Chatri Sityodtong is a man who places a lot of emphasis on “values”.
The former mixed martial arts (MMA) champion and Harvard Business School graduate has built his Asian sports media empire – ONE Championship, of which he is the founder, chairman and CEO is the largest to emerge from the continent – on the three pillars of values, heroes and stories.
Chatri says ONE’s focus on values differentiates it from the UFC – its loud, foul-mouthed older cousin, if you will – in the US. But as it eyes the home turf of its much bigger, well-entrenched rival, it will be a test of whether his Asian success story can transcend continents.
“The US is the largest sports market in the world, and we have a great partnership with one of the major broadcasters [Turner]. American fans have been asking for us to start throwing events in the US,” Chatri said in an emailed response.
Last year, the Asian startup sealed a three-year broadcast deal with Turner Sports to bring its content to American telly. The deal covers Turner’s major platforms, TNT and B/R Live, and altogether feeds over 90 million households in North America. Rival UFC – although the world’s largest MMA promotion company may not see it as one yet – inked a lucrative new deal with ESPN Plus this year and that is where most of its content now resides.
ONE is also opening up offices in New York and Los Angeles and could hold an event in the US as soon as the fourth quarter of next year. The company, Chatri said, is hiring aggressively across the board in the market.
As part of its charge into the US, ONE has added three American fighters to its roster – former UFC champion Eddie “The Underground King” Alvarez, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and “Super” Sage Northcutt.
Announcing the addition of Alvarez, Johnson and Northcutt, ONE’s vice president of PR and communications Loren Mack noted how the fighters fit the company’s values perfectly.
Asked by reporters earlier this year about the difference between UFC and ONE, Northcutt noted the absence of trash talking – that permanent fixture of UFC – and a culture of respect for each other at the latter.
ONE, which now has a roster of over 500 athletes globally, is also not short of capital.
The startup was valued just shy of $1 billion in its last funding round, a $166-million Series D led by storied Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital, last year.
Chatri says the company’s US expansion plans don’t warrant another fundraising soon. “We are not looking to raise capital right now. ONE Championship not only has an asset-light, IP-heavy business model, but it also has a big balance sheet,” he said.
Back in the US, those tracking MMA say ONE may be able to make a dent in the market but is unlikely to dominate.
“The sports market in the United States tends to gravitate to the trash-talking and wild antics of many of the UFC’s top stars like Conor McGregor. ONE operates on a much different model that is based on the more respectful norms of traditional martial arts than the sometimes frenzied attraction of U.S. sports,” said Ken Pishna, managing editor, MMAweekly.com.
Chatri says there is space for both UFC and ONE in the MMA markets of the US and Asia, where the former has started to make some moves.
Last week, UFC launched a $13-million MMA performance institute in Shanghai, aimed at training the next generation of athletes from China and the Asia Pacific. This comes ahead of UFC’s Shenzhen debut in August, where it will hold its first ever UFC championship fight in China. The upcoming fight also features Weili Zhang, the first Chinese athlete to compete for a UFC title.
Chatri says ONE remains excited about both the US and China, and plans to make further inroads into markets in Asia.
“Our content continues to resonate with strong TV ratings and social/digital metrics across the globe. We are very excited for US, Japan, China, and India as well as the ASEAN markets,” he said.
Along with the geographic expansion, ONE has branched out into other areas. In April, it launched a TV and film production unit, ONE Studios. The new division will create content featuring ONE athletes and aims to distribute it via Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon and more than 140 existing TV broadcast partners around the globe.
Last year, it also announced the launch of esports championship series ONE Esports in partnership with Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. ONE Esports will feature multiple game titles across Asia and hold esports events held alongside ONE’s martial arts events this year.
The Singapore-based startup, it appears, has a lot on its plate. It would be wise not to get too hung up on having to go head-to-head with the UFC, Pishan advises.
“In my opinion, they should continue to do what they can to dominate the Asian market and capture a significant portion of the U.S. market without having to out-do the UFC,” he said.
That should not be difficult for ONE to do if it sticks to its values.