Mark Taffet is making a big bet on mixed martial arts, though the former HBO Sports executive is quick to caution he’s not embarking on a challenge to the UFC.
Taffet and long-time MMA promoter Hani Darwish announced the creation of a team-based league they’re calling MMA Pro League, which sounds suspiciously like the old International Fight League.
The concept is familiar to those – few? – who followed the IFL. They’ll have big-name coaches who will lead teams based in a city. There will be six active fighters on each card, but each team will have two fighters per weight class.
The league will kick off on July 20 at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City with Team New Jersey taking on Team Pennsylvania. Eventually, Taffet and Darwish envision an entire league just like the NFL or NBA.
The catch is for them to build loyalty to the team and not to the individual fighters. Because combat sports is so individual – once the cage door closes and the bell sounds, it’s fighter versus fighter with no help from teammates – that the fighters have built their own audiences.
MMA Pro League will face the challenge of convincing fans in the various cities to support the logo and not the individual fighter so much. If you’re an NBA fan and root for the Cleveland Cavaliers, you’re aware that there’s a chance that LeBron James will declare free agency and sign with another team this summer. But most Cavs fans will remain Cavs fans even if LeBron plays for the Lakers or the Celtics or the Rockets.
On each night, there will be five men and one woman competing for each team.
Darwish said the fighters will be comfortable under the team format because it’s how they came up through the ranks, regardless of discipline.
“To be honest, the IFL was way ahead of its time in a lot of ways,” Darwish said. “But all these athletes, forever and a day, have come up training with a team whether it was wrestling or [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu] or Muay Thai or whatever. No matter what combative sport you are part of, you trained as part of a team. So the IFL was great, but the problem with it was that it came around prior to all of the states sanctioning MMA.
“They did it in a boxing ring and it was more like gym versus gym. They were [created by] a couple of real estate guys who had a little bit of money and they had a decent concept but too many things were loosey-goosey. It was all over the place, but the athletes like the team concept and they have a lot more passion and camaraderie when they’re part of a team.”
There are issues with it aplenty. Teams rely on building fans on a regular basis. When the NFL kicks off, it’s weekly for five months. In the NBA and NHL, it’s several times a week for six months. In Major League Baseball, it’s nearly every day for six months.
In MMA, fighters need time to heal their wounds and let their bodies recover after competition, so you’re not going to get even the NFL-style weekly competition.
Taffet is a bright mind and believes that by bringing competitive, evenly matched bouts with fighters who have an incentive to put on a show, it will catch the interest of the fans.
It remains to be seen if they can pull it off. Darwish is banking a lot on the big-name coach factor helping, but it’s questionable whether people are going to buy tickets to see Dan Miller or Dan Gracie (or anyone, no matter how big of a name they are) coach.
They play five events at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City this year, and will announce more teams who will join for the planned eight-team regular season and playoff in 2019.
It’s an interesting concept, and Taffet is a savvy businessman with success in the fight game, though not yet as a promoter. If he can deliver high-quality fights that fans enjoy, it’s awesome. At this stage in MMA Pro League’s development, though, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical.
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