PFL looks to woo Asian MMA fans with unique season format

·4-min read
PHOTO: Professional Fighting League
PHOTO: Professional Fighting League

SINGAPORE — Most mixed martial arts (MMA) companies position their fights as either one-offs or as part of knockout tournaments. Win a bout, and the fighter either wins a title belt, advances up the contenders' rankings, or advances to the next tournament stage. 

The Professional Fighters League (PFL), set up just three years ago, eschews this format for something more unique - a sports-season format where fighters have to be consistently excellent to make it to the playoffs and the final championship bouts. The champion in each of the six weight divisions will earn a cool US$1 million.

It is a bold move that makes the company stand out among the packed and competitive MMA events calendar. PFL events are now broadcast live in primetime on ESPN channels in the United States, and are also distributed to 160 other countries on premium sports networks. 

As it prepares to conclude its third season, with the finale set for 27 October at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Hollywood in Florida, it is eyeing a wider global audience, especially in the huge Asian market where the sport is gaining wide acceptance and popularity. 

Former NBA China CEO joins PFL

To that ambition, PFL named former National Basketball Association (NBA) China chief executive officer Derek Chang to its board of directors in July. 

During his two-year stint at NBA China, Chang expanded its business with major partnerships with Tencent, Alibaba, Vivo, ByteDance, and China Mobile Migu. He has also held executive positions global media companies such as DIRECTV and YES Network.

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore in an online interview earlier this month, Chang spoke about his excitement in building an audience for this new sports franchise. 

"Because we're starting from scratch in building the audience in Asia, we don't have the baggage in terms of the way things were done in the past," he said. "In Asia especially, there are lots of ways to get younger people to interact with our sports brand - whether it's virtual or physical - and so there's a lot of flexibility in getting people to understand and enjoy our product."

PHOTO: Professional Fighting League
PHOTO: Professional Fighting League

Finalists for PFL Championships come with sterling credentials

The finalists for this year's PFL Championship round have been unearthed after the playoff semi-finals in August, where the top four fighters in each division squared off.

The contenders include Brazil's Bruno Cappeloza, the top-ranked fighter in the heavyweight division who has not lost this season; his compatriot Antonio Carlos Junior, a former jiu-jitsu world champion who is vying for the light-heavyweight title; and American Kayla Harrison, a judo gold medallist at the 2012 London Olympics who is also the defending champion of the women's lightweight division.

Chang believes that PFL's league-season format raises the competitive stakes, with division winners truly earning their titles by being consistently excellent throughout the gruelling rounds of competition.

"The fighters know that going through a legitimate process to be crowned champion, instead of just one-off fights here and there, it brings a lot of credibility to their fighting skills," he said.

"I think it brings a lot of drama and excitement that carries through the entire year, and it escalates the stakes such that we ultimately find true champions who managed to last the distance and fend off all challengers."

Challenge to find footing in Asian market

It will be nevertheless be a challenge for PFL to find its footing in a crowded and highly-competitive Asian MMA viewership market. 

Singapore-based ONE Championship has had a decade's worth of experience in promoting MMA events throughout Asia; Japan has a slew of MMA organisations such as DEEP, Pancrase and Shooto; and popular American companies such as Bellator and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have already crossed the Pacific to established their presences among the sizeable martial arts fan base in Asia.

There is also the ongoing uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in staging sporting events for mass audiences, but Chang is taking all these challenges in his stride.

"The Asian MMA market is still expanding, so it's not a zero-sum game," he said. "There are always a few bumps on the road at the beginning, but I think that, as things start to normalise in the long term, I believe we have a great product that will be able to stand up to the rest of the competition. I hope to be part of an organisation that continues to grow."

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