SINGAPORE - The Ultimate Fighting Championship will eventually come to major Asian markets such as South Korea and the Philippines but the immediate target is the hubs of Macau and Singapore, the UFC's Mark Fischer has told Reuters.
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told Reuters in November that the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion wanted to "test the waters" by targeting the two business and travel hubs as part of its global expansion plans.
|Vitor Belfort of Brazil (L) fights with Anthony Johnson of the U.S. during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Rio, a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, in Rio de Janeiro in this January 14, 2012 file photo. The Ultimate Fighting Championship will eventually come to major Asian markets such as South Korea and the Philippines but the immediate target is the hubs of Macau and Singapore, the UFC's Mark Fischer has told Reuters. Photo by Ricardo Moraes, Reuters.
Japan has long been the region's home for MMA but Fischer, the UFC's managing director in Asia, confirmed they were still focused on building a bridgehead into China and Southeast Asia.
"We're in pretty detailed discussions about Macau for this year, though we're not at a point where he can make a formal announcement," Fischer told Reuters in a recent interview.
"It's very exciting for us because it's right on China's doorstep and that's a market we want to grow and build long term."
Macau, a special administrative region of China, makes the bulk of its revenues from the casino industry. Gaming revenue in the former Portuguese colony reached $33.5 billion last year.
Fischer said Singapore was also on the UFC's radar.
"We're here in Singapore on a fact-finding mission to see the plausibility of making something happen here next year."
Fischer said the diversity of social, economic and cultural conditions in Asia meant the UFC had to be careful about where to stage events.
The UFC returned to Asia for the first time in 12 years in February with a sold out event in Japan and Fischer said finding a location that ticked all the boxes was not easy.
"Venues are important, we can't go somewhere without a big enough, or modern enough, venue," added Fischer, who spent 12 years helping build the NBA's presence in Asia before joining the UFC
"Secondly, we have to look at the current commercial conditions. Is the fan base and economic base big enough to sell enough tickets at a good rate, and generate the broadcast and sponsorship partnerships to make it worthwhile today?
"And the third factor is the future business potential of that market. If the market is not big enough today will it be tomorrow if we use an event to seed the market?
"Places like Singapore and Macau are unique because they're destinations, they're hubs and people from all over Asia come. They're relatively small markets, but wealthy and a lot of influential people come to these hubs, and we hope they would go back to bigger markets and spread the word about the UFC."
Challenges and changes
While both South Korea and the Philippines were attractive markets and had been touted as possible locations for the next UFC event in Asia, Fischer said there were obstacles.
"The thing we are concerned about with Korea today is the venues. They are building some new ones I understand, but a lot of the venues are older and we're not sure they would be adequate for a large-scale UFC event.
"The second issue is that the audience is accustomed to big sponsors subsidising events and making sure a lot of people come, so ticket prices have never been that high.
"So we are a bit concerned about the economics of bringing a UFC event there because of that."
Fischer also said the Philippines was "a great market with a strong fight culture, excellent broadcast coverage and a very passionate fan base".
"We would look very seriously about bringing something to the Philippines when the time is right ...
"We'd like to get to a point where we have a full schedule in Asia but obviously we have to pick our battles one by one."
While Asia has a strong tradition in martial arts, the UFC has had to work hard to raise the profile of MMA.
"Out here we're still quite new. We still have our hardcore fans but it's a relatively small group compared to strongholds like the United States, Australia and Brazil.
"We have to do a lot of education to explain to people in Asia exactly what MMA is, which I didn't need to do with the NBA. Everybody knew what basketball was, its been here 100 years, it's in every school. This is a lot newer."
In his 18 months as the UFC's pointman in Asia, Fischer said the MMA landscape had changed significantly. In addition to MMA gyms springing up across the region, new promotions such as ONE Fighting Championship proved how quickly the sport's popularity was growing.
Fischer came away impressed by the Singapore-based ONE FC's recent "War of the Lions" event, which sold all 8,000 tickets on offer and featured the debut of the city-state's first female MMA fighter.
"It was a very good event, very well run. The crowd was into it, and they sold out their configuration, which is very encouraging," he added.
"It looked like a cool crowd, the officiating was good, and though the fighters weren't at a UFC level they were competitive and it was a very entertaining event."
The UFC, which last year signed a seven-year deal with U.S. network FOX worth a reported $100 million per year, had also broadened and strengthened its television coverage in Asia in tandem with the growing interest in the sport, Fischer added.
"There's a lot of growth at grassroots level. The UFC have plans for more events in the region and I hope we'll soon be talking about new homegrown heroes, more fighters from Asia in the UFC."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)