Ep. 45: Elevating The Fighting Fan Experience with Donn Davis
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Donn Davis, Co-Founder & Chairman of the Professional Fighters League, joins Rob Cressy to talk about elevating the fighting fan experience. How is the PFL engaging this underserved fanbase by using technology? Why is it so important to put the fans first? What are they doing to ensure the fans get a great fight? What does the fan experience look like moving forward?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy and joining me today is Donn Davis, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Professional Fighters League. Don, Great to have you on the show.
Donn Davis: (00:30)
It's great to be here.
Rob Cressy: (00:31)
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Donn Davis: (00:36)
Yeah. I am Donn Davis Chairman & Co-founder of the PFL and my whole life has either been as an investor co-founding Revolution and Revolution Growth, major venture capital firm. Then also as an entrepreneur, I spent years in the AOL back in the mid-nineties, growing America Online into the consumer internet leader, and then also starting several companies along the way. The PFL is my latest, greatest creation and I had not been a big MMA fan. I'm a huge sports fan. I grew up as a baseball fan Cincinnati Reds and a Bengals fan and Cincinnati, but a stick and ball fan. And the day that the UFC sold for $4 billion three and a half years ago, I was minding my own business is leading our revolution funds and I saw that UFC announcement. And that day I started the PFL and I started the PFL based on really three principles that day that were pretty hot to me. Number one, there's 300 million MMA fans around the world. It's the third-largest global fan base after soccer and basketball. I had no idea. All of us in the United States are very us centric. It's an 80% international audience, but third largest fan base. Bullet point 2: They've only been given 40 events by one company, The UFC. Think of this, soccer has nine leagues around the world and 150 teams. Basketball has 6,000 games a year. So this huge fan base, very underserved and only given one choice of product. Number three is it wasn't even a sport yet. It was a great entertainment product. But what the UFC does is like the old boxing model, a promoter decides how you're ranked and who's going to fight where imagine if Adam silver and the NBA told LeBron James when and where he's going to play. That's not a sport. A sport is a regular-season playoffs and championship. So that day I founded the PFL to become the first-ever in combat sports to have regular-season playoffs and championship. True transparency, true meritocracy on who the champion is. That's what I've been doing for the last three years.
Rob Cressy: (02:42)
I like it. And if you think about it, that's probably very similar to back in the days of UFC one. So I'm someone who way back in the day, I actually I've loved the UFC and fighting in general because I was just a teenager living in Pittsburgh and all of a sudden, there's this bare-knuckles fighting and how do they do it? It was like a tournament like you're talking about there I'll be it. This was all I believe in one day, which is just bananas to think about, but they would do it where two fighters would fight. One would win. One would advance and you keep going on until someone is crowned the champion. So I like sort of foundationally what you're thinking about here. So let's talk about first the underserved fan base, because we love talking about fan engagement and what have you learned or how do you engage that fan base knowing that it is international?
Donn Davis: (03:37)
Yeah. Look there are three things we do very differently. The first, to your international point is the PFL seen in 160 countries around the world. So we're seeing on ESPN2 live in prime time in the United States, but we have 30 global media partners putting us on TV and streaming 160 countries, but we're also the most international fighter roster. We have fighters from 25 countries. They all have the flags on their shorts. So from day one, we're a global league. As you know, a lot of leagues start very US-centric. We're a globally from the beginning in terms of TV distribution, and in terms of fight our athlete roster. The second thing we do is we've been the most technologically advanced sports league. We wired the cage. A lot of people are still new to MMA. MMA is only a 25-year-old sport. The next youngest sport is basketball, 75. So this is just entering its growth period. So a lot of people are saying, should I watch MMA? What's it all about? So what we did is wire the cage. What that means is we put sensors in the gloves, a film under the mat and captures all fighter data and all fighter analytics. So this displays like punch impact on the screen top kicks speed pressure on the mat. If there's a submission, we display these in real-time on the screen. This makes it more interesting if you're a fight fan, but also makes it more interesting. If you're a novice more engaging, if you're an international audience, because you might tune in and say, I don't know much about it. This onscreen data helps you start to engage. If you don't know much about MMA, it helps you engage. If you're on your mobile phone, internationally helps you engage if you're an international audience. The third thing we did is we broadcast in eight languages. I'm an investor in Team Liquid. We've been a big eSports investor early. And it's almost, it's like, you want more customization and more control. If you're a fan big thing, you talk about a lot. So you can't get that. Like if the NBA or the NHL or the MLB sells their rights to TNT, you get one feed. We give you multiple feeds. You can choose your language. You can choose your camera angle. That's all on your mobile phone. So if you're an international audience in Russia, how you want to view, it might be different than somebody who wants to view it in Chicago and we make that customization available to you. The fan.
Rob Cressy: (06:06)
So much of what you said is refreshing to me because it completely makes sense because we always want to go inside the game or deeper. And you think about some of the other sports. I mean, even baseball. I think the simplest metric that you've ever seen that people love is how fast someone is throwing someone throws 101 miles an hour. I was like, Whoa, Oh my God. Look at this. Guess what? It looks exactly the same as the one that's 97 miles per hour. And I love how you're using this as an entry point, because for a lot of people and certainly in the current landscape that we're in right now, we're saying, all right, what are the other options that are out there? And, or how can I ramp up my knowledge or make it easier for the casual fan? Because so often I think a lot of sports may only be geared to the hardcore fan and or their messaging may be that. So there's someone who's like, Oh, I get it. They're just the rock in their affliction shirts. And they're like, yeah, I love all things UFC as opposed to saying, listen, we know that there's an overwhelming majority of people who are going to be in the casual nature. How can we make this experience as good as possible for them, for them to be able to understand it? Because guess what? There's going to be an element of word of mouth that happens when someone watches for the first time and says, I had no idea that you could tell how hard someone was hitting. I've been thinking about boxing, we've got sort of those copy box stats where they'll say punches thrown and how many were power punches, but there's really not a ton, but you would love to see the velocity or some of these other things that allow us to go inside the game to tell an even deeper story about the overall narrative of something that we may or may not understand.
Donn Davis: (07:52)
Well, think about this. The PFL is the first to have the ref cam, a small camera on the referee's glasses. So you, see what's going on truly inside the cage. Well, that's now been copied by Top Rank boxing and by UFC. Now that takes commission approval because anything that happens inside the cage is state-regulated, we're the first to do that. And that's a view that you can look at we're the first to do just what you said, punch at impact. I want to know how hard that punches just like a hundred mile an hour fastball, and that's displayed on-screen every time. We're the first to do that. That requires a piece of technology that we developed proprietary with SMT. Those are the people that did like the yellow line for the NFL. So that's pretty cool because then you can see 32 miles an hour punch, Oh my God, that's a serious punch. So those kinds of things are interesting for engagement, but also what do they become next year in the PFL prop bets for gambling. And that really becomes interesting. If you're a, a type of person, who's a data person, a fantasy person, or even a person, and just like MLB has done this really well. Baseball has been the best at second-screen experience, what the PFL did is installed first screen experience. Everything is there as an overlay on your screen. If you want it or if you don't want it, you turn it off. But that ability to take engagement to a revenue model as prop bets. That's coming. As you know first of all, with younger people and then it'll be more mainstream.
Rob Cressy: (09:22)
And of course there's a very simple, free to play option for someone who's brand new and all of this, you say, all right, I'm going to be watching my first PFL fight. Let me go ahead and engage a little bit more. So what this will end up doing is on the entire league level, it will allow your fan engagement to be elevated because if I have an opportunity to engage with what I'm watching in a very simple manner and something that I've always been wanting more of this, and I think back to the days of when you would go to Buffalo Wild Wings and they'd have that trivia, you'd go there and you just get to play and you're like, man, this is just so much fun. Well imagine not only being entertained by what we're watching, but also being able to add that engagement element to it where you say, wow, that was so much fun because I'm predicting or I'm playing where I feel part of it, because guess what? It gets you looking forward to what you're about to experience.
Donn Davis: (10:18)
Well, I think to your points, we had the PFL 2019 championship on new year's Eve. Remember the regular season moves to the playoffs, which is like single elimination and then on New Year's Eve we have six title fights. So six weight classes each for the belt, each for a million dollars Madison Square Garden. And we did it with Draft Kings. We did a pick-six, pick the six winners. So the PFL brand is not well known compared to the UFC. We've been around two years, they've been around 26 years. Our pick-six fantasy game was the second-highest played MMA fantasy game on New Year's Eve after the Mayweather-McGregor fantasy game. That's because our game was easy, It was fun and it was around something that mattered a championship. Whereas most UFC fights are just fights. They don't matter, right? Where have they been? Where are they going? And so your point on, how do you make a game? That's super easy. We've done that. But also how are you really engaging on something that really matters? That's why there's so much betting on the super bowl. That's why there's so much betting on March Madness. People like to engage when the stakes are real and the stakes are high. And I think that's why the sport format of PFL is perfect for fantasy and ultimately to prop bets in the gaming
Rob Cressy: (11:35)
Has your mindset. When you started at, PFL always been this forward-thinking and technology-enabled in fan engagement forward, because I love everything that you're talking about here, but oftentimes companies, brands, leagues, these ideas sound fantastic, but it takes a lot of time. And it seems that you just mentioned, Hey, we're not as known as the UFC, but the technology side of things makes me be like, Holy smokes. I see where the rocket ship could go, because you're doing the things that you would want in any league. Like if we thought about the NFL with the pylon cam, or if you're the NHL, why do we not have a laser on the goal line and an overhead light? There should be no reason why the goal or the net in the NHL, isn't completely data and technology-enabled for us to get angles and understand every little part of it. So take me to actually at the beginning of this, because there's probably some listeners right now, whether a teams, leagues, companies, high schools or whatever. Wow, this sounds fantastic, but can I really be someone or can our company be someone to be forward-thinking with technology like this?
Donn Davis: (12:46)
To be honest, we think fan first it's that simple. So I don't really think about technology. I think about the fan. If I were a fan of this sport that could be MMA, what would make my viewing experience super interesting and super engaging? And that's how we craft all the decisions. Now, sometimes it's not possible. Sometimes it's possible now for the PFL, since we are a centrally controlled league, what do I mean by that? The fighters are under contract to the PFL. We don't have a collective bargaining agreement. We don't have multiple owners. We control our media feed and we produce it. So in other words, what you might have is a lot of constituents who say, I know you thought fan first, but I'm not going to do it right in this instance, when we start fan first, what would be great?
Donn Davis: (13:46)
I want to know punch impact. Then we say, how do we do that? And then we develop a piece of technology. Then we work with our fighters to implement. Then we work with the state commissions for approval. Then we work with our onscreen graphics on how to display that. Then we work with our gaming and fantasy partners to how to create games about that. So there's a lot that you have to do once you start a fan first. But if you say, if I'm watching a PFL or an MMA fight, what would be awesome? We start with that. Then you get some breakout ideas that are a little bit different. That's really how we did even a sport season format, which is just, you know what I would like. I only watch one or two fights a year because they're so big. And so entertaining the rest. I don't watch whether they're boxing or MMA because they don't mean anything. And I said, how can we create more meaning in this fantastic sport of MMA? And that was meaning comes from transparency and meritocracy of regular season plans and championship. I could follow the journeys of these fighters. I can follow their stories. So that was really a product-first fan thought, just like the punch impact was a fighter was a fan first and then a fighter first thought.
Rob Cressy: (14:58)
And let this be a takeaway from this episode that is worth repeating, because you said, you know what? "I would like..." This has been a hallmark of my entire marketing and fan engagement mindset from the second that I started my company. Because if you think about marketing, so often brands think like a brand, they say, buy what I'm selling, buy what I'm selling. And they try and jam something down your throat, as opposed to reversing it and being like, well, if you were the consumer of this, what would you like? So for example, for me, I threw my first event and my company was Bacon Sports. So it's like, alright, what goes well with bacon and sports? And I was like, huh? I was like, beer, boom, say hello to the Bacon Sports and beer celebration. And why would you do this? Because if I was going to throw an event around bacon and sports, I would also want beer there and guess what is going to then manifest itself in the fan experience. And I think it's a challenge that so many companies have because they don't think about that. They'll say, but Rob, what about the ROI? Or what about the dot.dot they're going to give you the excuse for why they can't instead of starting from the foundation of we can and let's build it that way as you guys did
Donn Davis: (16:14)
Well, look it as an entrepreneur, if you have a great product that can generally have a great business around it. And so we started with a great product because if you look at why there has not been a major sports league built since the ABA or the AFL in the 1970s, right? Julius Irving didn't have a place to play basketball. The ABA started, right? It's been 50 years. Why is that? Because every sports league that starts has an inferior product, it's a minor league product. Fans don't want an inferior product. So when we started the PFL, we said we are going to have our product as good as the UFC. Now we understand our brand will take a long time to build, right? Brands take a while. But when people watch our fight on ESPN2 or in 160 countries, we want them to say that was exciting, that video product was probably better and I saw some cool innovations I've never seen before. So if we can tell them those three things, those are the elements of a product that fight was as exciting or maybe more exciting. The video production was probably better and I saw some innovations I didn't see before that's as good a product. And we said we're going to do that from day one. Now we got to figure out how, but we're going to do that. And I think that's why, you know, the mission of the PFL is to be the sixth great sports league, global sports league joined the big four and the EPL. And that's, I think, you know, we're in year three, it will take us five or 10 years to actually get people to even accept that in the conversation might take 10 or 20 years to achieve that. But I think you start with the product must be first-class and that's been our sole focus and so far we've delivered that in our 2019 season,
Rob Cressy: (18:07)
You know, it makes complete sense about this is one of the challenges about fighting is it can be seen as star-driven, but by design, the stars eventually do go down. Anderson Silva loses, Conor McGregor loses. So they each have a shelf life. So there's always someone new who's up and coming. And I think about myself as, as a sports fan and a fan of fighting. And you don't know the overwhelming majority of the people, or you might get introduced to someone the first time and you start to build that relationship. But based on the way that you're building this on a fan-first technology-enabled platform, it allows the entry point to be so much better and not, Oh, well, you know what, Donn, X, Y, and Z isn't fighting. So I'm not interested. So it's almost like the fighter itself while it does have an element in why we would watch. It's not the only reason why we would watch because you're putting so much good stuff around it to say, listen, here's your entry point. We're going to make this as good of an experience as possible. But as imagine if it was on TV right now. And I think about when you randomly turn on ESPN2, and there's just a top rank boxing fight. And you're like, well, I don't know who either of these people are. I don't know the way class, any of this stuff. And there's not that vested interest. But if all of a sudden it's like, boom, here comes this thing telling you about things you've never seen before. You're like, wow, this is kind of a better experience than I ever could have imagined. And you're not vested in the fighters,
Donn Davis: (19:36)
Your star point, super smart. So think about it for a minute because MMA behaves so differently than all the sports we know, and that fans could only name five MMA fighters. Remember this, 1500 professional fighters in the world, UFC has 500 under contract, but there's 1500. I mean, at the highest, highest level fans can name five. And by the way, when they name the five, Ronda Rousey's been gone for three years, she's one of the five. And when they named Connor McGregor, he's fought twice in three years. So they can name five and by the way, those five are pay per view fighters. They're not even on TV and they have a very short career. So as you said, this is 495 of the UFC fighters. No one can name. So what do fans want? A great fight. What makes a great fight? It means something and it's very exciting. So two parts means something & very exciting. What means something single elimination win or go home. So go to March Madness, college basketball. Why do so many people watch it who aren't college basketball fans? They understand single elimination. So in the PFL when you lose, you're done for the year. So when you turn on a PFL fight, that guy is fighting for his economic life. That means something, the stakes are high. When you turn on a UFC or a Bellator fight, he'll be back in three months, he wins. He loses. Now still might be an exciting fight. So the two parts, high stakes, exciting fight, none of the spikes mean anything unless it's a championship fight, which happens very infrequently. So I kind of brought this March madness idea to it because I, myself am not a college basketball fan. I don't watch it all, but I watch March madness because I understand what that means by the way, other than Zion Williams, maybe Moran who knew anybody or those players. I don't remember if you're a college basketball fan, you know, but I'm telling you 80% of those people watching March madness with that big audience and that big economic engine, they didn't know the players. They understand 16 versus one. They understand a Cinderella. They understand that upset. You know, they understand the stories that surround that and with the PFL you get that. And to me, that's super exciting.
Rob Cressy: (22:01)
And you actually just brought up something super interesting because college basketball needs to take a page from what you're doing. Even though we didn't have March madness this year, I know as someone who's a sports fan college basketball had a lack of star power this year because Zion was gone and John Moran was gone in. There was no high profile, big-name player. And so often you would hear about the de-valuing of the regular season, because no one really cared about college basketball until March madness got there. And you say, all right, well, what can we do to try and change all of this? I mean, something as simple as would you love to know, and I know that soccer does this, how far these players are running or how fast they're running. I know that when I watch NFL and you see Tyreek Hill, take one to the house and they're like, his max speed was 23 miles an hour. You're like, man, this is, this is cool. And college basketball doesn't give us any of that. So when they have the lack of star power there, and college basketball is one of them, the leagues or sports that I see is really struggling right now because I'm someone who loves all sports. And if you're not capturing my attention, that is a problem.
Donn Davis: (23:12)
Yeah. And I think of it as look my son Cooper, who's at USC. Now he's been a Cubs fan since he's six years old, he watches so many Cubs games, even though he never lived in Chicago, but he watches them all on his mobile phone because he watches the MLB gold pass because he wants all the data like you do. He wants to know the percentages of the next at bat, the percentages this guy will steal, what's next pitch percentage. So he's a highly, highly engaged fan, but watches no TV. So if I were immediate executive and a sports executive at any of these big five, I'd be saying, how do I capture both audiences? How do I program streaming, mobile and TV differently? And to date baseball is the only one doing that. It's exactly what you're saying. You need a completely different program experience of that live video feed on all sports to capture the whole next generation that consumes data and analytics and engagement the way you just discussed.
Rob Cressy: (24:12)
So I'll get you out on this in speaking of capturing the next level of fan engagement, let's look forward at what fan engagement is going to look like given the current landscape that we're in right now that I never thought I would see a time in which sports shut down and didn't really exist in us as fans. The things that I miss is really the community side of things. I miss being on Twitter and chopping it up with someone about fantasy sports or sports betting or football or basketball or anything, or the fights that are going to be coming up there. And everyone's trying to figure out what to do to get the games going. But once again, let's start looking at the fans and the fan experience in what is the Phoenix experience going to look like? And I hear people say, well, what if we do things without fans in, in the stadiums and stuff?
Rob Cressy: (25:03)
And I'm like, quite frankly, I don't care about that because I'm not watching an NFL game being like, Oh my God, there's fans all over the place. Like it's with a second screen nature, we live in-game is one I'm on my phone or my iPad and or my computer. And then when it goes to commercial, they pay into the fans and there's a crazy person with a sign hanging up. I'm like, that's cool and all, but the fans, it's really just the live experience that gets missed there. But the overwhelming majority of my consumption is streaming or watching the TV. So let's look forward. And what is the fan experience look like in the next year, plus?
Donn Davis: (25:41)
Well, let me start by, by answering that by saying what are some basic truths of sports fan consumption trends? Because then every sports league has to go to them. There are four or five truisms. Brothers, You can't ignore truisms no. As an entrepreneur or an investor or a sports leader, one, they want short contests. Why are people only turning into the NBA for the last four minutes? Or why do people love MMA? Because it's only 10 minutes long. Okay. So short contest and high action is a huge trend. Number two global, global is a huge trend. So if you don't program, that means multi-languages. That means a lot of things. You don't program globally. You got a problem. Number three, Mobile. Five G and six G everybody's talking about streaming, but a lot of people are talking about streaming, still, on TV, 50% of sports consumption live. Now we'll get the year wrong, but 50% of the sports consumption will be on mobile devices. Now will it be four years, will it be six years, will it be eight years. We don't know, but we know that's a fact with five [inaudible] and the international audience that only consumes things on their phone or their handheld device. So I've been thinking about that because that changes everything. So if you look at those three things that are a hundred percent true and you're not leading or investing in your sports league that way, and you're not deploying capital or making decisions that way you're going to be left behind, or are you going to be unoptimized? And part of why we started the PFL is those are square in our trends. But if I were leading a big league or I were deploying capital or I'm running a team, or I were making digital decisions, you just got to look at those three things and say, so what do I do? Because those three things are gonna happen. If you're swimming in those currents, good things can happen. If it's 20 against those currents, it's gonna be hard.
Rob Cressy: (27:56)
I absolutely love that because I just think of any of us who have ever been to a wedding and there's a game on that you really want to watch. Like for me, being from Pittsburgh and being a penguins fan, the number of playoff games that I've watched on my phone outside of a wedding chapel is a lot. But guess what? That's going to continue to go more and more as people want to still be connected, but not be in front of a TV, because guess what? Maybe I want to watch the game from a park and be outside.
Donn Davis: (28:28)
Well, international is, is ahead of this by three or four years in the U.S
Rob Cressy: (28:33)
Don talking with you is so refreshing. I love your forward-thinking mindset. I love your fan engagement mindset. I love your technology mindset. It's something where put it this way, you've, you've sold me without selling me into being a believer in what you're doing, because you check all of the boxes of the things that I would want as a fan. Where can everybody connect with you?
Donn Davis: (28:57)
So that's great. So two things, first of all, you should follow the PFL on Instagram at @PFLMMA, but also we're on YouTube or on Facebook. PFLmma.com. All the social channels. You should check out what we're doing. I think you'll find an interesting alternative if you love the UFC. And if you're on an MMA fan, he's checked out for me. DonnDavis@aol.com and then PFL is back spring of 2021. Live on ESPN2. You should look for us when we're back spring of 2021 on ESPN2.
Rob Cressy: (29:30)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. There is so much to unpack, but here's what I'm curious about. Have you watched more than one fight before in any league and or is this something that you would consider you can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodOnDemand, on Instagram @FanFoodApp or on LinkedIn. And you can hit me up on all social platforms at Rob Cressy