ONE FC chief Victor Cui on taking MMA to China

16 December 2014 | Posted in Quick-Fire Questions | By Michael Long | Contact the author

ONE FC chief Victor Cui on taking MMA to China

The ONE Fighting Championship debuts in Beijing on Friday, marking the first time a major MMA promotion has staged an event in China. Ahead of the event, a precursor to ten further Chinese fight cards next year, SportsPro caught up with ONE FC chief executive Victor Cui to discuss the promotion’s continued growth, the appetite for MMA in Asia, and the opportunities associated with the world’s most populous nation.

Given China’s long-established martial arts heritage, why has it taken until now for a major MMA promotion to enter the country?

I think one thing, whether it’s China or any Asian country or actually any country in the world, every market has its uniqueness. You know, no different than me having to understand the European market or the UK market, if I were to go there. Every country has its unique challenges and that takes time and you’ve got to make sure that you approach it properly. I couldn’t speak for all the other global promotions that have failed to go into China, but I can really talk about what our success has been to lead us to there, which is really that our headquarters are here – we’re Asian-based. We live, breathe, understand every aspect of Asia. Next year we’re holding 24 events across Asia, so we understand and have relationships that run deep in this market.

You’re staging ten events in China next year, which is some commitment given it’s nearly half your schedule. What research did you do to gauge the appetite for MMA before deciding to enter the market?

In terms of the appetite in Asia, we’re still at the early stages of the growth of MMA, which makes the potential huge. Obviously the population base in China being the home of martial arts, the birthplace of kung-fu and all of that stuff. The thing about MMA in China is we don’t have to explain it to anybody. It’s not like we’re bringing cricket or American football to China where there is zero cultural relevance and they’ve never even seen the sport. When we bring martial arts there, everybody is one degree of separation from someone that does martial arts, whether they did it themselves or cousins or brothers or uncles or sisters, you know. Everybody lives, breathes and understands martial arts. When you turn on the television and you’re watching a soap opera and two people break out into a fight, they’re going to break out into a martial arts fight.

"The thing about MMA in China is we don’t have to explain it to anybody. It’s not like we’re bringing cricket or American football."

What difficulties have you faced entering China and how do they differ to other markets in which you operate?

China is very different in terms of the scale. You’ve got other unique things that, for example, the rest of Southeast Asia doesn’t have to deal with, like the cold and the weather. We’re used to holding our events in places that are always 30 degrees and above. Now we’re heading to Beijing and it’s the middle of the winter - that is a minor adjustment. It’s the little things like that all the way to the fact that to do ten successful events in China it means you’ve got to plan that entire year at one go and decide what is the logical tour that it can go through. But it’s actually not that different to how you would plan a Disney On Ice tour through North America. You have the advantage of being able to go by land transport; for us, that’ll be a first. When we’ve gone from Singapore to Indonesia, or from Singapore to Philippines, we’ve had to ship everything. So actually it’s just another aspect of a business where some things are easier and some things are a little bit more difficult. I think one of the great things about China is that, I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years and done business in the region, I was part of the first ESPN team that brought the X Games up to China for the first time, so I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege of having the experience of understanding what its like being an international event coming to China for the first time and the challenges that it poses. I’ve had that learning experience through my previous jobs, so it’s really gone a long way to help us. But when you look across China, most people don’t realise how big their cities are. You’re talking about going to a tier-two city that no one has ever heard of outside of Asia and its still going to be seven million, ten million people.

"Everybody lives, breathes and understands martial arts" in Asia, according to Cui.

What has the reception been like within those cities as you’ve been promoting Friday’s event through activities on the ground?

It’s been fantastic. The media support has been phenomenal. One of the things that Asia has really been missing, and that China has really been missing, is heroes, sports heroes. There are so few Asian sport heroes – forget China – there are just so few Asian heroes across any sport. Yet, in mixed martial arts, you’re going to legitimately see the next world champion coming out of Asia, because when you look at it and say to somebody ‘hey, the next Bruce Lee is coming out of China’, well jeez that makes perfect sense, you know. No one is saying ‘hey, let’s look out for the next Bruce Lee in Australia’. I think the opportunity for China to showcase itself in martial arts, which is an integral part of the culture as it is for almost every Asian country, is really exciting. For example, we currently have a champion from Mongolia; this is the first world champion that Mongolia has ever produced. It’s phenomenal news because this guy went from orphan to world champion and fighting in Mongolia is one of the major criteria that defines you as a man.

I’m not too familiar with Mongolian culture but I can imagine that is the case.

You know, in Mongolia they say that to become a man, you have to be good at three things. You have to be good at archery, horse riding and fighting.

"The opportunity for China to showcase itself in martial arts, which is an integral part of the culture as it is for almost every Asian country, is really exciting."

What are the commercial benefits for the ONE Fighting Championship? Adding China to your footprint must provide huge commercial opportunities for you and your partners.

If you look at ONE FC, we are Asia’s largest sports media company, by far. As a regional property based in Asia we have a 90 per cent market share and there is no sport in Asia, as a regional business, that is bigger than us. Every single one of our events is broadcast to 70 countries, about a billion viewers worldwide. We are the only regional sports property in Asia holding 24 events next year. We’ve held more events across the region than any other organisation – at the end of this year we will have held 11. So we are by far the largest sports media company and that has given us a lot of opportunities with partners. There are many blue-chip partners that have come on board with us. Facebook is one of our sponsors; we are the first Asian sports property for Facebook ever to partner with. We are partnered with Disney and we are launching the two biggest movie titles I would say in the history of movies next year with Disney, which is Avengers and Star Wars. You’ll be seeing us partner with them across every single country that we go to. We just launched a partnership with Spotify, the online music provider, so that fans can listen to the types of music that our world champions listen to when they work out, or they can relive the fight night by listening to all the walk-in songs from the all fighters. Some of the biggest brands in the world are partnering with us because of what we’re doing across the region, not just what we’re doing in China.

Cui believes ONE FC can make sporting heroes out of its fighters, like Mongolia's Jadamba Narantungalag.

Your entry into China has come about through a partnership with IMC Live. What does that partnership involve and how important is it to have a promoter with local expertise?

IMC Live, I’ve known them for several years actually. They are Asia’s largest regional concert promoter. You’ll see other concert promoters and entertainment festival promoters that are big on a country-by-country basis, but IMC is similar to us in that they are the largest regional player. They have offices in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, so they’re in every major city across the region. They are also the largest entertainment company in China that has brought in foreign acts. I make that distinction because bringing foreign talent into China is controlled, regulated by the government. If an artist comes into the country they have to submit, for approval, in advance their playlist, as an example, all the way to their encore – that has got to be pre-approved. So when Elton John or Beyonce or Lady Gaga or whoever else comes, there is a different process as opposed to promoting a Chinese singer within China. But IMC is the leading expert in that. They’ve got fantastic relationships in the Ministry of Culture, bringing in international acts, and they’re a great partner for us because it means our relationship is with the biggest government department in China - after the political department, of course. The Ministry of Culture controls everything from movies to entertainment, concerts, television, radio, everything. Working with them and being able to bring martial arts and a world class event to ten different cities across China is a huge thing, for China as well as us as a sport. Because most people all they ever know of China is Beijing – that is probably the only city they could name, and maybe Shanghai.

"Some of the biggest brands in the world are partnering with us because of what we’re doing across the region, not just what we’re doing in China."

Are you already hopeful of staging more events in China in 2016 or is your focus simply to grow the size and scale of the initial ten?

A little bit of both. I think we could quite easily be doing 15 to 20 events in China a year, quite comfortably. And I think at this point what we want to do is make sure our partners are happy, that the government is happy. But there is no shortage of athletes and fighters in China, and there is no shortage of fans that we can bring into the sport.

How would you assess the success of 2014 for the ONE FC?

It’s been a phenomenal year for ONE FC, an exciting year, but there is a lot of growth still ahead. In a few years, in two to three years, I want to be looking at holding a ONE FC event live every Friday of the entire year, being able to deliver a live ONE FC event every Friday to fans right across Asia so that they just know: Friday is fight night, that’s ONE FC. It’s sometimes difficult for my friends and colleagues in Europe or North America to truly understand the scale of our business and what we’re doing out here. To summarise two things about the year and where we’re going and the sport and the industry: one is, in Asia we’ve got two billion people on one time zone. Two billion on one time zone. And we are the only sport that is natural and intuitive to Asians. Everyone in Asia has been doing martial arts for the last 5,000 years, so we’re going to be able to, country-by-country, create and bring opportunities to make these local heroes in the sport. That sounds kind of like an obvious thing but in Asia it’s been virtually non-existent. Every other developed nation, in Europe or North America or Brazil, the sport has national heroes or even local heroes that everybody cheers for and follows. But that’s a rarity in Asia.

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