The long-rumored disappearance of the World Series of Fighting is happening. The development came when the promotion switched gears and announced that it would become the Professional Fighters League. The promotion will launch this new branding in 2018 and hold a season — a more structured format like other major sports do — to determine the winners of a million-dollar prize in each of seven divisions.
In theory, a season for MMA sounds like a pretty cool idea. It’s just an alternate version of tournaments, really. Tournaments have always been a fun way to decide who will be the champion of a division. It isn’t one guy gaining a title and just defending against whomever the promotion picks as a “worthy” challenger. Instead, it’s a bracket of four or eight guys fighting for the chance to earn the crown.
With a tournament, the champions are decided in the cage and not on paper. Anything can happen on any given night. The favorites can easily be beaten in a one-and-done scenario and leave the gates open for an unknown or dark-horse champion. For the industry as a whole, an evolution in how champions are determined could make for a good change of pace.
However, therein lies the problem when a promotion offers such a big prize. It’s possible that the long-term stability won’t be there. Without notable champions, the viewership most likely won’t remain consistent or strong. We need look no further than the final tournament seasons of Bellator for proof of how an organization can lose fan interest. Not many people will tune in to see an unknown champion, or a bracket full of unknown title hopefuls. It won’t sell on a big network in a primetime slot. Companies won’t pay to have their ads attached to cards that won’t garner a lot of attention. Or, at the very least, these companies won’t pay a premium.
In addition to Bellator’s tournament format, MMA has already seen another league try to go the season route — and even take it one step farther by relying on a team format. Of course, we’re talking about the International Fight League. The IFL, despite a strong start, didn’t last long.
This doesn’t mean the PFL won’t put on a good product. We all know it doesn’t take a star to make a fight interesting. It takes skill and style to put on a good show for the fans. Yet, this is still a business, which means it’s a matter of dollars and cents. This is what makes or breaks a promotion in any realm, as the WSOF found out before it opted to rebrand itself as the PFL.
Even going beyond the advertisement revenue, the biggest problem is that the promotion doesn’t even have a deal in place to air its events on a network. The WSOF deal with NBC Sports Network runs out at the end of 2017. The PFL kicks off in 2018, so finding a network to host the new promotion is absolutely crucial.
Networks will look at the WSOF ratings and base any next deal off of these numbers. A major network probably won’t take a chance on the PFL in a primetime slot. Instead, this newly branded league needs to find a cable channel that reaches a lot of homes to help bring in viewers to even out the large payouts the company will hand out at season’s end.
Money is at the root of anything in business. Keeping an MMA promotion afloat is hard as it is. Outside of the UFC and maybe Bellator, promotions struggle to bring in a lot of ticket sales or viewership on TV. We haven’t reached the point where the sport itself is a sustainable business model. Much like the tournament format itself, the PFL sounds like a good idea on paper. However, the big question mark is whether or not the revenue will be there to turn this rebranding effort into a true contender.