Insights From Building a Billion-Dollar Sports Company

Zero fans.

Zero viewers.

Zero employees.

That was the Professional Fighters League (PFL) six years ago — it’s now the #2 MMA company and the fastest-growing sports league in the world.

professional fighters league (pfl) logo

Today’s post was constructed alongside PFL founder Donn Davis as we explore what it takes to be successful in sports.

Let’s Dive in 👇

MMA Landscape

The beauty of global sports is that they’re not a “winner take all” situation.

UFC is the leading MMA company (yet several others have significant market share).

mma promotions market map

The UFC is currently worth about $10B (and will probably be worth north of $20B by 2030).

ONE Championship and PFL are both worth over a billion dollars.

And when looking at the PFL:

  • Half of their fans came from UFC.
  • Half of their fans are new to MMA.

Emerging MMA leagues are looking to become co-leaders in viewership + mindshare with the UFC.

PFL’s Rise

Before Donn provides us with the lessons he’s learned — let’s start with where the PFL is at today:

  • Viewership is 40% of UFC and 166% of MLS.
  • Acquired Bellator giving them an athlete roster with seven fighters ranked in the top 25.
jake paul ngannou pfl
  • Will do over $100 million in ‘24 revenue and have media rights in 170 countries.
  • Raised $100m from SRJ Investments valuing them at over $1 billion.

The MMA market has revealed there’s room for multiple premium global players.

Research is Key

Donn believes that if you want to pursue a BIG idea…proper research is required beforehand.

He was a partner at Revolution, the venture firm that backed Sportradar and DraftKings, when the idea for the PFL came to life.

founder of pfl donn davis

Summarized story below:

“The day the UFC sold to Endeavor, I had never seen any MMA fights.

I had no idea the UFC was that big and that the MMA market was that big.

I immediately canceled my meetings and read everything I could find for like seven hours.

One thing I noticed was that soccer and MMA overlapped well in two respects:

  1. Soccer fans are 80% outside the US and soccer revenue is 50% outside the US.
  2. MMA fans are 80% outside the US and MMA revenue is 50% outside the US.
soccer fans vs mma fans

So my conclusion was…

There might not be eight MMA leagues, because soccer is the number one sport in the world, but there can be two or three.”

Donn’s Insights For Success

Insight one is:

  • always read, always be curious, always look for some signals and clear megatrends of market openings

The UFC’s sale, the soccer/MMA comparison, and the number of global fans led me to drop everything to start the PFL.

Insight number two is:

  • don’t be scared about what you don’t know and don’t be intimidated when people say you don’t know anything.

My now good friend, Ariel Hawani, said for a year that I didn’t know MMA and that the sports season format idea is stupid — he no longer says either of those two things.

ariel hawani pfl

Don’t let anybody dissuade you if you’re starting or building a company.

Insight number three is:

Study and learn, but also don’t be a prisoner to the existing thinking.

Why has the PFL been successful? Because we’re not a prisoner to the way things have always been done.

  • We pay fighters differently.
  • We’re global and expansive.
  • We are tech-savvy and forward-looking.
  • We borrow from esports, soccer, the NBA, etc

So we are students & executors of sport & media — we’re not prisoners or insiders of MMA, despite having deep expertise there.

Challenges Building in Sports

Building a sports company is hard. Building an alternative sports league is even harder.

The first reason:

In the technology space, people root for and help new companies. They welcome them in.

Not so much in the sports space.

People tend to say; “That won’t make it. That can’t work. I’ll root against that.”

pfl first fight arena

I think the sports mindset of “winners and losers” carries over to the business side — people like to declare things losers early (making it hard to get people on board).

Longevity is very important in sports.

The second reason:

The United States is overly US-focused.

It surprised me how long it took to convince people that the analogy of NFL/XFL didn’t hold in MMA.

There may never be another professional football league to rival the NFL, but that is far from true in other sports.

Secret Sauce of Building a Sports League

Three key things are necessary to build any sports league:

  1. Excess supply of athletes.
  2. Excess demand of media.
  3. Excess demand of fans.

Think of that as a triangle of success for building a sports league (supply and demand need to be in your favor).

francis ngannou signs with pro fighters league


MMA had an excess supply of top fighters — many of them were looking for more fights and better payouts.

This was the same dynamic of the NBA in the 70s — Julius Erving didn’t have a place to play as there were only eight NBA teams (the ABA was formed to capture different markets).


There are over 650 million MMA fans, but only 50 events from the UFC a year.

Pretty stark in comparison to the:

  • 5,000 pro basketball games
  • 3,000 football games each year

There are already 11 football media packages in the NFL and another 8 in college.

So MMA was underserved & under-monetized from a media lens.


Only 20% of the 650 million MMA fans are from the United States.

So we tend to miss how big this sport is and that it’s not emerging (but already big).

Adjust Gameplay

There’s also a fourth component of building a successful league…and that’s innovating the gameplay, format, and rules.

mma figher showcasing check he won

The PFL was the first MMA league to set up a season format similar to other sports — it has a regular season, playoffs, and championship.

You also have to make the product easy to understand…

Imagine watching football without the yellow line. Imagine watching baseball without the strike zone or the pitch speed. That’s how I grew up.

MMA used to be like this until we added technology to improve the experience for both diehard and new fans:

  • kick speed
  • punch impact
  • real time AI scoring
innovations in sports

Simplifying the PFL’s success: They were the first to implement a sports season format, with a next-gen product, with industrial strength investors, with leaders and company builders that could execute globally to serve fans, media companies, and athletes.

Looking Ahead

I hope this post delivered helpful insights you can apply…

The main learning I took away: Global & Growth.

If you’re planning to build in sports you should be looking for underserved markets, niches, technologies, etc — and thinking about it on a global scale.

Exciting times ahead!

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