One of the significant bits of news to be revealed in the aftermath of UFC 118 last weekend was the push by the UFC to enter the Chinese market. Not only did they once again reinforce their stance that they want to tap into one of the biggest consumer markets in the world with their brand of extreme fighting, but they announced the hiring of Mark Fischer, a former executive of the National Basketball Association:
The fight organizer and promoter for the form of sports-combat called mixed martial arts announced that it would be setting up a foothold in Asia. The company didn’t specify where it would set up shop, but its new chief in Asia is Mark Fischer, a former exec with the National Basketball Association Inc., who lives in Beijing.
As part of its sop to Chinese audiences, the UFC is also touting the addition of an Inner Mongolian lightweight bruiser named Zhang Tiequan to a televised bout through its sister organization, World Extreme Cagefighting. The group said it will also leverage its existing ties with the China National Wushu Federation to drum up support and talent.
Some media members believe China will be a tough nut to crack due to the cultural barrier and the fact that Japan has historically been a difficult market to enter because of those differences between Western culture and their own. But the UFC may have a leg up over any of the other major mainstream sports in that mixed martial arts identifies with the people of China due to being the birthplace of many forms of martial arts.
Furthermore, Fischer seems to be the best qualified man for the job, having helped the NBA become a billion dollar entity in China by signing huge sponsorship deals for the sport. While the NBA has found success overseas, other sports like NASCAR and the NFL have found little interest. Most sports have only recently made strides to break into the market, and that presents an unique situation for the UFC. They are on even ground with some of the largest sports in North America in this new market, and their brand of action could be exactly the type of entertainment that could flourish over baseball, football, and racing.
Historically, China has been a hub of combat sports in Asia for quite some time, although not as well-known as Japan and Korea. Boxing has been around since the 1920's, but only in a local capacity. The Communist Party banned it during the country's revolution in the 60's, but it returned when Chinese leaders realized that competition may be a way in which the Chinese could earn worldwide respect.
They've only recently found success in boxing as Zou Shiming won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he also won the 2005 Amateur Boxing championships along with a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Wushu, Taekwondo, and other martial arts are also big in China, and those combat sports will act a feeder system for the sport. There is some concern, however, that the UFC will be too brutal for the normal fans of those sports, but that type of deterrence has been prevalent in almost any new market. Germany, England, and Australia provided some backlash when the UFC arrived there, and even Japan and the United States had similar movements against the sport in their infancy as well.
With a history of combat sports that fall along the lines of traditional mixed martial arts, it's hard not to take a crack at an untapped market like China. Boxing is taking off in the country due to Shiming's success, and Wushu and Taekwondo should provide some interest in mixed martial arts right off the bat. Regional promotions have already been operating for a few years in the region as well, and that should drum up more interest along with providing a feeder system for the UFC to build off of.
Like any new market however, talent and skill will be at a minimum for quite some time. The WEC recently announced the signing of lightweight fighter Tie Quan "The Mongolian Wolf" Zhang, an undefeated fighter out of Beijing, China. While this is an obvious first step in getting some attention cast on a Chinese fighter in a new market, it isn't exactly going to be an easy ride for the fighters in the infant era of Chinese mixed martial arts. Perhaps, Chinese 120kg Greco-Roman Olympian Liu Deli could be lured away from Sengoku and become a legitimate heavyweight challenger, but I wouldn't hold out hope on that happening.
The biggest worry, however, is the lack of success in China by regional promotions. While I'm sure the UFC will argue that the quality of their show is miles ahead of any regional promotion in China, I find it hard to ignore the fact that Art of War has a tough time filling arenas even when tickets are free. If they can't sell tickets, how does one expect them to sell pay-per-views? Advertising will certainly help spread the word to centers like Beijing and Shanghai, but can the sport attract enough fans to turn a profit or will the region serve as a money pit?
The next few years should be very interesting for the UFC. While they've undoubtedly enjoyed success in North America, China is a region that they will need to tread lightly. The UFC doesn't want to overextend themselves and pour money into a market that just isn't catching on, but they've taken the steps to ensure the optimal exposure of their brand. The Ultimate Fighter reality show will provide a means to not only gaining talent, but gaining interest as well. Whether or not it'll take off like it did in the United States remains to be seen, but I have an inclination that it's going to be very tough to rake in the millions of dollars they make in North America without a few breakout stars who are good enough to compete with fighters here.
The UFC will also need to provide enough reward for fighters to out pace the pay that Sanda fighters are currently making in the country. If they can provide a better way to make money for those fighters, we'll see a steady transition of those fighters into MMA in the country. That should begin to bring those combative sports sponsors over as well.
Can the UFC swim in Chinese waters? My gut says no, but there is some optimism here. They'll likely have to spend quite a bit of money to get the sport some interest from businesses in the region, and they'll have to spend the money to pay fighters more than what Sanda is currently giving fighters now. But I don't think those are huge obstacles. I do, however, think that's the major key to the puzzle. With Sanda losing fighters and being unable to keep up with the UFC's pay scale, it should act as a catalyst to bigger and better things. Whether or not the fans will be there when that time comes is the ultimate question.