Donn Davis, the founder and CEO of the Professional Fighters League was greeted by a cheering crowd in the Headline Stage at Twickenham Stadium during Leaders Week arranged by the organisation Leaders in Sport. He was invited to speak about investing in the sports industry. As a former venture capitalist and now founder of the world’s fastest growing sports-league, he was the perfect person to address the crowd of business leaders. 

What should one think about when investing in sports, the interviewer asked first. Keep it simple, came the answer from Donn. Find sometime that is young, global and growing – like MMA. Donn knew nothing about MMA when he launched the PFL five years ago. He was 55 years old in what sounds like a cushy yet use job. He took a risk, and it seems to have paid off. 

Moreover, adds Donn, one needs to find a market that is huge, is currently underserved, and that is ripe for a new model. He has previously worked with DraftKings, an American sports betting company, and says the model for investing was the same there. Huge, underserved, and ripe for a new model. These three aspects are far more important than any data projections, he said. Again, keep it simple. 

So how is the PFL distrusting the current MMA-landscape, where the UFC is often thought to hold a near monopoly status? Three things. 

Matchmaking. The PFL run a league-format championship with 12 fighters in 6 weight classes. This, argues Donn, makes the PFL stand out amongst its competitors. “There are no artificial rankings” he says in a posted remark. Instead, fighters are ranked on performance. “Win all your fights in the season, and you’re the champion.”

Technology. The PFL run real-time odds and have their trademarked “SmartCage.” They are trying to utilise technology to maximise the entire MMA experience.

Connecting fans. PFL is an international league, but they have recently launched PFL Europe. The winner of PFL Europe gets to go to PFL International. Now they aim to break ground in other regions such as Africa and MENA. 

Despite these perceived advantages, there is still some way to go. Donn speaks of the product being in college while the brand is still in 5th grade. They are therefore focusing much of their strategy on branding for the years ahead, albeit with a smaller marketing budget than for example the UFC. Their strategy centres around fighter values. Get the right fighters, pay them well and treat them well, and they will do the marketing. Hence, they have signed Francis Ngannou and Jake Paul. Paul is a brilliant marketer, as we have also pointed out here. The question is whether signing Paul, an influencer with no MMA experience, as a fighter, waters down the sport in the eyes of (potential and existing) fans. At the very least, it leaves an open goal for criticism from rivals. Perhaps Paul proves us all wrong in the SmartCage, and as online sports betting grows in America I’m sure we will be able to see what the fanbase thinks.

Weekends don’t matter. Yoga retreats don’t matter. Only the business matters.

So what makes Donn successful as the figure spearheading the operation? He says any Founder/CEO must be “willing to die before the company dies.” He speaks with enthusiasm about his project. “Weekends don’t matter. Yoga retreats don’t matter. Only the business matters,” says Donn as general vice to the room of business executives. There are too many obstacles in running a business to afford to take time off. If he practises what he preaches, there is no reason to doubt that the PFL will overcome any obstacles they may encounter. 

We are certainly keen to follow the journey. 

Image credit: Leaders in Sport, Leaders Week 2023.

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