Upstart MMA League Unlikely To Score Knockout With DraftKings Gambling Deal

The Professional Fighters League and DraftKings announced a partnership, and they're gambling on gamblers embracing the tournament model.
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An MMA promotion seeking to wrestle market share away from the UFC juggernaut has linked up with a New Jersey online sportsbook and casino.

DraftKings and the Professional Fighters League (PFL), formerly the World Series of Fighting, announced on Dec. 14 that they had entered into a “strategic partnership” for the remainder of 2018, through 2019. The companies could re-up on the deal after the trial run.

Despite DraftKings already offering MMA betting and contests, this deal is touted as bringing “MMA fans a new way to immerse themselves in the sport.” The partnership kicks off with the PFL Championship at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve. The event will air live on the NBC Sports Network and on Facebook Watch.

“The winners in this partnership are MMA fans, first with fantasy and eventually gaming,” Donn Davis, co-founder and chairman of the PFL, said in a presser. “PFL is re-imagining MMA, and we look forward to collaborating with DraftKings to offer new engagement for fans while creating new revenue streams for our business.”

In an obvious swipe at UFC matchmaking, Davis said in the presser that the PFL will be “providing MMA fans the transparency, storytelling, and context that exist in all other major sports.”

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Under the arrangement for the PFL Championship, a card on which all of the victorious fighters will earn $1 million, DraftKings will run a “Pick ‘Em” fantasy game, where fans can predict four outcomes for each of the six fights slated for the event. Fans can predict who will win, the method of victory, the round of victory, and the time within the round.

The contest will have a live leaderboard, which will determine how DraftKings awards $25,000 in guaranteed prizes.

Recent funding for the PFL

The organization announced in August that it had closed a $28 million Series B equity investment from a group that includes comedian Kevin Hart; Mark Burnett, chairman of MGM’s Worldwide Television Group; entrepreneur Tony Robbins; and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

The PFL, which is equipped with a roster of 72 fighters under contract, is trying to distinguish itself from the UFC and Bellator MMA models by having its fighters compete in a regular season, then a single-elimination playoff (basically a tournament), and finally the season-ending championship bouts. The PFL stated that it wants to bring the model of the major pro sports leagues to MMA.

Burnett said he’s “certain that the next evolution of MMA” is the PFL model. “The fighters must win to move ahead. It’s MMA meets March Madness,” he said.

The “2018 PFL World Championship Pick ‘Em” fantasy game launches, in states where DFS is available, on December 21.

Lack of stars will hurt the PFL

For better or for worse, the MMA business is currently dependent on star power, whether it’s the UFC model that hinges on pay-per-view or something akin to the PFL. The UFC is currently adapting in an evolving PPV marketplace, along with the emergent streaming services, but the PPV model doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

The format of the PFL is unlikely to be a game-changer unless its format can build up fighters that casual fans will engage with on a personal level — and of course, keep them from jumping ship. Before the PFL rebranding, top WSOF talent routinely departed for the UFC. One of the PFL’s most recognizable names on its active roster was cut by the UFC earlier this year.

The PFL appears to be looking to land current UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, widely regarded as the best female MMA fighter in history. Cyborg, who fights under the UFC banner later this month, reportedly will test free agency in the near future. She has long had a rocky public relationship with the MMA leader.

Other risks for the PFL format include injuries and bad weight cuts, unfortunate aspects of the sport that have frustrated UFC fans. And the PFL tournament model is vulnerable to greater chaos. Under the UFC model, fighters can be effectively substituted into big events, while that wouldn’t work as well in a playoff format.

Is a meritocracy merited?

The UFC rankings are arbitrary at the end of the day, as the promotion looks to make big fights and build stars over establishing a meritocracy familiar to fans of the mainstream sports. There’s little indication that casual fight fans are interested in the meritocracy championed by the PFL. It’s unproven that MMA fans will embrace standings like they do in the major sports leagues.

“PFL is a meritocracy, giving all fighters an equal fair shot, which is what life and sports is all about,” Robbins said in a presser after his investment was announced.

It’s a noble idea, but it’s unlikely to pan out. The PFL’s long-term chances are contingent on luring away some of the UFC’s elite fighters based on the argument that the PFL is centered on meritocracy. It’s a business plan that also hinges on capitalizing on the prickly relationships the UFC sometimes has with its best fighters.

At the end of the day, it’s prize fighting, and the top competitors will remain with UFC if the money is there, even if it means more of a crapshoot in terms of their road to a lucrative championship belt. The PFL’s payout structure appears even more top heavy than the UFC’s fighter compensation model, which is not attractive to most athletes. There’s even been some criticism of the UFC’s win-bonus system, which doesn’t bode well for the PFL.

It’s worth noting that Viacom’s Bellator MMA has slowly begun chipping away at the UFC’s monopoly on talent, so the PFL is definitely not drawing dead in the MMA free agent marketplace.

Gambling unlikely the answer

While legalized gambling will help the MMA industry grow, it’s not likely to help the PFL emerge as a serious player in the space.

The PFL is hoping its model makes it compelling for gambling. While the league/tournament format may make the sport easier to follow for the casual fan, the DraftKings mantra, “life is more fun with skin in the game,” might not be enough for the PFL. The promotion needs fans to emotionally connect with its athletes to some degree before betting can take off. There’s no reason to assume casual sports fans will choose betting on an MMA fighter they have never heard of over a mainstream sporting event when presented with both options.

If MMA as an industry wants a greater share of the overall sports betting handle, the PFL model isn’t going to move the needle. The sport needs something more innovative than the PFL-DraftKings partnership. The tournament format was ditched by the UFC long ago, and it’s unlikely that fantasy/gambling will help it make more than a fleeting comeback.

There are ways to make the sport more attractive to bettors, especially the casuals, but the league/tournament model isn’t likely the answer, even with a sportsbook partnership.

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