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Professional Fighters League seeks $50 million investment for international expansion

Jon Fitch (red gloves) fights Brian Foster (blue gloves) in the welterweight main event during Professional Fighters League: Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on June 30, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

After canceling its 2020 mixed martial arts season due to Covid-19, the Professional Fighters League, or PFL, is seeking another round of funding to expand operations before its planned return in 2021.

PFL Chairman Donn Davis told CNBC the PFL raised $105 million since its start in 2018, including a $28 million Series B in 2018 and $50 million Series C in 2019. It hopes the new funding will help plans for international expansion.

Davis said the PFL is two years away from breaking even as it looks to solicit more investors for its $50 million round. 

“Building the next great sports league takes capital,” he said. “It takes smarts and takes great talent. Nobody likes to deal with adversity, but the best companies get better.”

Davis also plans to use the funds to expand the PFL’s technology for its over-the-top platform

The series debuted its data analytics feeds last year, which featured fighter stats, including kick speed, punching impact, and other fighter metrics. The PFL wants to turn the data into prop bets through a gambling partnership it started.

2021 and beyond

The PFL, a single-entity league controlled by investors that include prominent sports owners, said it’s planning for a bubble environment in Las Vegas for 2021 should live events not return due to Covid-19.

The series has a regular season and a postseason and concludes with six championship competitions. Fighters receive $1 million if they win.

“It’s MMA meets March Madness. When you turn on a PFL fight, you know that fighter is fighting for his life. Every fight is an elimination fight,” he added. “Every fight is a Game 7.”

PFL CEO Peter Murray, a former senior executive at the National Football League, said the PFL wants to maintain visibility and the momentum it captured during its New Year’s Eve mega event held in New York.

The PFL wants to build its media rights market after a deal with ESPN expires following the 2021 season. Murray said the series will offer partnership rights in categories including gambling, automobile and sports drink. The company already has partnerships in place with top brands, including Anheuser-Busch and Geico.

Jon Fitch (red gloves) fights Brian Foster (blue gloves) in the welterweight main event during Professional Fighters League: Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on June 30, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“As we see the brand marketplace of advertisers and sponsors, they can no longer ignore a fan base of 450 million around the world,” said Murray.

What people are saying

Although the PFL has distribution in place, and Davis praises the series’ 40% stake of Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, audience, some sports bankers are skeptical the PFL can continue its pre-pandemic growth.

Competing against mega-brands such as the UFC, which according to Bloomberg has a 90% grip on MMA market share, is difficult. One banker, who spoke with CNBC on the condition of anonymity, compared the PFL to the XFL’s two failed attempts to take on the NFL, for example.

PFL investors include Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner. They can help Davis combat UFC’s financial backer, Endeavor, which had a failed IPO attempt in 2019 and is experiencing its own difficulties due to Covid-19.

Campbell McLaren, the co-creator of UFC and current CEO of MMA series “Combate Americas,” said the PFL series stands out from the UFC with a regular season format.

“Donn’s premise is: Let’s take the Dana White and Don King aspect out of MMA, and let’s run it like other professional sports leagues,” said McLaren. “Win your fight, move up in the rankings and get the next fight. That’s not how the UFC does it and not how I do it,” added McLaren.

A picture taken on March 26, 2020, shows a car driving on a road next to the King Abdullah Financial City in the Saudi capital Riyadh, after the Kingdom began implementing an 11-hour nationwide curfew, on the day of an emergency G20 videoconference, to discuss a response to the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

FAYEZ NURELDINE | AFP via Getty Images

Looking to Saudi Arabia

“We see huge opportunity internationally that never existed before,” Davis said. “PFL Europe, PFL Russia, PFL Latin America – giving those territories their own PFL league.” Murray said the PFL is “having conversations” about expanding to Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia could be key for the PFL. It’s the largest economy in the Middle East and, through its Vision 2030 plan, is hoping to reduce its dependence on oil.

Qiddiya, a new tourism project, is expected to be twice the size of Disney World and will include a massive sports and entertainment complex that could host MMA events. It’s spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund could invest in sports leagues to provide more sporting events.

“It’s a dynamic market,” Murray said of the Middle East. “It’s a market where there’s demand at many levels for expanded sports content from a distribution standpoint, from a live event on the ground standpoint, and developing future athletes.”

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