PFL founder talks growth and compares Francis Ngannou to LeBron James

The Professional Fighters League (PFL) is in the midst of an important aspect of its multi-divisional regular season, and the martial arts organization is also deep in a period of growth and advancement from a business perspective.

PFL Founder Donn Davis talks growth, viewership and engagement

I spoke to Donn Davis, Chairman, Founder and Co-Owner of the PFL ahead of the PFL’s 2023 regular season event on Friday, June 23. He expressed his excitement leading up to the Atlanta card featuring Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Shane Burgos and Sadibou Sy (the one… (Contender for KO of the Year in the Co-Main Event) and also discussed the current state of his organization.

Davis recently tweeted a chart that gives some pretty broad metrics on viewership, engagement, and the organization’s overall growth.

“We’re super proud of that,” Davis told me in an exclusive interview on a recent episode of Unanimous Decisions. “Overall, sport has stagnated and total television viewership has dropped by about 5%. Still, PFL is up 45% this year. This is our fifth season. Everyone who watches PFL stays with us, but obviously more and more fans and more and more viewers are watching every year. The 45% growth is amazing. I think it makes us the fastest growing league in the United States and probably the world.”

You can watch the entire interview below.

According to Davis, the goal of the PFL is to create an entertaining and informative broadcast while providing fighters with the most compelling compensation possible for their efforts. Is PFL trying to create a smarter martial arts fan?

“If you’re a die-hard MMA fanatic, we offer you more data, more analysis and more information,” Davis said. “So that’s great if you’re a die-hard fan. But if you’re new to MMA — about half of our viewers are new to MMA — they’re sports fans, but not pre-PFL MMA fans. We give you the opportunity to understand what is going on. So think of it as a yellow line for a first down in football. We give the equivalent of a ball, stroke and pitch speed indicator for baseball. UFC or others don’t do that. They assume everyone is a die-hard fan. These are the greatest athletes in the world and we give you the opportunity to understand and appreciate that.”

PFL founder Donn Davis opens up about Francis Ngannou, possibly MMA’s LeBron James

At the center of the movement PFL is witnessing is the high-profile signing of former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

Davis also spoke at length about the signing, comparing the heavyweight impact on his sport to LeBron James on basketball.

According to Davis, there were three key details in negotiating Ngannou’s deal. Ngannou wanted to explore boxing. Secondly, he wanted to delve into leadership and fighter growth, which was given to him as a figurehead when PFL Africa started. After all, Ngannou wanted to maintain his market value and the 36-year-old also wanted his opponents to be well paid. According to Davis, Ngannou required his opponents to receive at least a minimum compensation for competing against him.

“I don’t know why it was so hard for the UFC to come to an agreement other than that they have a model that they will never change,” Davis said. “Maybe they’re making some changes for Conor McGregor, but they’re not making any changes for others. Look, we also run a shop. We are focused on generating revenue and growth and good business value for our investors. But that starts with the athletes. That starts with having the best athletes here and making them happy.”

I asked Davis why he thought it was difficult for the UFC to treat Ngannou like McGregor.

He said, “My 92-year-old father says, ‘Any business is easy until it’s yours.’ So I’m trying to focus on building the PFL, recruiting fighters for the PFL, and making PFL the best place to be. I’ll leave the UFC business to them.”

“There are certain athletes who just want to be athletes and there are other great athletes who are leaders,” Davis said. “LeBron James what he did to change the free hand and control for other basketball players. That’s what Francis does for other people in MMA. He shows they have a choice. He shows them that they have options. He shows them how to control their own careers and not allow themselves to be taken hostage. To me, Francis is an incredible fighter, but he will also go down in history as a leader in his sport.”

The comparison was interesting, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the concept mentioned since Ngannou signed his multi-fight contract with PFL. Because of the source, I wanted to elaborate on the point. I asked Davis if he considered Ngannou the LeBron James of MMA.

“I think that’s what people will see in the next two, three or four years. As the PFL becomes the co-leader in MMA, more and more fighters have choices between the UFC and PFL, and more and more fighters make that choice and decide where I want to be, it’s all going to happen because of Francis. He will be the guy who made this possible.”

Time will tell if Ngannou’s impact will be as far-reaching as many believe, but there’s no doubt the deal has broadened the MMA conversation.

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