The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has the ambition to be a "global iconic brand" and is fighting hard in a region with fierce competitors that have a head start on the number of events.
UFC held its first mixed martial arts (MMA) event in the Asia Pacific in 1997 but failed to make it back to the region after holding UFC 29 at the turn of the millennium in Japan.
UFC would only return to APAC more than a decade after UFC 29, holding UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia. It has since staged 33 events in the region over the years in countries like Singapore, Philippines, China and New Zealand. Even then, Kevin Chang, the vice president of APAC at UFC insists the region remains important to the company.
“We are at different stages of development in Asia, our strategy in each country is unique, but the mission remains constant: To be a global iconic brand,” he explains.
The WME-IMG brand’s absence in the region saw the rise of Singapore-based One Championship (through its early form of the Martial Combat series). One has since held 83 events across the APAC, backed by funding from Sequoia Capital, and the Singapore government investment vehicles, the GIC and Temasek Holdings.
Its American rival, Bellator MMA, which has held most of its events in the United States since 2008, has also made a push into APAC. It signed a deal with Viacom International Media Networks in 2018 to broadcast its events to audience into South East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Pacific Islands
The success of One has seen some UFC fighters switch camps, with the likes of former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez, the former UFC Lightweight champion joining One. Up and coming talent like Sage Northcutt, who was scouted by the UFC, have also left to join One.
UFC has been working hard to grow its APAC business and reach its goal of being the "iconic" global brand. In June 2018, the UFC announced a strategic partnership with the Singapore Sports Hub and Singapore Tourism Board, for the first multi-year live event deal in the APAC region.
Under the deal, it will stage its annual Fight Night events at the Singapore Indoor Stadium till 2020. It has also announced plans to build a UFC-branded performance institute in China and a gym in Singapore.
The Drum asks Chang what lessons the business has learned over the years, with Chang arguing that everything UFC has endeavored to accomplish in this timeframe has contributed to the success it is experiencing today and the opportunities for growth in the future.
“Growing a long-lasting and profitable business in any new market is not something that happens overnight and it requires focus, determination and making the right investments. We remain true to our core values and at the same time evolve to meet the needs of our fans.”
He continues: “We have continued to partner with “best in class” broadcasters who serve as brand custodians, as well as major regional sponsors who embody the spirit of the UFC. We continue to focus on athlete development and on-ground activations such as athlete tours and consumer experiences that give our loyal fans the opportunity to interact and experience the sport and brand.”
Chang says UFC will also increase the number of annual live events in APAC and sees the performance institute in Shanghai as key to accelerating the growth of the sport and skill level of athletes in the region.
Calling it the “world’s largest MMA institute” and “state-of-the-art”, Chang says there will be a full MMA coaching staff in the institute that will implement a sport-specific training system developed in consultation with former UFC light heavyweight champion, Hall of Famer and current vice president of athlete development, Forrest Griffin.
“We will, of course, continue to work with our partners in giving our fans access to the UFC, whether it is through our content, live events or on-ground activations,” he adds.
Chang claims UFC is not unduly worried about losing talent to One. He says any regional or domestic promotion will most certainly bolster their roster with the acquisition of UFC talent.
This is the natural progression as the sport of MMA continues to grow, he continues, as there are a limited number of spots on the roster and new talent will emerge every year and some will go on to compete in other promotions.
In addition, he says the growth of local and regional promotions like One is encouraging to the UFC because it gives up and coming athletes an opportunity to hone their skills as they work towards their goal of competing in the UFC.
Likewise, he feels former UFC talent competing in these promotions raises the bar for all of the others and increases the size of the talent pool that is good for everyone.
“If you look at the overall roster, broadcast penetration, news coverage, fan engagement, revenue or any other metric, the UFC stands alone,” he explains.
“A small percentage of top talent will compete in regional or domestic promotions in any sport be it football or basketball, but every fan and fighter understand that the global platform for MMA, representing the best competing against the best, is the UFC. Competing in the top global promotion will always be the pinnacle of their career.”
Marketing to APAC-based fans and working with brands
Aside from holding more events, building a performance institute and a gym in APAC to catch up with One, Chang says UFC has adopted a strategy in the region to not only grow the sport in terms of consumer demand but to do so in a way that educates and delights its fans as they discover the sport and the athletes that compete in the octagon (the name for the ring they fight in).
To do that, UFC is looking to provide as much access as possible to ‘world class’ MMA through original content from its over-the-top service UFC Fight Pass or through its broadcast partners.
In addition, Chang says the athletes on the UFC’s roster have become household names and in themselves are great ambassadors for the sport. For example, he points to Ronda Rousey, who was arguably the face of women’s MMA in and outside of the octagon, where she became first female UFC champion and appeared in movies, as the reason why UFC now has an ultra-competitive women’s division.
He adds other regions are a little further along, where the sport has had more time to mature and grow as MMA in Asia is beginning to show signs that it is catching up in terms of talent and awareness. He says the athletes from the region that are now making their way into the UFC are more competitive than ever before.
“On March 2, one of China’s most promising female MMA athletes will be competing in Las Vegas on one of the UFC’s biggest cards of the year. Zhang Weili will be facing number seven women’s strawweight, Tecia Torres. If Zhang wins she will be catapulted into the top 10 – a first for a female athlete from China,” explains Chang.
In APAC, the UFC currently work with different brands from a variety of categories like AirAsia, General Tire, TAB, Reebok and Hudson Shipping. Chang says as these brands embody the spirit of the organization, UFC helps them deliver access and brand recognition to its global fanbase.
“Asia is the fastest growing continent in the world, and home to many brands looking to engage a global audience,” he explains. “Our diverse international following is the perfect platform for these engagements and gives brands a great opportunity to interact with a dynamic and growing demographic.”
Chang adds that the UFC and AirAsia partnership has been a very valuable one and as a platform, the UFC will continue to support AirAsia by looking at innovative ways to reach their audience.
He explains since the start of the partnership, AirAsia has consistently had brand presence in the octagon and says there will be more red corner takeover from AirAsia at UFC events in APAC in 2019, and travel-inspired activations at the arenas for UFC fans.
The airline has been using UFC-branded livery on its aircraft in May 2018 and is looking to sell models of the aircraft onboard AirAsia flights later in 2019. It has also launched a UFC Scholarship Program with the UFC.
"Facilitating an athlete to participate on (UFC president) Dana White's Contender Series and the UFC Training Scholarship program will continue this year, and the selected athlete may be the first to train at the performance institute in Shanghai under the tailored scholarship program," says Chang.
Innovating and eSports
The UFC has previously announced plans to innovate its broadcast model with the introduction of a new in-fight statistics system that will deliver an array of real-time data to viewers.
Having previously produced more than 12 video games with EA Sports and other game developers, UFC is looking at making a foray into eSports, with One has already announced plans for One eSports, a joint venture with Dentsu, Razer and Singtel.
One also intends to lead a plan to invest up to US$50 million alongside other key partners into One eSports. It also plans to work with Razer to explore joint marketing opportunities using Team Razer eSports athletes, as well as One athletes to drive communication and engagement to all martial arts fans and gamers across Asia. Razer will also provide its technical and payment expertise.
Chang acknowledges that eSports is a rapidly growing segment, the fans are passionate and the numbers are staggering. He says there are definitely a number of ‘cross-over’ eSports - MMA fans, just as there are fans who like football, Hollywood movies and other forms of entertainment.
However, he points out that as UFC is ‘the pinnacle of the sport’, it has a duty to remain true to its roots and continue to deliver a pure MMA product.
“We will not compromise and become a spectacle, or dilute our offering as some other promotions will try to do. That said, we welcome fans from all walks of life who are looking to witness the best MMA fighters in the world compete in the Octagon,” Chang explains.