PGF: A Model for Bringing the Sport of Jiu Jitsu to the Masses

With the second season of the Professional Grappling Federation debuting March 5 on YouTube, 10th Planet Black Belt Brandon Mccaghren finds himself on the precipice of changing the sport of jiu jitsu.  We all know how Royce Gracie’s domination at UFC 1 opened the eyes of martial artists and fight fans to the power of jiu jitsu.  We all know how the first season of The Ultimate Fighter brought mixed martial arts into the homes of the general public, leading the UFC to become mainstream.  Without hyperbole, one could say the PGF could likewise bring the sport of jiu jitsu to the masses.

Mccaghren serves as the commentator for Eddie Bravo’s Combat Jiu Jitsu Worlds and runs 10th Planet Decatur in Alabama.  He has seemingly mined the UFC and other professional sports to find the recipe for mass appeal: scoring/submissions and familiarity.  Mccaghren’s first season of the PGF served as a proof of concept, showing he had the right recipe.

People love to watch players score.  While defense wins championships, more people tune in to watch the NFL Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” and their high-flying attacks than other teams with lockdown defenses.  Many bemoan professional basketball players for their lack of playing defense, but those players know their popularity and subsequent contracts will surge if they put their energy into dunks or three-pointers.  The first season of the PGF was a league with nine weeks of competition amongst 32, 195lb and under contestants.  It featured a wide variety of players, from a white belt who was a national-level powerlifter to a tournament-veteran black belt.  This wide variety of ranks and experience led to a league where on any given night, viewers easily saw a greater than 90% submission rate.  While one can easily imagine a black belt “dunking” on a white belt for a quick submission.  Mccaghren put more incentives in the scoring of the tournament to make the matches more compelling.  Each match was submission-only scoring, no one could use “advantages” or a judge’s decision to win.  If a competitor wanted points to increase their league standings, they needed a submission.  Competitors received seven points for “kills” or chokes and three points for “breaks.”  This rule incentivized competitors to go for the choke, leading to more engaging competition – they could sit back quickly for a leg lock, but risked only getting three points and falling back in the competition.  Likewise, with only six-minute matches, competitors had a sense of urgency to secure points.  Competitors hunting the kill would quickly switch to whatever submission they could find as the round got closer to expiration.  Consequently, viewers saw the full gamut of jiu jitsu as competitors fought for takedowns, but also passes and back takes to secure the full seven possible points.

People are more attracted to familiar things.  Just as viewers got to know the contestants in The Ultimate Fighter house every week, viewers of the PGF were able to get to know contestants, seeing them evolve.  First, unlike the vast majority of televised jiu jitsu, Conscious Keelan of Subconscious Studios who is a practitioner himself used a gimbal and his expertise to bring the audience super close to the action. A world apart from the fixed camera angle perspectives of most tournaments, viewers could see the techniques each competitor was using whether it be framing, grips, etc. Excellent commentary for the PGF from 10th Planet Black Belts Matt Skaff and Lindsey Mccaghren (Brandon’s wife) deftly explained this action on the mats but also provided depth as they gave backgrounds for the contestants. These backstories served as similar roles as the “Adrian effect” Sylvester Stallone used while describing his boxing reality competition “The Contender.”  Simply put, by knowing more about these competitors, viewers grew empathy for them and finding reasons to cheer for them. But the icing on the cake came from Mccaghren’s idea to build in a fantasy component to the league.

One could argue the National Football League has been popular for a long time, but they stole away the title of America’s favorite sport after fantasy football was introduced.  Instead of only cheering for and getting to know the “home” team, fans comb over the stat lines and news articles for the league trying to glean any bit of information to help them defeat their friends or coworkers in their leagues.  All of a sudden, football fans could speak intelligently about players from every NFL team.  The fantasy component of the PGF similarly leads viewers to investing even more into the competitors of the PGF. Each week viewers had skin in the game as they assessed how to “spend” $80, building a team of up to five competitors priced from $10 to $25.  Fans started following competitors’ social media presence to learn more about them.  Blogs and podcasts like the McDojo Show on the McDojoLife YouTube channel spent time every week breaking down their predictions of the PGF matchups and which competitors would gain the most points.

After the nine weeks of the league, viewers saw their favorites compete in the playoffs, a no-time-limit, submission-only, single-elimination tournament for the top 16 competitors.  The tournament did not disappoint, featuring a mix of quick kills and longer battles, including a more than one hour and fourteen-minute war.

Season one was just Mccaghren’s opening act.  On March 5th, PGF season two will take everything a level or two above the first season.  Season two features 16 competitors in the 225lb and under division.  Again, the competitors are wide ranging from blue belts to black belts; judokas to Division 1 wrestlers; promising interesting matchups.  Season one’s winner who went 24-0, Elijah “the bad guy” Carlton has returned with other fan favorites Matt “the Mane” Elkins and Kevin “Liquid Terminator” Primeau.  But Mccaghren stepped up the level of competition greatly.  To facilitate bringing in tough competitors from all over the United States, Mccaghren switched the regular season from a nine-week grind to a six-day war of attrition.  The next level of competitors includes the likes of Kemoy Anderson (brown belt veteran of multiple F2W competitions), Zack Edwards (brown belt veteran of F2W, Subversiv, and Third Coast Grappling promotions), and Hunter Colvin (black belt veteran of Combat Jiu Jitsu, F2, Subversiv, and up-and-coming MMA fighter who recently signed with Dodge Sports for representation).

Shot over six days, season two had all of the 16 competitors facing each other.  There was no luck of the draw on opponents; there was nowhere to hide.  Mccaghren kept the six-minute matches but tweaked the scoring.  Kills are now worth six points with breaks still garnering three.  Competitors can get a bonus point for a submission in the first minute of a match and the Mccaghren said a number of contestants took advantage of the blitzkrieg bonus point.  Further emulating the TUF model, this season saw the competitors split into two teams. Team members can earn an extra point if their team wins the most matches in discrete blocks.  While the season was shot over six days, it will be released free on YouTube over eight weeks, debuting Friday evenings at 6pm Central Standard Time.  While the weekly releases will be focus mostly on matches, Mccaghren will release extra footage from behind the scenes and other competitor activities on his Facebook group. This season also includes an additional commentator.  Joe Kai, another fan favorite and the winner of the war mentioned above, joins Matt Skaff and Lindsey Mccaghren.  A stand-up comedian, Joe Kai should add an extra bit of humor to the excellent analysis.

While the filming of the season has concluded, the playoff tournament will be hosted at 10th Planet Decatur sometime in June.  By and large, the PGF has grown organically through grass roots efforts.  But given the more dispersed nature of the competitors and their gyms as well as the burgeoning multimedia presence of followers and fans, the PGF is poised for a major breakout season.  This PGF league and format will prove formidable and longstanding.  Any viewer who gets on the train now will have that early adopter opportunity to say they got onboard before it exploded…because it will.  We all love jiu jitsu, but this format will bring it to our family and friends in a way we can discuss it without them being practitioners.

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