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Click Debate: Breaking down how the team-based MMA Pro League will work

Miguel Cotto v Antonio Margarito - Press Conference
Mark Taffet was a pioneer of pay-per-view boxing at HBO and is now trying his hand at a new mixed martial arts venture — MMA Pro League.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Mark Taffet spent 25 years at HBO, pioneering and revolutionizing pay-per-view boxing. Now, he’s trying his hand at MMA with a rejuvenated concept — a focus on teams and an emphasis on building geographical fanbases.

Last week, the launch of MMA Pro League was announced, spearheaded by Taffet and longtime MMA promoter Hani Darwish. The league will begin with two teams — New Jersey and Pennsylvania — and five events will be held this summer at the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.

That is just the first phase of MMA Pro League, Taffet and Darwish told MMA Fighting in a phone interview. This summer will be a table setter for spring 2019 when the plan is to have eight MMA teams from eight different cities across the United States competing in a regular season, playoffs and championship match.

“The connection between fans and their teams in professional sports is a connection like no other,” said Taffet, who will serve as MMA Pro League president. “And we are going to work hard to establish that with every team and give the fans what they want with their fighters and their teams on a daily basis.”

So how will it work? Taffet and Darwish say they have a plan that will make MMA Pro League look a bit like the NBA, NFL and MLB.

Between now and next spring, the promotion will sign 96 fighters and they will enter into a draft pool. There will be a draft — not unlike the prestigious ones in other sports — where coaches from each team will get to fill out their rosters. Dan Miller and Daniel Gracie have already been announced as coaches, for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, respectively.

MMA Pro League teams will have 12 roster spots — 10 men and two women — and six starters for six weight classes per event. When two teams meet at an event, the winner will be decided by the results of the individual fights.

A team will get three points for a decision, four points for a submission and five points for a knockout. So there will be an incentive to finish fights. Whichever team has the most points after the final fight wins the meet. If the score is tied, there will be a tiebreaker match. Taffet said there will be no draws.

“If you think about it, there’s a tremendous amount of strategy, because as the night goes on how you choose to play offense — and/or defense — will depend a lot on what the score is and what you need as a team,” he said. “It may be that a team has to move to more of a knockout mode and take more risks in fights, because they’re behind in the scoring. So the score will impact each fight and the course that it takes.”

MMA Pro League’s season will be between 12 and 14 weeks, going up to 16 weeks including the playoffs and championship events. Each team will have a home venue and will compete in home and away meets.

When drafted, fighters will be expected to leave their home gyms to go and train with the team and coaches in the city of the team that drafted them during the season — the same way it works in other sports.

Taffet said that fighters will be paid a base monthly stipend, as well as bonuses for fighting, winning and a team victory. Fighters will get a bonus if their team wins, even if they lost their individual fight. Coaches will get a monthly stipend and bonuses for making the playoffs, the semifinals and winning the championship, Taffet said.

Darwish, the CEO of the promotion, said fighters will be more than happy with MMA Pro League’s pay structure. He estimates that the average fighter outside the UFC makes somewhere between $2,400 and $2,700 per year and they will have an ability to make more in MMA Pro League.

“We’re gonna hold honey to bears that we’re giving them a stipend,” Darwish said. “They’re gonna be very happy and well compensated. I think we have a good concept as far as compensation. They’re gonna run to the idea of being part of something like this. Rather than just fighting and showcasing themselves in the middle of Singapore at 5 o’ clock in the morning, they’re gonna have an opportunity to showcase their talents to the U.S. market and on top of that they’re gonna be paid for it, for their season of training. And they’re gonna have a camaraderie amongst brothers and iconic coaches to be mentored by.”

Darwish said the rosters of the MMA Pro League teams will consist mostly of up-and-coming talent.

“We’re not looking to sign guys that were released from other promotions,” he said. “We’re really interested in building our own young stars — to grow these guys from the grassroots pretty much. We are looking for talent, whether they be collegiate wrestlers or guys that train at local MMA gyms that are young star or to-be stars. Or Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies or guys that have some pedigree from other sports. We’re not really looking to sign guys that were released or are over-the-hill. We’re looking for younger talent.”

When MMA Pro League was announced, there were immediate criticisms that it sounds an awful lot like the now-defunct International Fight League, a team-based MMA venture that lasted from 2006 to 2008. Taffet promises that MMA Pro League won’t be the same as IFL at all.

“The IFL was in existence at a time when MMA was not sanctioned in many states,” he said. “They chose to emphasize in their production and much of their promotion many of the violent aspects of the sport, rather than focus on the talent and the athletics and the skills involved. And while they call themselves teams because they were organized that way, they didn’t have anything near the connections that we’re talking about, city by city and market by market created between athletes and fans. Which is truly what a professional sports team and a fanbase is all about.”

Taffet left HBO at the end of 2015 after overseeing nearly 200 pay-per-view events, which generated more than 65 million buys and $3.6 billion in revenue. He helped launch HBO PPV in 1991.

For years, Taffet said, he had his eyes on MMA. And MMA Pro League is the result of those studies and research. He said he feels this venture is “complementary” to what the UFC and Bellator are doing.

“I was incredibly impressed that the arena was filled at the opening bell, something that was not seen very often for boxing matches,” Taffet said. “I was also very impressed with the youth of the fans and with the diversity of the fanbase. I saw that this is clearly a sport that has tremendous growth and fits the demographic trend of our growing society. It was a tremendous opportunity and I was very excited to be a part of it.”

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