Features

One Championship’s Chatri Sityodtong: ‘Brands and agencies still don’t get us – but they will’

The self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneur, CEO and founder of Asia’s biggest martial arts franchise talks to Eleanor Dickinson about One Championship's 2018 expansion, erasing its 'blood sport' perception and his own personal legacy

Chatri Sityodtong has the kind of personal history that was just made for a business leader in the era of social media.

His story of his family’s financial collapse, hardship and eventual degree from Harvard Business School makes for the perfect rags-to-riches tale that many of his 28,000 LinkedIn followers are no doubt familiar with.

Today, at 47, Sityodtong has few of those worries that dogged him during his youth. As multi-millionaire with several start-ups behind him, he is now the founder and chief executive officer of One Championship, a mixed-martial arts competition that is claimed to be Asia’s biggest sports brand.

Although the idea of martial arts as a major sports player may raise eyebrows from some, it’s hard to argue with One Championship’s numbers: the company has more than six million fans on Facebook and is broadcast in 136 countries across the globe. In Asia, between 150 and 800 hours of One Championship’s fights are broadcast on television per year.

Yet there is much work to be done for the sport still. Its hard to imagine the words ‘mixed martial arts’ without the images of violence, aggression and in some cases downright barbarism.

Here, Sityodtong explains the company’s uphill task of repositioning martial arts to brands, agencies and the rest of the world and drops a few hints as to what can be expected from One Championship in 2018.

You’re a billion-dollar company today, so it can be assumed you must have a pretty high market budget. Can you tell me how much it’s worth?

“Our marketing budget is growing triple-digits every year. On a global level, I’ll say it’s in the eight-figure US dollar range, but likely to cross the nine figure range very soon. It’s pretty significant. The majority of this is spent in Asia though; we’re very focused on this market because there are 4.2 billion people here and it is our core market.”

In terms of marketing, what areas are you looking to invest more heavily in this year?

“So China has been a big effort for us over the last 12 months and in 2018 it’s still going to be massive. Also Japan and Korea are new markets we’re entering. That would basically give us the entire footprint of Asia. We’re six years old, and for the first few years we primarily focused on South East Asia and then we added China, and now it’s Japan and Korea, so it is the entire region.”

Does the sport mixed-martial arts or MMA have a bit of an image problem because of its associations with brutal violence?

“I don’t use the word MMA. That’s a word coined by the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). We’re Martial Arts; it may not seem to the outside world, but it’s different. MMA is a Western concept that’s more about blood sports and violence. Martial arts has a 5,000-year history in Asia and it denote humility, integrity and discipline. It’s the warrior lifestyle of honour and respect.

“Our Western counterparts have used violence, disrespect and hatred to sell pay-per-view. They are 180-degree opposed to what One Championship is about. Our heroes should be that when kids put posters up in their bedrooms, their parents fully embrace it. The Western version is missing the point about martial arts: it’s about values, not just kicking and punching. And it is very frustrating for me because I do feel people do not understand it. I want to use this platform to fight injustices and to show everyone is respected regardless of race or sex. That’s why I named it One Championship; because we are one.”

You were originally named ONE Fighting Championship. Was the name change an effort to distance yourself from UFC and that violent image?

“When we first started, every martial arts competition in the world had the word ‘fighting’ in their name, so we just did it. But then we realised we are totally different. It’s the difference between pasta in Italy and pad Thai in Thailand – they’re noodles, but they are not the same thing. So we really tried to distance ourselves from UFC, because that’s not something the world can embrace fully.”

As you mentioned there are a lot of martial arts competitions. How were you able to grow to the size you are, and gain that critical mass, in such a relatively short space of time?

“I think what was important was that we created heroes, who billions of people in Asia could look up to and every country could rally behind. That really ignited our social media metrics. Three years ago, our annual video views were 312,000. In December just gone, we crossed 2.3 billion video views. This year we’re likely to cross 20 billion. This makes us the fastest-growing media property in the world – in history.”

You don’t think Facebook’s recent change of its news feed algorithm will affect your reach?

“No I believe our content is platform-agnostic. We’re on free-to-air TV, paid TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.  We’re also on Tencent in China. In digital, we are launching our own mobile app in a few months – around May. So the idea is that you’ll be able to interact with our content 24/7, across any platform. We’re not on any of the streaming channels because we want to launch this app. I can’t say much more at this stage, but it will be awesome.”

How are you funding and monetising the app?

“Right now we have a big balance sheet and a lot of investor groups, including Temasek and Sequoia. Every sports property has two areas: reach and monetisation. For me, I’m more focused on reach and engagement. How often and how deep are people interacting. We’re shown 150 hours per year in Singapore, which is our lowest market. Elsewhere in Asia we’re shown between 300 to even 800 hours a year.

“My job for the next three years is to scale and increase our distribution even more. And my job is to help brands engage with Asian culture. Do they want to spend with Western properties like F1 that do not resonate with the values of Asia? Those are just imports. Are people in Asia going to feel more affinity to Lewis Hamilton or the national martial arts champion in Thailand? People connect to the ‘hometown hero’ and I think that’s what One Championship struck a chord with.

“But it’s something I don’t think media agencies and brands understand that, but they will because we’re growing so fast. I have had conversations CEO-to-CEO with Nick Waters of Dentsu Aegis, who has really embraced us. Omnicom’s Cheuk Chiang has too; Himanshu Shekar at Mindshare. It’s top of the minds for the CEOs, but it has to trickle through the organisation. The leaders of these agencies get it, but the rest of the organisations have to catch-up. We’re well-known in pockets and with fans, but not with chief marketing officers and managers. But they will see our reach and our values.”

You’ve frequently mentioned the word ‘hero’ and in many sports public figures like Lewis Hamilton and Manny Pacquiao are very well-known to people who are not necessarily fans of that sport. Does One Championship lack that?

“In Asia no. For example, Angela Lee has become a household name in many countries. Globally, not yet, but bearing in mind we’re only six years old. F1 has been around since 1960 and our metric are already bigger than theirs. But F1 we know Lewis Hamilton; who else do we know though? I don’t know anyone. How many players in the NFL do you know? Every global sporting property has that challenge, but usually they do very well at the local level. NFL has a marketplace value of US$ 75 billion. That just shows you how big sports is and what is the opportunity for One Championship. We have 4.4 billion people in Asia: half of those are in China and India. We’re already in China and we will start broadcasting in India this year.”

Out of this population though, at least half your market are female. Do many women watch your shows?

“We did a study with Nielsen of our fans and it came out to be two-thirds male and 80 per cent millennial. Fifty per cent single. It’s a healthy split between male and female. We have the most-coveted market. And I think that’s because our content is very mobile-friendly: matches are over in minutes. It’s exciting short-form content, which explains our high metrics.”

Sityodtong: ‘People connect to the ‘hometown hero’ and I think that’s what One Championship struck a chord with’

You yourself are quite active on social media, especially on LinkedIn. Is personal branding and thought leadership important to you? How important is your personal history in crafting that image?

“I feel full of gratitude and a fire in my belly to do something good. My life in poverty gave me the compassion to do something with my life. I feel deeply about my role and responsibility. Because I’m one of the lucky ones to have escaped poverty and I’m the CEO of Asia’s largest media company, I want the heroes that I market and put out there to change lives. My time, resources and money is dedicated to that.

“For me to echo my voice is because I know many people out there who achieve my level of success will go out and buy themselves 10 Ferraris; 10 houses. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But having had the blessing of both poverty and wealth, I want to use my time on earth to help the world. We recently signed a deal with Global Citizen, the world’s largest NGO dedicated to alleviating extreme poverty. So it’s more than just talk. My thoughts, words and actions are all aligned. Whether you’re poor, disadvantaged or ill-treated, I want to help.”

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