Mixed martial arts is a global sport and more than 50% of the athletes on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) active roster hail from 76 regions outside of the United States. In the UFC, these athletes compete on the international stage against the best fighters in the world. world, their triumphs and tribulations resounding with hometown fans. The UFC is the undisputed leader of MMA in every corner of the world, reaching 900 million homes in 175 territories around the world. As the next frontier, Asia is crucial for business expansion, and the UFC is investing time, resources and capital to grow the sport and the brand. The successes, especially in recent years, have been rapid and monumental.
A historic year 2021
While 2021 has been a huge year for the company as a whole, it has been particularly notable for its expansion into Asia. There have been major developments in broadcast partnerships, historic performances by Asian athletes and record media metrics.
In China, the UFC has entered into a new broadcast partnership with Migu, a subsidiary of China Mobile, in a landmark content creation and distribution agreement that marks one of the UFC’s most significant international partnerships. history of the UFC. Following Fox’s exit from Southeast Asia, the UFC signed 10 new partnerships with top broadcasters in the region. The unprecedented reach in Southeast Asia means that, for the first time, live commentary is featured in local languages including Bahasa, Cantonese, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.
In 2021, Asian athletes increased their presence in the UFC with seven new recruits from China, South Korea and the Philippines, and by the end of the year six Asian athletes were ranked in the top 15 of their divisions. China’s first-ever UFC world champion, Zhang Weili, has had two title fights, and “Korean zombie” Jung Chan-Sung is set to win another title in 2022.
UFC Asia’s social media accounts have grown significantly. In China, the UFC has over 13 million social media followers, growing nearly 40% year-over-year. The UFC is now the most followed sports organization on Bilibili (a popular video-sharing site), just behind the NBA on Douyin (Chinese TikTok) and the top five on WeChat. In India, social localization has led to an astonishing 70% year-over-year growth. Media across Asia also engaged at an incredible rate, with an average increase of 50%.
Investment in the construction of sport
While 2021 was a bumper year, UFC success in Asia has been snowballing since 2019. When the UFC Performance Institute (UFC PI) opened in Shanghai, its primary focus was to raise the bar of sport in China and Asia. The 93,000 square foot facility is equipped with the most advanced fitness equipment and technology and is staffed by a team of world-class professionals. Every aspect of preparing an athlete for competition, including strength and conditioning, nutrition, sports psychology and physiotherapy, utilizes the innovative and proprietary UFC PI system. Every UFC PI athlete receives a personalized training program developed using a science-based approach that ensures they are better prepared for competition or returning from injury.
Investing in talent and properly accelerating its development is a key priority for the UFC because local athletes are crucial in the sports world. Nothing forges a connection with fans like a homegrown hero succeeding against the best in the world.
Weili epitomized that when she became China’s first UFC world champion by winning the strawweight title in August 2019 on Chinese soil in Shenzhen, just three months after UFC PI opened. It wasn’t blind luck; she was part of a generation of rising Chinese athletes who were established national stars. The UFC puts them on the world stage and the social metrics reflect what we knew, which is that the market for Asian stars, both domestically and globally, is huge. After Weili won the title, his social media followers increased tenfold from just over one hundred thousand to 1 million.
The beginning of the road begins with the UFC Academy, an MMA talent development program created and operated by UFC PI. To select the most promising athletes, the UFC holds an invitation-only Combine, where they are evaluated on 72 individual metrics relevant to MMA. So far, three combines have taken place and over 50 athletes have been selected to receive full scholarships to the UFC Academy. The fourth annual Combine is scheduled for March 2022.
The program has yielded fantastic results: there are now six UFC Academy graduates with UFC contracts. Additionally, six other graduates became the first group of Chinese athletes to compete in Dana White’s Contender Series, the platform for prospects to showcase their skills in front of UFC President Dana White.
In 2020, UFC PI cemented its elite status within the sports industry by becoming the official high performance advisor and training center of the Chinese Olympic Committee. This partnership has played a key role in helping Chinese team athletes train for national and international competitions, including the national and Olympic games in Tokyo.
Seven teams of Chinese Olympic athletes in judo, wrestling, rowing, cycling and swimming trained at UFC PI and won a total of 18 Olympic medals. Additionally, two of the up-and-coming Chinese snowboarders have created monumental media awareness and presence since their training leading up to the 2022 Winter Olympics. Olympians, in the same facility, and being compared to them, highlights how the UFC continues to bring MMA into the mainstream.
To develop in this region, location is essential. Cultural awareness and sensitivity are essential, as is establishing the right local partners, be they agencies, broadcasters or sponsors. UFC strives to create locally relevant content tailored to different segments of the country’s population. The ability to localize our content highlighted an important strength for UFC: the brand is global and does not belong to any particular country or region. UFC and MMA transcend borders like few sports can.
For example, in the mature market of Japan, demand for UFC content is high, so we invested in creating a Japanese-language UFC FightPass, the world’s first digital subscription service for combat sports, which contains also the entire UFC library. .
In South Korea, representative athletes are hometown heroes, so fully planned media days are held for each fight announcement and victory tour TV appearances are booked throughout their downtime. .
In just a few years during this expansion phase, we have executed a locally tailored approach, from social media content to media communications, which has achieved operational excellence as evidenced by the sustained improvement in our KPIs.
Making the UFC an iconic global brand has always been our vision, and our Asian expansion strategy is working. In just a few years, the UFC has grown from a sports brand with the potential to be a major sport in the region to a locally relevant mainstream powerhouse with millions of fans, a tremendous following, top notch partners and national media interest. There were no shortcuts. Significant investments in talent development, staffing, content production, fan events and other key initiatives have been made with a view to long-term growth and sustainability – and we are now seeing these efforts bear fruit.
Kevin Chang is senior vice president of UFC Asia.