The Professional Fighters League on Feb. 25 announced that it had reached a multi-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN. Having entered into a pivotal time in its existence, the promotion plans to roll out its complete Season 2 roster later this month. The mastermind behind building that stable of talent -- PFL President Ray Sefo -- understands that the stakes have been raised.
“[The ESPN deal] solidifies who we are,” Sefo told Sherdog.com. “It says we’re here to stay, this format works and we have some great fighters under our banner, [so] get ready for the ride.”
In the realm of North American sports broadcasting, ESPN remains the unquestioned leader in the industry. The Disney-owned network has a reach that surpasses that of NBC Sports, the PFL’s previous broadcast partner. ESPN networks air in 61 countries spread over six continents. That reach has Sefo and his staff excited for the league’s future.
“It’s really huge news for us and the team, in the sense of being able to get our fighters on that platform,” he said. “We’re talking about the premiere [sports network] in terms of what their global reach is. We’re just very fortunate they believed in and like what we’re doing.”
The PFL had been working on the deal -- it will place events on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN Plus -- since the middle of 2018. However, Sefo admits the network likely needed a full season of league competition to be completely sold on the product.
“Obviously, they’re used to seeing [the] NBA, NFL [and Major League] Baseball, but they’ve never seen an MMA [league] format,” he said. “I’m sure they looked at it and wanted to see how it was all going to unfold. Once the world championships were done, I think that gave them a full understanding of what we were doing.”
With increased revenue from a better broadcasting deal, Sefo will soon unveil the work his staff put in to improving upon the PFL roster from Season 1. He has grown accustomed to mining talent but admits his second run with the Professional Fighters League has gone much smoother than the first, as managers and fighters no longer need to be sold on the organization’s format. That means Sefo has a larger crop of interested competitors from which to choose.
“One hundred percent, it’s a lot easier this year because there’s a lot more fighters,” he said. “In every weight class, I have 28 to 34 guys to pick from.”
Sefo must pare down that group to 12 fighters in each of the PFL’s six weight classes. The league pulled talent from all over the globe to fill its roster in 2018. In addition to American-born competitors, the PFL deployed fighters from Germany, Russia, Brazil and Argentina. Its second season figures to expand upon that, as Sefo aims to put together a roster that caters to the international market to which the league will have access after the ESPN deal and agreements with international distributors.
“We have been talking to Japan,” Sefo said. “Matter of fact, we just finalized a couple of Chinese guys for Season 2, [and] I’m talking to a guy out of Norway now. We have a couple of guys out of Australia. We’re looking at a couple of guys in New Zealand, people out of France. PFL is global, and we want to get good talent that [is] available from around the world.”
To identify such talent, Sefo leans on the network of managers with which the league has relationships. These individuals have their own evaluators and contacts abroad, making the process of finding and connecting with individuals much easier for the PFL.
“They have a reach where they have guys around the world that they work with and those kinds of contacts,” Sefo said. “We have a huge outreach, as well as all these managers, like Ali [Abdelaziz], like Daniel Rubenstein. I mean, they’re bringing us fighters from China.”
When selecting talent, Sefo’s strategy revolves around finding fighters who are well-rounded, with one caveat. He wants well-rounded finishers.
“We all want exciting fighters,” Sefo said. “I’m looking for a guy that’s well-rounded in the game of mixed martial arts. I’m not looking for a [fighter] that just wants to take a guy down and be a wet blanket. I love wrestlers that can actually stand and bang, because they can take you down anytime, and then they can trade with you.”
The league posted 41 knockouts and 21 submissions during its first regular season and playoffs. This included a 63 percent early finish rate over the league’s 116 season bouts. Those numbers give Sefo the self-assurance that he has found a successful process in recognizing talented finishers. The PFL already has 24 fighters set for its Season 2 roster, as every competitor who reached the semifinals had his deal automatically rolled over for 2019. That leaves many other fighters from the Season 1 roster to await a decision on whether or not they will receive another crack at a million dollars.
One notable change for this season will be the addition of a women’s lightweight division, anchored by two-time Olympic gold medal-winning judoka Kayla Harrison. Heading into the process, Sefo had concerns about being able to find enough talent to reach the 12-fighter minimum. However, development of the women’s 155-pound roster has been less stressful than he expected, and he believes Harrison will be tested during the season.
“To be honest with you, I thought it might be difficult,” Sefo said. “It’s been easier than I thought. When we started looking at fighters and started reaching out, there’s actually more ’55ers out there than I thought. It’s been a fun process putting that together. It ain’t going to be easy for Kayla, that’s for sure. I can tell you that now.”
Currently, he has a 27-fighter pool from which to finalize the division. Unfortunately, due to the addition of women’s lightweight class, men’s middleweights had to be cut from the league for the 2019 season. That leaves 185-pound champion Louis Taylor to return at either welterweight or light heavyweight. The PFL prefers a six-division lineup when it comes to presenting events on television. However, if the league expanded in future seasons, Sefo would look to bring back the middleweights, along with starting a bantamweight division -- a weight class he feels offers a lot of depth across the sport.
“If we’re able to add on another division,” he said, “definitely I’ll bring back [middleweights] and of course the [bantamweights].”