Can a leopard change its spots?

You’ve heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” right? That was actually the title of an awful film that came out last year with Jon Hamm, Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher and Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot.

But typically, “Keeping up with the Joneses” refers to basically trying to keep up with someone, usually as it relates to your social class. When it comes to mixed martial arts, everyone is still trying to keep up with the UFC, and one organization recently underwent a makeover to try its luck at establishing a bigger foothold in MMA. But will it work?

It was announced earlier this month that the fighting operations and event infrastructure of World Series of Fighting was purchased by the new Professional Fighters League. Starting next year, the PFL will put on fights under a format that basically mirrors the major professional sports in the United States – a regular season, a postseason tournament and a championship game (or in this case, fight) in several different weight classes, with the winner eligible to win $1 million.

While WSOF gave MMA some exciting fighters like Marlon Moraes (now in the UFC), Justin Gaethje and David Branch (also now in the UFC), it also gave itself its fair share of legal and financial difficulties which have been chronicled many times over. So will undergoing a face lift, including a name change and change in format, while keeping key personnel like Ray Sefo and Carlos Silva, propel the PFL to a level that WSOF just couldn’t seem to achieve?

The concept of a MMA league with a “regular season” has been used before, most notably with the International Fight League, which had 10 teams and was started in 2006 but folded in 2008. The league boasted some of the more well-known names in MMA, including Robbie Lawler, Roy Nelson, Renzo Gracie, Jens Pulver, Pat Miletich, Matt Lindland, Jeff Curran, Vladimir Matyushenko and Jay Hieron.

If big names couldn’t keep the IFL going for more than two years, will having an unknown roster keep the PFL around for any longer than that? Of course, financial troubles did the IFL in and it was purchased by Zuffa – a common theme that handicaps many an aspiring MMA organization.

I’m sure the IFL and PFL are not the first MMA organizations to get off the ground with the goal of one day usurping the UFC (the PFL hasn’t actually come out and said this, but why otherwise do it?). But there’s a reason why WME-IMG paid more than $4 billion last year to purchase the UFC. It’s an established name and established brand that grew gradually over time. Many of these other organizations tend to fall prey to the “quick fix” and end up shooting itself in the foot before it ever has a chance to get started.

Bellator also experimented with the tournament format to determine its champions and challengers when the organization first started. It worked for a while, but the model itself was not sustainable and led to former president Bjorn Rebney leaving the organization and Scott Coker taking over and taking Bellator to new heights.

Of course, the issue of fighter pay is not going away. You don’t need to look any further than UFC fighter Al Iaquinta’s Twitter feed and interviews over the last few days for that. On paper, fighting for $1 million in the PFL – with other competitors splitting $3 million, according to the organization’s first press release – should be enough to get any fighter’s attention. Overall, the prize pool for all seven weight classes in the PFL totals $10 million.

That’s not Conor McGregor money (it’s likely he makes millions of dollars per fight), but it’s a start in the ongoing conversation over how much a fighter is worth, exactly. But does the PFL have enough financial backing, and can it generate enough revenue on its own, to sustain its generous payouts? Right now, we don’t know.

The WSOF never really got off the ground, despite having a pretty good deal with NBC to broadcast its fight cards on both NBC and NBC Sports Network. However, the NBCSN cards typically came on very late at night on weekends – when even the most passionate MMA fan is probably doing something else instead of sitting at home. Coupled with its financial and legal woes, it was probably a matter of time before someone swooped in and purchased it like the people behind the PFL did.

I’m all for variety and competition in MMA. When organizations compete to one-up each other and draw in viewers, fans all over the world are the big winners. Competition fueled MMA’s cousin, pro wrestling, to new heights with the “Monday Night Wars” between WWE and WCW, and the wild card in ECW. Without other organizations to keep it on its toes, WWE is in a constant battle nowadays to keep from being considered stale.

If the PFL focuses on developing young fighters like the WSOF did with Moraes and Gaethje, then it could carve out a niche for itself in an increasingly crowded MMA landscape. But it’s going to take more than just flashy dollar signs to make the PFL a contender.

Image Credit: Professional Fighters League

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Chris Huntemann
Chris Huntemann writes about mixed martial arts in the state of Maryland. He also opines on all things UFC, Bellator, World Series of Fighting and any other MMA topics he cares to bloviate about. You should check out his blog, or his Twitter. Or both. When he's not watching MMA, he's an avid fan of other sports, such as football, baseball and college basketball. He may or may not do other, non-sports-related things as well.

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