It has been a whirlwind seven years for ONE Championship. The Singapore-based organisation has gone from the brainchild of ESPN consultant Victor Cui to this April being valued at nearly $1 billion, according to Bloomberg. It is a meteoric rise that has seen ONE Championship capitalise incredibly successfully on the explosion in popularity of martial arts.
Cui identified a gap in the market and with the help of multi-millionaire ex-hedge fund manager Chatri Sityodtong – as well as the Singapore government and wealth fund Temasek – has created a martial arts empire. Last year a share in the company was sold to Sequoia Capital, the world-renowned venture capitalists who count Facebook, Apple, and LinkedIN among their previous investments.
“I think expertise has been key to our success,” Cui tells Sport Industry Insider. “Being with ESPN, I had a deep understanding of sports media and built the company with that in mind. My job was to know the business fundamentals and value proposition of every sport in Asia and that is how I came to see martial arts as a sport with fantastic potential.
“Fortunately, Chatri was my first investor and he had a finance background – he understood how to bring in the capital market and create a world class organisation.”
Comparisons with UFC are inevitable but while the North American property has hit the headlines with its brash fighters, adversarial personalities, and scandals, ONE Championship has evolved with the values of martial arts in mind. This, Cui believes, is the fundamental difference between the two companies.
“I get why other organisations in the world focus on trash talking and conflict,” Cui explains. “You see that their world champion snorted cocaine the day before he defended his title, or you read about a fighter being thrown in jail. I get how that kind of circus drives television ratings and gets people talking.
“But that is not the DNA of ONE Championship. I would never sign someone like Conor McGregor. He’s not representative of our brand or the values of martial arts. We want to tell inspirational stories about integrity, honour, respect, humility, hard work, dedication. That is what we really spend our time focusing on.
“The heroes that we build across Asia are resonating with our fans and, as a father and entrepreneur, I believe we have a responsibility to work with people I want my seven-year-old boy to look up to. Fighters who have respect for their opponents and have integrity. I don’t want my son to have a poster on his wall of someone who goes to a press conference in a pinstriped suit that says ‘F*** You’ on the pinstripes. That isn’t a suitable role model.”
The approach certainly appears to have captured the imagination of the Asian public. With 24 live events this year and further expansion planned for 2019, ONE Championship has taken its sell-out shows to all corners of East Asia.
TV viewership has been particularly impressive, with the events seizing a notable share of the audience from more mainstream sports. The ONE Championship is now screened in 136 countries worldwide.
“In the past few decades in Asia, all we have done is import sports from the west. We imported tennis, football, basketball, golf, cricket. So much so that we watch those sports on American or European time, not Asian time. If you want to watch football in Asia you watch it at 2 am; For NBA, it is 7 am. That’s how we’ve consumed it.
“Martial arts, on the other hand, is the only sport that has its true cultural heritage in Asia. It’s like a religion in some countries, like Muay Thai in Thailand, taekwondo in Korea, or boxing in the Philippines. Every country at its core has some sort of martial heritage and that makes it a different emotional connection to our fanbase.
This is ONE, the Home of Martial Arts. pic.twitter.com/q0soyXZlmx
— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) November 13, 2017
“That’s why we are now regularly the top-rated television show in every one of our key markets. In the Philippines, where NBA is king, we out-rate basketball with our live events. Our content has got a bigger and bigger fanbase and more commercial partners.
“There are 4.1 billion people in Asia and it’s the only place in the world where you have 2 billion people in one time zone. The opportunity for scalability here is amazing and we’re still just scratching the surface.”
ONE Championship has already dipped its toes in the Chinese market and has seen immediate results, with Cui now based full-time in Shanghai as he looks to expand the business in China and beyond. Part of that beyond is the Middle East. ONE Championship came to Dubai for a live show in 2014 and Cui says the time is now right to return to the region with broader offering.
“We’re expanding our number of live events to 36 next year and I’d love to see 2-4 of those in the Middle East. When we were last there it was awesome – the fans loved it and we had great support from the UAE government too. We are signing an increasing number of top talent from the region who are going to be competing on more of our cards so it makes sense to come back.
“It’s such a great market for combat sports. Jiu-jitsu is so well practiced and so many people understand it that bringing some of our jiu-jitsu world champions to showcase themselves there would mean we’d have a strong following, I’m sure. The UAE certainly makes perfect sense for us as a natural landing point for ONE Championship.
“On the commercial side we have really strong television ratings on OSN and that has brought a lot more inbound interest from partners and sponsors – asking us when we are coming. Also, a live event in Dubai for example can still be watched at a reasonable time by our core Asian audience.”
A ONE Championship event in the UAE would certainly be a good shop window for regional partners and Cui, who counts the likes of Disney, GoDaddy, and LG as key sponsors feels that it will be easy for companies in the Middle East to see the value in martial arts.
“We have the same business model as every other multi-million dollar sports company – whether F1, NBA, NBL, ICC, or ATP. We are all media companies – getting athletes, creating rules, getting a pitch or an arena, an official, sell sponsorship, sell tickets. Like them, we have created world-class TV content to be sold to broadcasters all around the world.
“Generally, this means we have sponsors across the brand rather than in local markets as we can deliver them a sustained campaign over multiple months. So looking at a company like Emirates, for example – they fly to multiple destinations in Asia and maybe they want to do an advertising campaign to encourage more customers in Singapore, Philippines, China etc. Of course, they could run a campaign in each market, or they could run a 12-month campaign with ONE Championship, knowing that in each of those core markets they are going to get the eyeballs.”
Middle East expansion is only one part of Cui’s grand vision. It may be a distinctly Asian brand but with previous offers to host events – in Brazil, Kazakhstan, and South Africa – there is no doubting the worldwide appeal. That global outlook means that floatation, not stagnation, is what awaits ONE Championship.
“We are aiming for 52 events a year, which would make us pretty much the only sports property in the world – and definitely the only one in Asia – with a live sporting event every week of the entire year. That’s great for our athletes, it’s great for our fans, our TV broadcast partners, our sponsors.
“Further development in China is important, too. We have four events there this year but we could easily be doing 20 events. Shanghai is a city of 35 million people – the potential there is obvious.
“From a board perspective, they would love to see us IPO on the New York Stock Exchange – that’s a great outcome for the Singapore government and our shareholders. We’ve always been building our company to that gold standard of the best blue-chip companies in the world and that’s where we are heading.”