Despite its roots in the region, and despite its success so far, promoters argue that MMA in Asia is still in its infancy. Most Asian countries have yet to truly experience world-class MMA events, a fact both of the major competitors are doing their best to change.
One FC’s most recent event, Kings & Champions on 5 April, attracted more than 12,000 fans in Singapore, demonstrating a continued increase of audience, compared with 9,000 in 2011 and 10,000 in 2012, according to the company.
“Television exposure plays a large part in driving the growth,” said Victor Cui, CEO of One FC. “We have a 10-year television deal with Star Sports, the largest sports channel in Asia, which enables us to have a television reach of over 600 million viewers. Having exposure to the mass public has transformed this sport from something that is very niche to a sport that the mainstream audience can enjoy.”
Meanwhile, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a global player that came to Asia in 2007 through a buyout of Japan's Pride FC, has been looking at Asia for expansion in the past few years, especially China and Indonesia. UFC currently reaches more than 350 million TV households in Asia, including China, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea. Its localised web and mobile sites in China, Japan and South Korea reach more than 700 million consumers, according to the company.
Mark Fischer, executive vice president and managing director of UFC Asia, agreed. “The rising tide of popularity and participation in MMA lifts all boats involved in the sport," he said. "The regional organisations are helping to grow the sport by providing platforms for local fighters to enter the profession and hone their skills, building interest and audiences for the sport in Asia."
According to Ipsos in its AsiaBus study in February 2013, awareness of UFC in South Korea and the Philippines is around 75 per cent, and the sport's fan base has doubled over the past two years both in urban China (16 per cent) and Indonesia (21 per cent).
“MMA is new to most of Asia, which has taken a keen interest because it’s an excellent sport of intense passion and fun, providing a healthy lifestyle and also a way to learn authentic self-defense,” said Chatri Sityodtong, founder of Singapore-based Evolve MMA, a martial arts academy. “It combines the incredible technical skills of the Olympics, the rich history and tradition of martial arts, blended with the adrenaline of a prize fight and the theatricals of a rock concert.”
While focusing on bringing the top Asian fighters together, One FC has attracted blue-chip sponsors such as Sony, Chervolet, Shick and Energizer, partly thanks to its effort to turn every fight into a show reminiscent of a Las Vegas extravaganza with pyrotechnics, flamboyant ring entrances and attractive 'ring girls'.
UFC works with brands through a 360-degree set of marketing assets, including, print, on-air, online advertising via its various forms of programming and social media, and on-ground with its growing series of events and grassroots initiatives across the region, according to the company.
Fischer indicated that UFC positions itself somewhat differently in Asia than it does in other parts of the world. “In Asia, we focus on educating our audiences on positive aspects of the sport including fighter safety and Asian values such as discipline and humility,” he said. “We also focus on the growing number of fighters from Asia, and emphasise the fact that Asia is the birthplace of traditional martial arts such as sanda, taekwondo, judo, muay thai and so on.”