Founder and CEO of Asia’s largest sports media property ONE Championship, Victor Cui, explains the company’s moves towards a potential IPO, industry firsts they’ve achieved, the power of a regional sport, building and maintaining engagement through various media channels and the Singapore government’s investment in the business.
How do you feel about the growth you’ve experienced as you’re coming up on ONE Championship’s 6th anniversary?
I’ve been very lucky. It’s an interesting story for sports in Asia that we’ve exploded and we’re the largest sport property in Asia now by every major metric that you can think about, in terms of regional. There’s no sport property that has a larger global broadcast than us. A billion viewers in 18 countries, we’re holding the most events across Asia, we’re in the biggest stadiums, we have the biggest fan base on social media. So by all these major metrics we continue to exponentially grow and I think that it’s a combination of – we have a fantastic team of people in the company but also that it’s a sport that we’re building local heroes in. And in most sports, actually in almost every other sport, it’s very difficult for Asians to be the best in the world.
But one infrastructure that has existed for 5,000 years and continues to exist very strongly is in Martial Arts. There’s very clear processes for when you are a baby, a five year old kid, until you want to go to the national team, to professional – that whole infrastructure is there in martial arts.
So that’s why, when you added the pro level – which is what ONE Championship is – if you look at the pyramid of a sport, of the grass roots as you improve, improve, improve to get to the elite level, ONE Championship is the epitome of a martial artist’s career.
Are you worried that you could reach a saturation point?
I think we’re just at the very early stages. We’ve grown fast but we’re still scratching the surface. We’ve got 4.1 billion people here in Asia and that’s a lot of fans to make. We have 2 billion people in one single time zone in Asia. If you think about America, it has six time zones in one country. In one country!
We have 2 billion people in one time zone! So when we’re broadcast live on a Friday night here, we’re the only sport across Asia broadcast live because every other sport that’s from the West is on the Western time zone.
What about the Western audience that’s already been consuming MMA through other formats – are you targeting them specifically also or more focused on the Asia market?
We’re definitely focused first on Asia. We get a lot of interest from all around the world for ONE Championship to expand there, everywhere from Russia, Kazakhstan, to Turkey and Brazil and Canada. But right now our focus is here. We’re Asian based, we’ve got Asian heroes, top Asian athletes working with us. We were here in Macau last year and just really focused on continuing to build those Asian heroes. There’s a lot of opportunities.
How difficult was it to arrange something in Macau?
Doing business in Asia is different country to country and it all has its individual challenges. One great thing about doing business in Macau is that there’s a lot of experience with working with international brands and international properties coming here. So it’s not a new thing, as opposed to when you go to Myanmar. We’re the first and only international sport property that’s broadcast live out of Myanmar. When we were there we were the first event in something like 15 years that was broadcast live out of there. So that’s a whole different set of challenges.
Macau is set up for international businesses to come and to thrive and to succeed and the infrastructure is there. Now when you have great partners like Venetian, they’re experts at it, they know what to do.
So it’s definitely a little bit easier that way. I think one of the challenges in Macau is you’re focusing on an inbound tourist audience and the homegrown crowd is a little bit tougher, because they tend to be more mobile. As opposed to in Singapore, every event builds on each other because the fans that went from one event are going to come to the next event and they live there and they’re residents. There’s not a lot of people that make their home in Macau that you can turn into fans all the time.
Social media is a huge part of how ONE Championship promotes itself. You mentioned that when a ring girl streams the event she can get around 25,000 followers at any time. How big a part is the ‘entertainment’ and female presence in the social media direction?
I think our ring girls are just one little piece of it. The real focus is around our champions and most of the attention of our fan base really is around the legitimate heroes and world champions that we’ve got: Angela Lee or a story like Edward Folayang who’s had five siblings die and his parents can’t even read. And to come from that to a world champion, these are great stories.
The crazy thing is that those stories are actually commonplace in Asia with a lot of athletes. There’s hundreds of athletes in Thailand that are orphans that have become Muay Thai world champions. Hundreds of athletes in the Philippines that are orphans that become national champions – or Manny Pacquiao from selling on the street to multiple world champion.
So there are a lot of great stories like that in Asia that just have not been told before.
Your group uses ‘influencers’ – people with large social media followings, on Facebook and other social media sites – sponsors them to come to events and broadcast ringside. Do you pay them?
We don’t pay them. There’s people that accept payments, but they’re not the kind of people we want to work with. Because we see this as – it’s like when the President of the United States travels on Air Force One with the same journalist. And they just build a relationship – and it’s great for the journalist and it’s great for the President – and they have a trust and a relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
That’s how I look at it.
These guys every month are getting a free holiday for three days. Every month they get to travel to Manila, travel to Bali, they get to travel to Macau. And they spend two days seeing the sights and live streaming and doing all that kind of stuff and on fight night they’ll live stream for four hours at our event and it’s a win-win for everybody.
You have a lot of experience, in particular with media and promotions and you knew exactly what you were doing when you set this up. Was that live streaming concept a part of your initial idea when you were setting up ONE Championship? Because technology has come a way since then.
No, it was not. Six years ago even social media, and its dominance, was not where it is today. And the tools that you have on Facebook have completely changed. On Facebook now the majority of it is how do you stop the thumb because it’s all live streaming and all videos and video content.
We’ve just got an amazing team that understand digital-first concepts and that’s been the focus of my company. Also, a lot of our fans are primarily mobile-phone focused first for the content. So we make sure that that’s how we deliver it: to reach them.
Your company had an industry first in terms of the Temasek (fund) investment. Were you expecting that? How did that come about?
Well the Singapore government is very conservative in their investments. And they do an extreme amount of due diligence on any business that they want to do.
They’ve been watching us for a long time, since we started. Because we were Singapore based, obviously growing very fast. And I’m very fortunate that my chairman and my other board members are seasoned entrepreneurs and already multi-billionaires, and they’ve built the story time and time again – from scratch to IPO (initial public offering) – they’ve done it so they understand.
So ONE Championship from day one was actually built like a public company. Very, very transparent.
From our books being audited every year by Ernest & Young to every document that we have – it’s like a public company from day one already.
So it was very easy for a fund like Temasek to look at us and see what the business is and what’s going on. But we’d been approached by several funds throughout, and until today businesses continue to want to invest in us. Mostly – there’s not a lot of businesses in Asia that have [not only] this kind of gathering of financial backers, but [also the] leadership team and of the IP (interpersonal) side of it. There’s not a lot of businesses that have a multi-billion dollar payout at the end. A lot of businesses have a great US$50 million growth, or a US$100 million growth. But in the media business and sports we’re one of the few businesses – actually right now in Asia we’re the only sport that has the ability to be global. There’s no other sport in Asia that is applicable and appealing to the Asian audience that also people in America want to watch.
By partnering up with other strong brands like Marvel, what other opportunities did that bring about? Did they target you?
The reason why Marvel Comics and Disney are two of the most protected and greatest brands in the world is because they have some of the most innovative and greatest marketers. And with Marvel it was basically this – they looked at it and said: they’ve got these great brands: Thor, Deadpool, Avengers, Captain America, Ironman, Guardians of the Galaxy. But no one in Asia grew up reading those comic books. Nobody grew up in Asia reading Ironman, no one in Asia knows the story of Thor, it’s not what Asians grew up with.
So you have these heroes on the big screen and a very big disconnect between the big screen heroes and what the masses really know.
We are one of those bridges to heroes that they can understand and relate to [so they can see] how the hero in ONE Championship most closely represents the hero on a big screen. So you draw that emotional connection. Captain America versus Iron Man – we launched the movie for them – and so that was red versus blue. Iron Man is red, Captain America is blue. ‘Choose your side’ was the whole theme. So we ran the exact same campaign with us, in line with them. They would have a display in a shopping mall with ‘Choose your side’ so we’d have our athletes ‘choose your side’. Who do you want – red or blue? And then people make that emotional connection from their local hero to the big screen hero.
How difficult is it breaking into China – what limitations have there been so far?
We’ve opened two new offices in China – Beijing and Shanghai – and started hiring up there. China, like any other country, has its own unique challenges. I think what’s different in China is that the opportunity of the scale is obviously significantly different.
So we’ve held five events already in China, we’re looking to do another four or five this year in China again. And just really focus on building our fan base there and letting our international audience know that we’re on the hunt for the next heroes out of China.
You mentioned a US$1 billion valuation – are you thinking about an IPO?
It’s one of the directions, a possible outcome, that the Singapore government would like for us. For them to take a homegrown company to an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange at a multi-billion dollar valuation is the ultimate story for them. We’re still a few years away from that and I don’t know as a company exactly the timeline of what that would be, but let’s call it three years to four years or something like that if it makes sense for us. That’d be one direction to go.
Given how you mentioned earlier that you set up the company like a public company, how much preparation would you need for that IPO?
There are always institutional changes when you want to list at the highest levels. But we’re very fortunate that my board has already done that several times. What’s different about ONE Championship, is people always look at it and go ‘wow how could you grow so fast, what did you do?’ The thing is – most sports – 99.9 per cent of sports in Asia – were started by ex-sportsmen. I’m a swimmer, I’m gonna become the president of the swimming association. I’m a track and field athlete I’m going to become the president of the track and field, and then I’ll do a local track meet. Tennis, basketball, squash – you name it, that’s typically how it is.
ONE Championship was started by a group of businessmen and media experts that wanted to commercialize and bring the level of martial arts to a professional level for the first time in the history of Asia.
So we look at this from a business perspective of – how do we make great entertainment and great value for the fans, as opposed to if I was an ex-fighter or gym owner I might not have that business acumen or that business experience. We’re very lucky that our board and everybody can look at it from a 10,000 foot level, of what the opportunity for sports in Asia is. And I can look at it and say – what do we need to deliver to broadcasters, what do they need, what do partners need, where are the gaps in the market that I’ve seen in my experience in business in Asia? And make sure that our property delivers that.
How do Weibo and WeChat fit in?
That’s part of our China strategy. We’re still very young with that, with our development of it. But I think the opportunity is huge and we’re going to see an exponential growth in that. The great thing is – we have all this great content already, we have all this great stuff that we’re already producing in English – and that makes it very easy to adapt that for the Chinese market. So that’ll be our focus in this next 12 months – continue to ramp that up quite aggressively.
What about India?
India maybe we’ll look at in 2018, end of 2018, or 2019.
How do you see UFC? Do you see it as type of competition?
I’d say UFC is the biggest in the West and we’re the biggest in the East. But the thing is, UFC has been in Asia much longer than ONE Championship. They were in Asia four, five years before I even started the company. So it’s not anything new for us. We’ve built our plan and I’ve built the business focusing on what I think our strengths are, what will make us successful in this market. Because UFC was already here, it’s not like I woke up this morning and suddenly I’m like ‘Oh my God! There’s a company called UFC? They’re in Asia?’