ESPN viewers who thrill to mixed-marital arts fights are about to get something that offers a different view of the sport.
Professional Fighters League, the MMA league that appears on ESPN under typical circumstances, has launched PFL Studios, a unit aimed at producing new kinds of content for TV as well as digital and mobile venues. ESPN has agreed to air four original series in 2020, including a six-episode docuseries on MMA legend and current PFL broadcaster Randy Couture.
“We have established our live-event presentation, so now we are focused on expanding our storytelling with original content stories about MMA, about the PFL, and of course, about our fighters,” says Peter Murray (above, pictured), the league’s CEO, in an interview. “We believe it’s the right time to do it. MMA has experienced explosive growth over the past two years, and it has yet to reach its peak.”
The PFL has scuttled its 2020 season, due to the spread of the coronaivirus pandemic, but Murray says the idea of producing new kinds of content for fans was broached many months ago, as part of a plan to get more programming to league aficionados. Younger viewers, he says, crave more access to the fighters as well as their stories. “We have put an expanded focus on original content outside of the cage. This is a natural evolution of our company. We are not just an event company. We are a media company and a content company.”
ESPN has made no secret in recent years in so-called “combat sports.” In 2018, ESPN struck a rights deal with UFC that call for its matches to appear on both the company’s flagship cable outlet as well as its ESPN Plus streaming-video hub. At a time when ESPN is scrambling to fill the absence of the live sports broadcasts that usually fill its screen, the company even agreed to show classic “WrestleMania” cards from WWE,
George Greenberg, a veteran of Fox Sports, is overseeing the longform series, while Daniel Ghosh-Roy has oversight of short -form content for digital outlets. The sport “really lends itself to proprietary looks that other leagues don’t give you,” Greenberg says, in an interview. “There is unique, original content that nobody else can produce but us.”
The first original program to appear on ESPN will be “Fantastic Finishes,” slated to debut in June. The seven-episode series will depict knockouts and submissions across the PFL’s six weight classes. “Inside The Season,” a ten-part series that gives fans access into the ups and downs of one of the league’s eight-month-long 2019 seasons, contains unseen footage as well as access to locker rooms and commentary from journalists and announcers.
Two other series are expected to debut in September. “A Champion’s Journey” will focus on elite fighters such as Kayla Harrison, Lance Palmer and Ray Cooper III who made it to the championship. Newcomer Rory McDonald will also be included in the eight-part series. “The Randy Couture Story” will also appear that month.
ESPN and PFL will share the advertising inventory accompanying the series, says Murray, who expects current ad partners such as Geico to participate in the new programs.
“The ancillary content is as important as this time as the live content, “says Murray. “It helps promote the live events. It promotes the athletes, and provides fans additional access and context for coming events. “