Media Titans Hill, Fahey Climb Into Ring for Professional Fighters League

MMA organization launching first season in 2018

A pair of media heavyweights has signed on to the strategic advisory council for mixed martial arts upstart the Professional Fighters League.

David Hill, the founding president of Fox Sports and former chairman of the Fox network and National Geographic Channel, and John Fahey Jr., former chairman of Time and CEO of the National Geographic Society, will work with the league on connecting with fans and growing the business.

Professional Fighters League chairman Russ Ramsey says unlike other fighting organizations, the PFL will be organized like a league—with a regular-season schedule, a tournament-style playoffs and a $1 million championship staged at Madison Square Garden in New York at the end of the year—instead of a series of events, like Ultimate Fighting Championship or professional boxing.

The league will launch its first season in 2018. Ramsey, a hedge-fund manager, and a group of high-profile investors have built PFL after acquiring the World Series of Fighting. World Series of Fighting has a deal with NBC, which will air three more events in 2017 before the agreement expires at the end of the year.

Ramsey says that MMA is the world's fastest-growing sport, particularly with millennials and that it has been mainstreamed by the UFC.

Media will be an important component of the league's strategy, but Hill notes that "the way sports have been consumed is now vastly different from how their fathers and their grandfathers consumed sports."

Hill, who launched the NFL on Fox, said that these days, the longer an event goes on, the less people watch, especially those in the under-21 demographic.

"When John and I were kids, the rite of passage was you would know every boxing champion from light featherweight up to heavyweight," Hill recalled. "Boxing's now done and it's been replaced with MMA. One of the reasons I think is that MMA bouts are quick. There's a rapid turnover and it fits into the viewing habits of the millennials."

Hill expects PFL to be a very attractive property in not only the U.S. but worldwide.

With a scheduled league structure, PFL will be able to engage fans between matches. "They have something they call 335, and it's a social media play for the 335 days a year when there are not fights," said Fahey.

"There are so many stories to tell about the fighters and the ones that are coming up," Fahey added. "There is just so much opportunity in all of the media where the millennials are spending their time today."

Hill, who is receiving the Pete Rozelle Radio-TV Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, says it's likely that gamers are into MMA, so innovative ways to present the fights are being advanced.

"That's something that's absolutely on top of our priority list… enhancing the audio and the video," he said. But some of the digital effects the league is working on will take time to develop and won't be available for the first season.

The league has already hired George Greenberg, who spent 23 years at Fox, to oversee broadcast production.

"What really sold me on this is the investor group and the management team," said Fahey.

The group is headed by Ramsey and his co-founders, venture capitalists Donn Davis and Mark Leschly. Investors include Washington hockey and basketball team owner Ted Leonsis; the Lerner family (who own the Washington Nationals); Brandon Beck, founder of Riot Games; and Los Angeles Dodgers CFO Tucker Kain.

Hill and Fahey won't be negotiating media contracts, but they'll be "just a phone call away" if their advice is needed, Fahey says.

Ramsey notes that combat sports are among the most popular items on social networks.

"We have an unique opportunity because the vast majority of major sports have sold their media rights on a long-term basis to a linear partner and digital and social were sort of an after-thought," Ramsey said.

"We're going to be have an opportunity to do both, as opposed to force one versus the other. We'll be able to naturally enable our fans to consume this where they want to," he said.