While its last live event in Singapore attracted more than 80 million viewers worldwide, One Championship, the Asian martial arts media and promotion company, has found itself working at warp speed to find new ways to grow its business and strengthen its brand at a time of sweeping lockdowns and empty arenas. Despite these harsh times, the company, founded by Chatri Sityodtong, who is both a seasoned martial artist and a Harvard Business School alum, is seeing strong brand interest for its business, even as it firms up new ways to extend itself into reality TV and esports.
One Championship's leaders are thinking ahead and planning to rapidly build out new initiatives, such as an esports business with Dentsu and a new Asian collaboration of The Apprentice, the long-running reality-TV show that once starred US president Donald Trump. The company is counting on this property to help diversify its revenue base and keep marketers and brands hooked.
Just how experimental will One Championship's Asian version of the show be? "The Apprentice: One Championship Edition is a completely revamped, fresh, and original version," Sityodtong told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Other than the name The Apprentice and the US$250,000 job offer at the end, there will be nothing else similar to the older versions [and] we are bringing in One Championship IP and World Champions into the show."
Executives stress that even with its Asian ethos, this isn't a show just for the region. The programme will have the widest global distribution in the history of the show, Sityodtong boasts, because it will leverage One's existing global broadcast footprint of 150 countries.
The show will see 12 world champions from the ring compete in no contact, athletic challenges against 16 new contestants. There will be business challenges for the 16 contestants too, but with a twist on both esports and martial arts. A dozen CEOs will join as guest judges to help select the final winner. The promotion recently signed up Ankiti Bose, the founder of Asian fashion venture Zilingo, as a judge.
"We are Asia's only global sports media property, and 80% of our audience are millennials," Hua Fung Teh group president of One Championship, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "We were born in the mobile and digital age and are building out a business to provide snackable, bite-sized content to our audience.
Rather than devise a strategy to focus purely on hardcore fans of either sports or physical contact martial arts, he asserts that One Championship has built a broader base of fans since its inception. "We wanted something that had global appeal with strong brand awareness, but we wanted to do a complete refresh that would surprise and delight audiences around the world," Sityodtong adds. "The Apprentice will be edgy, young, hip, cool, and original."
Over the past few years, One Championship has grown rapidly, and in terms of sheer numbers rivals older and more storied sports leagues. Teh points to recent data suggesting that One Championship is among the top four sports properties viewed globally. In the past five years, average audience size has grown from hundreds of thousands of people to an average of 30 million per event in 2019.
The live-event strategy was sound until the end of last year. And then the pandemic upended it. Now, One Championship has had to find new ways to stay relevant. While Teh wants to have an audience of 100 million for each of the company's events in two years—which would match or exceed marquee events like the Super Bowl—his more immediate concern is growing non-live initiatives, especially those done with brands.
Can the $1 billion-valued One Championship build a worthy Asia-based rival to American mixed-martial arts (MMA)? It is trying to nurture a cleaner image for itself compared to MMA, focusing less on out-and-out brawling and more on thousands of years of martial arts history in the region and respect among contestants. Meanwhile it already stands distinct from the various 'pro wrestling' outfits, such as WWE, which have seen falling ratings and have been dogged by claims of drug misuse. Wrestling entertainment seems far less popular now with young people, compared to the days when Donald Trump could join in with oddball antics and fisticuffs, to the delight of mass audiences.
Teh says One Championship has built a strong, fresh offering for its core audience. On this front, One Championship has announced a series of tie-ups and says brands are lining up to do more work, not less, with his company. "People are at home and stuck to their screen and want more fresh content," he adds. "Our brand partners want us to do more at this time in the form of highlights, interviews, podcasts and workout series with fighters, and flex our archived content too."
As brands have looked for new ways to reach their home-bound audience, businesses such as One Championship offer a ready platform to them, says Teh. One Championship has worked with a wide assortment of international brands including Xiaomi, Grab, Tumi, HP, Shiseido and Kleenex, as well as local ones such as Red Horse, a beer label of San Miguel in The Philippines.
The odds of One Championship being fighting fit are, however, likely reliant on the business eventually returning to the ring. Already, Teh says the company is looking to return to live events in China and believes live events will return sooner than people anticipate. "Despite the pandemic, we yet think there is an untapped opportunity to truly market martial arts to Asia and the rest of the world," he adds. "Our audience therefore is mainstream entertainment-seekers, not niche, hardcore sports fans."