Ray Cooper III (PFL)

ESPN: Moving MMA Mainstream, One Organization at a Time

The UFC on Fox deal finished out its seven-year stretch in December, and the UFC found a new home on ESPN and ESPN+ to kick off 2019. This has been viewed as a monumental step in helping MMA to become more “mainstream” now that it’s featured on a sports pedestal like ESPN.

Many fans have already complained about the additional $4.99/month, but the ESPN+ platform is a step in the right direction for the UFC in terms of its streaming offerings. UFC Fight Pass still has its own bugs many years after its launch (not to mention nonexistent customer service). ESPN+ seemed to give the UFC a stable streaming app and an added edge over its competition, Bellator and the Professional Fighters League — well, until now.

Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the PFL had signed a two-year deal with ESPN, which will also feature fight cards on ESPN+. This has to be one of the smartest business decisions ESPN could have made. Simply put, it’s genius.


This approach will draw the mainstream fans in to check out other promotions besides the UFC. In turn, this increases the amount of subscribers to the platform. Bellator attempted to go a similar route last year with the introduction of its own deal with DAZN, but that upstart streaming network has nowhere near the drawing power of ESPN. With this new deal, it’s safe to say that the PFL could move into the No. 2 spot behind the UFC in terms of popularity. It’s even safer to say that this deal is going to elevate MMA to a whole new level.

This move shows that ESPN is fully ready to embrace MMA as a mainstream sport. It also reveals that the sports giant is not opposed to the acquisition of additional promotions in order to secure an ever-increasing fan base and cash flow.

The PFL format — million-dollar tournaments and a regular season followed by playoffs — is so different from that of the UFC. It will also be interesting to see how the balance in time slots and programming is distributed between the UFC and PFL. This is monumental for the PFL, and hopefully they take full advantage of this incredible opportunity. The UFC will need to keep a close eye on this rival organization and its slow but steady growth.

What’s really the crazy part about all of this is the intrigue and, quite frankly, the monetary factor. A perfect example is former UFC middleweight and light heavyweight Alex “The Spartan” Nicholson. Nicholson had a 1-3 run in the UFC and made $10,000 for his loss to Misha Cirkunov, $22,500 for his win over Devin Clark, $14,500 for his loss to Sam Alvey, and $14,500 for his loss to Jack Hermansson. That’s a total of $61,500 in disclosed pay from February 2016 to May 2017, just over a year.

Nicholson went on to win five of his next six bouts outside the UFC. Four out of those five wins came at the heavyweight level. Nicholson’s debut with the PFL — he knocked out Jake Heun with an incredibly timed flying knee — will be on highlight reels for years to come. He lost to Philipe Lins just one month later, but rebounded with a win over Jack May in October. On the same night, he had to face Josh Copeland and came up short in the heavyweight semifinal bout.

For each of his PFL appearances, Nicholson made $50,000 to show and $50,000 to win. The payout for the semifinal loser? $100,000. This means that in just four months and with a 2-2 record in four fights, Nicholson had a substantial pay raise from his UFC days.

The PFL may have a different caliber of fighter right now, but don’t be surprised to see a lot of even better fighters head to the organization for their shot not just at a million dollars, but even just to get a piece of the tournament spoils.