UFC's Expansion Into Japan Remains a Lofty Endeavor

Yushin Okami's successes in the Octagon don't translate to overwhelming interest for him in the Japanese market.

Over the course of the last half decade, mixed martial arts' fans have had a waning interest in the UFC heading to the Land of the Rising Sun. While the hardcore fans like myself would love to see the UFC traverse the Pacific and re-invent the sport where it once reigned supreme, there have been a lot of obstacles in the UFC's path to claiming the archipelago nation at a successful business move. Mob ties to the existing combative sports' industry, declining interest in the sport, and the inability to break into television with the titans of the industry are enormous obstacles to overcome. Fortunately for fans, the UFC is strategically positioning themselves to make an attempt, possibly by late 2011 or early 2012.

According to Fighters Only magazine, Mark Fischer, the vice-president and managing director of the UFC's Asian Operations division, spoke about the possibility of an expansion to Japan:

"We definitely want to hold a major event in Japan as soon as possible," he said. "I would say that we're not ready to announce anything yet but that we're hoping to have an event later this year or early next year in Japan."

"It's a step-by-step process. It doesn't happen overnight. We want to build up a good fan base, grow our media exposure, and we want fighters from different nationalities in the UFC before marketing to that nation and bringing in the big event.

"That big event will be more successful then, and I think that's what we're doing here in Japan."

The comment came on the same day of the UFC's announcement that they had struck a deal with TV Bank and NTT Plala. The deal is mostly aimed at bringing the UFC's brand to consumers through the smartphone market, a market that is highly-popular in Japan in comparison to most countries. Some of the amazing things I've seen from Japanese smartphone technology would absolutely blow away some of the things we have here in the United States, mainly due to the technological advantages Japan has with a lower overall population than our own. The ability to have large download rates with less people clogging the network is one of the big reasons why Japanese fans will have and have had the ability to stream live events to their mobile devices. The fact the they have fiber optic internet everywhere is a huge plus as well.

The deal, in conjunction with their current satellite cable deal with WOWOW, is a multi-tiered attack in trying to get brand saturation in the region. NTT Plala will provide video-on-demand services through Hikari TV, giving fans access to events not available on WOWOW such as Versus and UFC Fight Night cards. Japanese fans can also re-live the glory days of PRIDE through the service.

The TV Bank/NTT Plala deal is the first sign that the UFC is beginning to implement some of their strategies to lure traditional Japanese fans to the Western way of martial arts. But can the UFC overcome some of the culture shock of diving into a new market and the increasingly dire situation of declining interest?

We've watched the struggles of DREAM and K-1 over the course of the last six months, and most of the complaints among fans have been that FEG doesn't understand what fans want to see in Japan anymore. Some fans think that bringing in a few celebrity bouts will increase interest, others think that Akebono should fight a polar bear. Whatever ridiculous argument stems from the issue, it won't work without a change in methodology.

There are multiple factors fueling FEG's demise, but one of the major problems is that Japan cannot replenish their talent pool as quickly as most regions in the world. Kid Yamamoto, Kazushi Sakuraba, Hidehiko Yoshida, and Bob Sapp can only fight for so long, and they've become far less enticing to fans over the last five years. 

Brand saturation is a good way for the UFC to get their name out to the public in Japan, but I find it difficult to believe they have the star power to bring fans in droves to UFC events. Is Yushin Okami extraordinarily popular in Japan? No, he isn't. Dong Hyun Kim, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Kid Yamamoto? I suppose a card featuring most of these fighters would garner some interest, but it won't gain the interest that it would have years ago during the boom.

The UFC's approach should be similar to World Victory Road's ideology. Create solid match-ups, bring in legitimate Japanese talent, and keep your costs low. In conjunction with the distribution deals and the efforts of the marketing machine, the UFC may be able to make some headway in the Japanese market in a few years. If the UFC aims to go big and go home, it could be disastrous for their bottom line. 

With Strikeforce possibly entering the market in Japan with much more marketable fighters who are known to the population of Japanese fans, the UFC may actually be the underdog in this scenario in the context of actual interest. In the contest of survivability however, the UFC still stands taller. Can they survive Japan? Time will tell, but it solely depends on their gameplan.

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