The ongoing fight for TV audiences in one of the world’s fastest growing sports, mixed martial arts, has found a new and unusual battleground.
The two top promoters of MMA, UFC based in America’s gambling capital of Las Vegas and the One Championship with a headquarters in Singapore, are now both aiming to increase their global fan bases via reality television shows on YouTube.
For UFC – which stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship – the reality TV strategy is supplement to its main promotional focus of staging fights around the world, including its sixth trip to London this weekend.
But for the One Championship, which is committed to building its brand through all the Asian countries, the new YouTube show marks a major pivot.
The One Championship’s reality documentary shows are called Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series and is a search for the next martial arts superstar throughout Asia.
The first tryouts were held Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia last month (February) and at least eight series one episodes are already available on YouTube. There are hopes that some traditional TV networks will show the programmes at a later date.
Rich Franklin is a multiple-time middleweight mixed martial arts world champion and is looking for new MMA talent in gyms in cities including Bangkok, Manila, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, but, crucially to the One Championship bosses, Franklin’s show also delves into cultural, non-MMA aspects of each city and country in a travelogue style.
The One Championship chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong sees the focus on the culture behind the sport as a key differentiation between the two MMA brands. He also believes in a well-publicised internet channel as a preferred option to gain more fans compared to staging bouts in Europe or on the UFC’s doorstop in America.
He says: “One of our biggest missions is taking martial arts, Asia’s greatest cultural treasure, and placing it front and centre for the entire world to witness. One of the ways to do this is by developing local home grown martial arts superheroes.”
By contrast, while UFC – which is 25 years old compared to One Championship’s six – is still boasting about its new TV deal signed last year, the importance of a YouTube audience was first appreciated around 2013 when its own reality programme The Ultimate Fighter was added to the web platform to supplement screenings on traditional TV channels.
In fact, the finale of the first series on Spike TV in 2005 is credited by UFC president Dana White as helping save his company from going bust. The show moved to the Fox network six years later and is still running after 150 shows. The show now racks up tens of millions of viewers and was a key element in the MMA brand being bought for $4.2 billion by William Morris Endeavour (part of the IMG group) in 2017.
YouTube revenues are unknown, but UFC television income centres on its deals with Fox Sports in the US and UFC Fight Pass at a cost of $7.99–$9.99 per month via devices like Apple TV, iPhone, Android, Xbox, Roku, and Google Chromecast. UFC is also on ESPN in the Caribbean, BT Sport in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as in 150 countries worldwide plus it enjoys pay-per-view deals on Brazilian, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Italian channels.
The fact that One Championship is now using YouTube is likely to escalate the war of words between the two MMA juggernauts as they both search for new, younger audiences.
The One Championship’s show reflects their whole philosophy which it says is the opposite of the UFC’s. The Asian promoters speak constantly of integrity among their fighters as well as honour and respect between opponents, while the UFC still enjoys fighters taking a showbiz, confrontational attitude that is more akin to the wrestling entertainment brands such as WWE. In fact, The Ultimate Fighter is just a series of contests to award the winning fighter with a $100,000 fight contract.
But because Asia is both a hotbed of the industry’s top martial arts prospects as well as the birthplace of martial arts, Sityodtong sees the One Championship almost as the protector of the sport’s spirit with UFC simply a child born out of the desire for pay TV sports spectacles when it partnered with HBO and Showtime back in 1993. The American company takes pride out of that pageantry of its promotions which have spread across Europe as well as into One Championship’s home turf in countries including China.
Yet both MMA promoters are No 1 in their base territories. One Championship has built up a remarkable network in such a short space of time: it broadcasts to over 1.7 billion potential viewers across 136 countries around the world with some of the largest global broadcasters such as Fox Sports, ABS-CBN, Astro, ClaroSports, Bandsports, Startimes, Premier Sports, Thairath TV, Skynet, Mediacorp and OSN. It also allows free live viewing of early fights on each promotion via social media platforms such as Twitter and is device agnostic across Asia.
For Sityodtong, these broadcast tactics will not allow UFC to capture his heartland of fans and, for him, anyone tuning into the new YouTube show from outside Asia is a bonus at this time. “The UFC has been disrespectful to Asia and to ONE Championship. That’s the only reason I’ve spoken about them. We’re focused 100% on Asia with 4.4 billion people and we want to celebrate Asia’s greatest cultural treasure and authentic values of martial arts with our new programme.”
His reality show will explore Asian culture, he says, and be a total contrast to the UFC’s “almost weekly scandals with athletes going to prison or taking cocaine”.
Is Europe a new battleground because of the UFC’s sixth promotion there this month? “We’re 100% focused on Asia,” says Sityodtong, “but our broadcast reach will go from 118 countries to 190 in the next few years, so we will be going all over the planet.”
For UFC and their new owners, 2018 will be a year of rebirth. There were no blockbuster pay-per-view fights last year, so a return to the heights of 2016 is required when UFC had five PPV shows that produced over one million buys thanks to its biggest names Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey (both now pursuing other careers).
UFC president Dana White has long been dismissive of One Championship, but although his fights have been seen live in 15 different countries, his fighters have not visited Asia since 2014.
Perhaps MMA fans watching the two reality TV shows will help the sport’s two leading brands decide if the next stage of their development is more add-on programming delivered via website and social media or simply more large scale live fight events.