s Eve event in order to prove to investors that, despite the rocky season, they were still a viable monetary vehicle. Notwithstanding the myriad problems that arose for the PFL in 2019, the orginization still managed to sign an important broadcast deal and line up important partnerships with brands like Anheuser Busch, iHeartMedia and DraftKings. If the company could pull off increased viewership and exciting performances on what was supposed to be their biggest card of the year, they could end on a high note and quell any fears of potential investors regarding the company moving forward.
Although the exciting performances were hit and miss, the ratings were nothing but a hit.
The PFL’s New Year’s Eve card managed to draw 361,000 viewers on ESPN2, the highest ratings for the company since its transition from being the World Series of Fighting. While that viewership is not on the level of the UFC, it did beat Bellator’s final event of the year, Bellator 237, which drew 311,000 viewers. The event also managed to outdraw an NBA game between the Denver Nuggets and the Houston Rockets on NBA TV, which was shown during the same time period.
PFL also managed to secure its biggest signing yet, with former Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald joining the organization almost a week before the NYE event. Although there were some concerns regarding “The Red King” and his mindset during Bellator’s 2019 welterweight grand prix, MacDonald has made it clear that he wants to stay active and relishes the idea of the PFL’s season format with playoffs and a championship. He also states that he hopes the league keeps its current playoff format of two fights in one night during the playoffs, saying that such a feat “tests your strength and your character.”
The combination of the MacDonald signing and the ratings spike breathes new life into the PFL as it enters its third season. Recently speaking to Sherdog, PFL CEO Peter Murray stated that elevating its talent roster was the No. 1 priority going forward, and that we should expect more free-agent signings in the coming months. 2020 will also be the final year of its two-year broadcast deal with ESPN, so one might expect the organization to go all out in talent acquisition as it looks to secure a media rights deal for 2021 and beyond. Exactly who the PFL is targeting is not yet known, but the more name-value fighters it can sign before next season, the better.
Despite the year-end success, the PFL will still need to make some significant adjustments moving forward in order to achieve its goal of challenging the status quo of how MMA promotions are run. The weight-cutting issues need to be addressed given its impact on the company’s second season. It will also need to find a way to consistently boost its ratings across the season rather than relying on one night a year to pull its largest viewership. If the PFL can address these issues while simultaneously bringing in bigger names each season, however, then the possibilities for the organization and its format are quite attractive. Either way, 2020 will be an important year for the PFL.