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For much of its time as a promotion, the World Series of Fighting bumped along. It had plenty of assets going for it. The organization had a quality distribution deal with NBC Sports. Big-money investors were recruited to help generate attention. Plenty of high-quality talent came through the promotion, including Justin Gaethje, Marlon Moraes, Anthony Johnson and Andrei Arlovski. However, the WSOF just couldn’t gain any traction with fans. To be sure, it’s a difficult time to be an MMA promoter with so much product available on television, but the WSOF struggled even compared to similar competitors.
At the heart of the WSOF’s struggles was that it had no clear reason for being. Rarely did an individual show have a hook that went beyond seeing a certain collection of fighters compete. Over the years, MMA promotions have tried all sorts of ways to make their shows feel more important: a focus on big names, a focus on rising stars, building around certain weight classes, appealing to certain regions or ethnic groups, utilizing tournaments and so forth. Each WSOF card just felt like a series of random fights thrown together with no rhyme or reason, offering little to entice the viewer. When the WSOF initials were retired, tears were shed by only the most emotionally unstable.
The Professional Fighters League doesn’t differ all that much from the World Series of Fighting. It features largely the same fighters, the same announce crew and the same television outlet. However, it is different from the WSOF in one crucial way: It has a clear and easily understandable reason for being. Fighters are competing in the context of a season, earning points to qualify for the postseason and then fight for a significant cash prize. It’s a simple hook but one that offers up a variety of benefits.
The biggest positive of the new format is that it infuses meaning into every fight. When the entire card is comprised of fighters jockeying for position in the standings, there is cause to pay attention to every bout and to become curious about how they will go. This is the strength of tournaments in general, and the format is particularly suited to smaller promotions where fans know fewer fighters and thus can use added cause to care about them. Standings are also easy for sports fans to digest.
Even more beneficial to the PFL is the way it has set up a point system to incentivize finishes. It’s a similar trick the Ultimate Fighting Championship has employed on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, where fighters know that in order to get a contract they pretty well have to finish the fight. In PFL, fighters still can do well just by winning fights, but getting finishes is even more advantageous. Other sports tinker with their rules in order to make the product more exciting for fans, and MMA is wise to do the same.
This isn’t to say the PFL’s new identity is a surefire winner. The focus on the large cash prizes increases the expenses for the promotion but hasn’t appeared to attract a higher caliber of fighter, nor have fans historically cared all that much about wanting to see athletes, even lower-income ones, make more money. The PFL also seems overly reliant on fighters who are somewhat known but whose careers have already crested, as opposed to fighters on the ascent who feel like they have the potential to be special. Regardless of those limitations, the PFL finally has an identity, and that is beneficial to any promotion. If this leads to the PFL finding more success, hopefully it will encourage other promotions to find identities of their own.
Long term, the PFL’s identity seems like it will be tied to its new season format. However, the league should also not lose focus on what its short-term identity should be: the home of Kayla Harrison. More than anything, that has been the revelation of the PFL’s first season. Harrison had the story when she entered into MMA, but it has become increasingly clear that she has the personality to become a superstar, as well. With her training partners speaking highly of her development, Harrison appears destined for big things.
It’s unlikely that the PFL will be able to retain Harrison over the long haul. Eventually, the UFC and a fight with Cristiane Justino will beckon. Until then, the PFL should get everything out of Harrison that it can because she resonates in a way no one else competing for the company has. The two sides can mutually benefit from their partnership, and providing a superstar to the public remains the easiest way for any promotion to establish a positive identity. The hope for the PFL is that as Harrison’s star rises, the promotion’s finally established raison d’etre will begin to resonate with the public.
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.