Around the turn of the century the biggest conversation in the sports media sector revolved around the question: how do we make money out of Asia?
With the Chinese economic powerhouse leading the way and a new consumer class emerging in many Asian nations, the conditions were right for the industry to make hay. A thousand identikit conferences and panel sessions set out to discuss what the Asian sports fan wanted and how to turn a dollar by giving it to them.
But while the rest of the world agonised over the best way to sell their sports properties to Asian markets, Victor Cui was thinking very differently about the opportunity. And he figured that maybe what Asian audiences wanted wasn’t an undiluted diet of imported sport, but something made closer to home, sport which reflects the astonishingly varied culture of the region and its people.
Cui knows his stuff. After more than 15 years working with major sports brands including ESPN Star and the PGA, he knew the industry inside-out and understood the market better than most. So, while others looked on Asia’s economic explosion as an opportunity to export, Cui, looked to it as the source of his product and what was to become the ONE Championship. Today ONE Championship is Asia’s biggest sports property and Cui is regarded as one of the most influential people in sport…in Asia and beyond.
ONE Championship is a mixed martial arts property founded on Victor Cui’s belief that martial arts are the region’s ‘true cultural treasure’.
“Martial arts are the most important sport in more or less every [Asian] country and most have their own particular disciplines. In every way they exemplify Asian values of honour, respect, hard work and humility. While these are not exclusive to Asia they are a distinctly Asian trait and people enrol their children in martial arts not for the fighting but because of what they learn about culture and behaviour.”
ONE Championship was launched in 2011 and, as Cui explained, has made a ‘quantum leap’ in recent years. With blue-chip investors Heliconia Capital Management – the investment arm of the Singapore government – and Sequoia India on board there is the financial resource to match an apparent appetite for growth and, says Cui, it is now ‘a billion-dollar company’.
“There was a time when every continent had a multi-billion-dollar sports property like the NFL and NBA or the English Premier League. The only region without was Asia,” he says.
But that’s all changed. ONE Championship broadcasts live around the world to a potential billion viewers in over 128 countries via broadcasters including FOX Sports, Setanta, MNC, Astro, Thairath TV, ABS-CBN, TV5, MYTV, HTV and OSN. It events are held in some of Asia’s most vibrant cities including Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Yangon, Macau and Taipei.
“One Championship is about being truly Asia, creating heroes and reflecting the culture,” Cui said.
That focus on culture is reflected in the titles of ONE Championship events. Instead of simply being fixtures on the calendar, each has a title which evokes Asian aspiration and legend and which, says Cui, reflects the specific identity of each host city and venue.
Upcoming events include ‘Unstoppable Dreams’ in Singapore, ‘Battle for the Heavens’ in Shanghai and ‘Spirit of a Warrior’ in Yangon, Myanmar.
“In every city we do a new and distinct marketing campaign. That way each event is unique,” Cui said.
That approach to keeping it fresh pays off at the box office but the determination to create a local flavour is also evident in the launch, in April, of the ONE Championship Super Series.
“The premise of ONE Championship, from our foundation, is that we are a media company and our business model is the same as those of others. We produce world-class media content which is relevant locally and globally.
“If you are a sport which [doesn’t lend itself to that] you won’t do very well. There are some sports which have great events but which just don’t have the same [media] value. Our role is to tell great stories and create great heroes.”
Promoting those ‘heroes’ and the abiding philosophy behind ONE Championship is central to its brand identity and, Cui clearly believes, creates a clear point of difference between it and its rivals on the global stage.
“I believe in the power of martial arts to make the world a better place. At a time of where there is war and terrorism and racism you realise that in martial arts it doesn’t matter about your religion of race. You compete as equals, trying to be better all the time.
“I think the litmus tests for ONE Championship is the heroes we create. I want my seven-year-old son to be able to put a poster of his hero up in his room. I have a responsibility to build heroes that people can look up to.
“That’s not always the case in other events but our fighters are both very tough and very humble men who are an inspiration to others.”
Today ONE Championship has around 400 fighters contracted and, says Cui, there’s no end in sight to the talent supply.
“The fact is that the pipeline is in good shape because if you do any martial art you can compete in ONE Championship,” he said.
Another reason for confidence in the future is the property’s remarkable levels of social media engagement which, according to Cui, make it the ‘most-engaged’ brand not simply in Asian sport but across all industry sectors based on impressions and video views.
“In 2014 we achieved 312,000 video views and in 2017 the number had risen to 2.5 billion. If we maintain current rates we will be on track to hit 4 billion by the end of this year,” he explains. “In Asia you can watch ONE Championship content on any day on digital media or TV and an indication of the level of interest we achieved is shown by the 90-per-cent penetration we achieve for TV coverage in Myanmar.”
So, what does the future hold?
“In the next three years we will grow to have 52 events which means we will have live sport every week of the entire year, something which no other sport does.
“That will be done by looking at tier three and four cities in China which have massive populations and of course we have not yet been to India, which is an opportunity which awaits.
“Elsewhere around the world there are cities which want us to be there so really, we see this as an opportunity to be one of the biggest sports properties in the world. To an extent we have, so far, only been scratching the surface and we plan to expand in China and the rest of the world while we focus on delivering for our partners and our fans.”
Victor Cui will be a keynote speaker at the Sportel Summit in Miami on May 15.