AP Exclusive: ONE Championship gets cash for major growth
By GREG BEACHAM
Jul. 19, 2017
ONE Championship has secured a major equity investment from venture capital firm Sequoia India and investment firm Mission Holdings, positioning the ascendant mixed martial arts promotion to increase its presence throughout Asia.
The investment means ONE Championship has raised over $100 million in total capital less than six years after its first show, according to Chatri Sityodtong, the promotion's chairman and CEO.
Sityodtong told The Associated Press on Wednesday that ONE Championship plans to stage up to 30 events in 2018 and will financially compete to sign the world's best fighters, all while concentrating on its primary goal of being Asia's dominant MMA brand. To that mission, Sityodtong intends to expand the Singapore-based promotion's reach next year into Japan, South Korea and eventually India.
"Already we're the largest martial arts organization in the history of Asia," Sityodtong said. "All the pieces suggest that we have a big, big runway of growth ahead of us and that we're just scratching the surface of our potential."
The growth is already visible: In the final five months of 2017 alone, ONE Championship has 11 scheduled shows spread among Macau, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar.
After doing 18 events this year, Sityodtong projects 24 to 30 shows for 2018. The increase will include aggressive expansion into China, where ONE Championship is already staging events this year in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.
ONE Championship already claimed it was the largest sports media property in Asia before the latest round of investment, with video programming seen in 128 countries and live shows attracting large crowds throughout the Eastern hemisphere. The promotion received capital last year from Heliconia Capital Management, which is owned by Singapore's sovereign wealth fund.
Sityodtong is a Harvard-educated entrepreneur and a lifelong martial artist who left a lucrative career as a hedge fund manager to start ONE Championship as a showcase for homegrown Asian martial artists. He is looking forward to utilizing Sequoia's expertise on business expansion while he plots his still-young promotion's next moves.
"It's been a whirlwind," Sityodtong said. "Just six years ago, this was a PowerPoint presentation, and now we arguably have the most blue chip shareholder base for any sports property out here in Asia."
The UFC, the sport's richest and most prominent promotion, is striving to increase its presence in Asia with shows in Singapore, Japan and China this year. UFC fights are watched avidly across Asia, and the promotion has a healthy number of fighters under contract with Asian ethnicity, but Sityodtong claims ONE Championship already has "a massive lead over the UFC" in the fight for Asian fans.
"We're very focused on Asia, with Asian content that really resonates," Sityodtong said. "So it's very different scale. It would be like ONE Championship coming to America with Asian heroes and trying to ignite American audiences without any Americans on a show. It's hard to do so."
ONE Championship's talent pool is Asian-focused, but not exclusive. Its champions include Filipino-American heavyweight Brandon Vera, Wisconsin-born welterweight Ben Askren, Brazilian light heavyweight Roger Gracie — and Angela Lee , the Canada-born, Hawaii-raised atomweight who has become one of the promotion's most popular fighters.
While ONE Championship's roster of fighters probably doesn't measure up to the UFC's group on pure overall talent, Sityodtong's promotion is about much more than blood and belts. Although he has the money to bid for top free-agent fighters alongside the UFC and Bellator, Sityodtong is more interested in creating a product that suits ONE Championship's conception of the Asian audience's sensibilities.
"The UFC has done a wonderful job in the Western hemisphere and deserve their success, but they focus primarily on the fighting, on the violence, on controversy, on disrespect," Sityodtong said. "You know, Conor McGregor, in your face, F-this, F-that. We've chosen to focus on Asian values, and that kind of stuff just doesn't fly. ONE Championship is a true celebration of martial arts, which is Asia's greatest cultural treasure, and we want to honor the Asian values of humility, kindness, integrity, strength and discipline. So it's a very different approach."
Sityodtong believes that cultivated, clean-cut image has the side benefit of attracting corporate sponsors and deep-pocketed partners — including Sequoia India, a branch of the famed U.S. venture capital firm that invested in Apple, Google, PayPal, YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo!, WhatsApp and countless other foundational technology companies.
"ONE Championship has been a pioneer and major driving force of the martial arts industry in Asia, with surging popularity across major countries," said Shailendra J Singh, the managing director of Sequoia Capital (India). "It has played an incredible role in nurturing local talent and developing local stars, led by a wonderful, mission-oriented team. We are delighted to join the team in their pursuit of developing the leading martial arts franchise for Asia's 4.4 billion people."