How ONE Championship leverages on the power of tech and Asia’s cultural heritage

CHATRI SITYODTONG’S had his fair share of ups-and-downs—when the Asian financial crisis hit Southeast Asia, his family became homeless and his bankrupt father left Sityodtong to care for his mother and brother. 

Now, six years after he first started his TMT business, ONE Championship has built a name for itself as the go-to distributor for Asian martial arts content, challenging UFC’s chokehold on the industry from the East. Today, as Sityodtong tells it, ONE Championship and UFC split the world between them in the world of televised combat.

Chatri Sityodtong, CEO and founder of ONE Championship. Source: ONE Championship

“People didn’t understand us for the longest time—people thought we were a sports company or an event company,” he said to Tech Wire Asia in an interview. 

“They didn’t understand that this was very much in the technology, media and telcom (TMT) sector. Digital content is going to be coming in a massive wave, and it’s already starting.”

Sityodtong became aware that the world of sports media was changing, and saw an opportunity to capitalize on what he calls “Asia’s greatest cultural treasure”, that is martial arts. Unlike other sports where talent is fairly spread out geographically, Asia is home to some of the best martial artists in the world. The cultural currency of martial arts is particularly stacked in Asia’s favor, with some of the biggest celebrities from the region being involved in martial arts in some way or the other: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen, to name a few.

However, something else was also changing: the media and broadcast industries were beginning to see their dominance of audiences and eyeballs challenged by on-demand content distributors, such as Netflix and iflix. As audiences all across Asia became increasingly young and technology adoption sped up all over the region, way users consume media began to change as well.

“What we’re going to see in the future, especially with the transactional websites like Amazon, Lazada—they’re going to move more towards content and community instead of being just purely transactional,” Sityodtong said.

The convergence of changing media consumption habits and the transformation of distribution channels helped soften the ground for the appearance of ONE Championship, which has married Sityodtong’s deep love for martial arts with an aggressive, ubiquitous distribution strategy to achieve media gold.

ONE Championship has become the largest sports media property companies in Asia, regularly organizing some of the biggest live showcases of mixed martial arts in the world in major cities all across Asia. The Singapore-based company streams their shows through free-to-air and pay-TV channels, as well as through their OTT platform and mobile app, which has helped build the company’s reputation all across Asia’s increasingly mobile audiences.

Their influence isn’t tied only to digital devices: the company is partnered with sports giants FOX and STAR for a 10-year cable television deal. Though many in Asia’s older demographics still watch sports on traditional screens, Sityodtong credits their strategy to distribute their content everywhere as the key totheir success.

Source: ONE Championship

Social media is a central pillar of their distribution strategy: Facebook has driven some of their biggest numbers. Their Facebook videos have grown from 312,000 unique views in 2014 to a staggering 600 million today. Sityodtong expects that number to hit 1 billion by year’s end.

“Those numbers happen because we’re putting that content out everywhere,” he said. His strategy is both catering to changing audience engagement, while simultaneously influencing the sports media industry, which has been a highly time-sensitive one.

Prior to the last five years, media and broadcast companies dictated consumption habits of their viewers; today, viewers are doing that. ONE Championship circumvents some of that by producing and owning their own content, as well as partnering up with promoters, gyms and fighters to form a cohesive network striding the breadth of Asia under a single platform and brand.

“We’re completely integrated down from our events to our distribution.”

However, Sityodtong also sees the cultural roots and treasures of Asia as one of the defining assets that has driven the company’s success. Unlike UFC which traffics on violence, overwrought drama and “nasty, negative” action, Sityodtong’s vision for ONE has remained focused on highlighting the region’s martial art cultures which are steeped in Asian values such as dignity, honor, courage and kindness.

ONE Championship, unlike its rival UFC, does not rely on ‘nasty, negative’ drama to drive its popularity, but rather showcases strong Asian values of sportsmanship, courage, and kindness, says Sityodtong. Source: ONE Championship.

Sityodtong himself practised martial arts for 30 years, and has an implicit understanding of the power of martial arts to teach good values as well as the irresistible power of a deeply felt connection to narratives of empowerment and the weight of a cultural heritage.

“Our mission at ONE Championship is that we want to unleash real life superheroes who ignite courage, strength, dreams and hope across all of Asia.”

For him, Manny Pacquiao represents the perfect example of these “superheroes”, who grew up on the streets of Manila and eventually rose to become a ten-time world champion, and today, a Filipino senator.

“It’s bigger than boxing—they’re watching because he’s their hero, through his life story of going from poverty to a ten-time world champion, he’s put the Philippines on the global stage. He inspires you, it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, rich, or middle class, you’re inspired by it by his own life.”

Sityodtong dreams of creating the biggest Asian sports media property, comparable to Western counterparts. Source: ONE Championship

Sityodtong capitalized on the uniqueness of each athlete’s amazing life stories in order to lock in their audiences, and their recent success is proof of the viability of their business. Last week, a year since the company claimed Temasek as one of their investors, one of the biggest names in technology investing Sequioa Capital came onboard with Mission Holdings. As a result, the company has raised US$100 million to be used to expand the business’s base.

ONE Championship will be looking to expand into Tokyo and Seoul, where it has not had a live event, as well as push more shows in China. According to the Straits Times, there are hopes to stage 30 shows in 2018, as well as increasing his staff headcount and pinning down prized fighters, such as Ben Askren, Shinya Aoki and Angela Lee.

“From day one, when I started ONE Championship, I had a very simple thesis: every country has these multi-billion dollar sports media properties,” he said.

“Asia has nothing to call its own. I really believe that ONE Championship can unite 4.4 billion people around the world under one sports platform, so that Asia can have its first multi-billion dollar sports property.”