The Professional Fighters’ League in today’s MMA landscape

The abrupt relaunch of the NBC Sports Network MMA promotion is set to air this Friday night. So just why has there been a sudden interest taken in this relatively small MMA property, and will anything come of it?

From the ashes rose the phoenix. That is the story that PFL’s promoters are trying to replicate with their now defunct World Series of Fighting production, by repackaging it under a brand new name, and with a brand new concept.

It will largely remain centered around the same familiar WSOF staples as Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami, but there is also an emphasis on calls for new professional talent. An open page on the league’s website invites fighters with ten or more professional bouts on their record to register to the league.

If accepted, they will be in the running to win purses of up to $1 million, as part of the new tournament structure that is central to PFL.

The changes appear part of an effort to reclaim WSOF’s position from a distant third in the North American MMA market. Playing the game of the $4.2 billion titans that is the UFC was always going to be a losing endeavor. Viacom-backed Bellator have long since claimed the spot of second fiddle, and have recently seemed to be clamoring more than ever to encroach on that first place territory of WME-IMG.

Their activity, along with the PFL’s, seems to be anticipating a seismic movement in the MMA consumer-base. Conor McGregor has single-handedly thrust the sport into the spotlight like it never has been before, and promoters will be eager to capitalize on the newfound attention by grabbing and keeping as many eyes on their product as possible.

PFL’s plan in that sense is clear: an easy to keep track of tournament structure to bring about familiarity, bite-sized events to minimize the time burden of viewers who might be unwilling to stay tuned for the traditional marathon broadcasts of MMA, and collaboration with other sporting organizations that might attract a new viewer base.

The last point, of course, refers to the location of the inaugural PFL event. PFL 1 will be held at the Daytona International Speedway, and will begin as soon as the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 NASCAR race of the day concludes.

As far as business decisions go, playing sideshow to the stock car races is one that strikes as particularly uninspired, especially as it is taking place in the shadow of Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor. From the unprecedented asking price of the title sponsorship of the event, to the arena seats priced in the high five figures, the overwhelming message of the day in combat sports is that there is money to be made here.

It seemed, at first, that the intention of the million dollar prize was to echo that message. Which makes the choice by PFL to embrace the status quo while a potential new and lucrative market dangles within arm’s reach, all the more puzzling.

Of course, it is a once in a lifetime spectacle fight, and one can hardly hope to replicate the star power of these men on such a small scale. But while associating with any of the more monied racing sports might be unattainable as of now, it’s unclear that the NASCAR partnership does anything to bring PFL or the sport of MMA to any sort of new ground – in fact, it seems to thrive on the fact that it’s being reintroduced into familiar, and possibly saturated, territory.

It isn’t until 2018 that the regular season of PFL will get underway, so it’s still difficult to tell what impact the tournament format will have from this far out. The hope for this promotion would be that it can differ significantly from the other major organizations, enough that it can stand apart as a unique product.

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It is hard to imagine that a simple sport like cage-fighting can be repackaged to such a dramatic extent, but that is the gain of PFL: in its reincarnated state, it gets to experiment with these traditional means of presenting MMA with very little pressure, in a sport that is still gosling-new.

The tournament style and abbreviated time frame seem to be details in a promotion that is trying to hold difference at the forefront. PFL have the potential to carve a home for themselves in the MMA landscape here, and the execution of the first event should make clear just how far they might go.