Darren Owen is crisscrossing the country to pitch owners on his vision for a new MMA industry as the league-based WFL readies for a Feb. 5, 2023 debut.
Owen, a former WSOF executive, is betting fans will get behind team MMA — despite historical evidence that the opposite is true.
“I believe you’re going to see it work,” Owen said on Wednesday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “We’re not changing the sport. The sport is the sport — it’s two athletes getting inside the cage and competing against each other. That part, I think, is all that really matters.
“Whether they’re competing for a piece of gold being strapped around their waist after it is fairly irrelevant. That’s kind of after the competition. But it’s the competition that really matters. It’s what happens when these two alpha males go at it and who’s the better individual that night. That’s what people want to watch.”
Three WFL events will take place on Feb. 5, 2023, with a fourth happening one day later. The events will serve as the ambitious project’s entry into the MMA marketplace.
Owen’s WSOF roots are evident in the competition structure of the WFL; each team is comprised of 24 fighters, with three fighters in each of its weight classes: featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight, women’s flyweight and women’s bantamweight. Teams and fighters from four separate conferences — North America, South America, Europe/Africa and Asia/Oceania — will compete against each other for points during the regular season events that feed into the playoffs, where leaders face off in a post-season final.
Dissatisfied at the direction of the WSOF, from which he departed after he said he “butted heads” with the promotion’s former matchmaker and manager Ali Abdelaziz, Owen sought to create a new property without the conflicts of interest he said are inherent to the promotional model of MMA.
Owen repeatedly compared the WFL’s model to that of major sporting leagues such as NFL, NBA, and MLB and said “essentially it’s a copy-paste of all the stuff that already works, but obviously, we have to dial it in specifically for the sport of MMA.”
Owen said the WFL will be different from another team-based organization, the ill-fated IFL, because the league will be comprised of independent team owners who will share revenues among themselves — after splitting the revenue 50-50 with the fighters on teams.
“Eventually, [the fighter’s revenue] will be divided in salary cap, but year one is going to be a little bit unique because we don’t know our revenues,” he said. “So everything we’re doing, our contracts are all set that it’s an and/or basis, so you’re either going to get paid your negotiated amount, or you’ll get 50 percent of the revenue from that specific event that you competed in.”
Those teams, Owen said, will be bound by a set of bylaws that eliminate the onerous business practices that he said pervaded the WSOF, which later rebranded to the PFL.
“All the problems that exist with the promotional model will not exist in the World Fight League,” he said.
So far, Owen said four owners have signed on to participate in the first season. Three of them — based in Florida, Texas and Nevada — will also see WFL events hosted in their state with the four-event kickoff in 2023. The buy-in cost for ownership is “in the 10s of millions,” Owen said, “but the plan is to grow them into the 100s of millions in the next few years.”
Owen declined to name the owners, citing non-disclosure agreements, but said former Titan FC executive Joe Kelly is “involved,” as is Canadian MMA veteran David Loiseau. He shot down reports of Georges St-Pierre’s buy-in, saying the UFC Hall of Famer “probably could” lead a team, “but just the type of honor and integrity that that man has, I don’t see him doing anything until he’s officially not under [UFC] contract any longer.”
“I wanted to bring in the right people, the people who want to do this for the right reasons,” Owen said. “That was part of it was we need a core group of people that understand the problems and want to fix the problems.”
As for the fighters, the WFL hasn’t signed any. That process will begin on Jan. 1, 2022, as Owen said the owners of teams look to secure what is, by any stretch, a massive array of talent in the current MMA marketplace: 192 contracts, the minimum number needed to meet the league’s plans to have eight teams in each of the four WFL conferences. That number could increase even more if the WFL expands to 24 teams per conference, the maximum number according to Owen. Before any of that, he said, labor laws and the current business climate have prompted the league to focus on the North American conference in its first year.
Asked about a potential issue of having fighters endure a one-year delay between signing a WFL contract and fighting, Owen said they are free to work with other promoters, but will be offered “guaranteed contracts” for their time in the WFL as well as “insurances” for fighters that will help them with injuries suffered during training camp.
The WFL is still talking with broadcast partners and is “not signing anything until we know we’ve got the best deal in place with the best partners,” he said.