Chatri Sityodtong, CEO of mixed martial arts media dynamo One Championship, made headlines a couple of weeks ago for closing a deal with Sequoia India for the company’s series C round in less than 10 weeks.
The deal wasn’t just fast; it was unexpected. “We weren’t thinking about raising capital – we planned to raise funds in September,” Sityodtong tells Tech in Asia.
But circumstances conspired in the company’s favor. The investment banker it was working with happened to share an elevator ride with Sequoia India’s managing director, Shailendra Singh. Shortly before that, the banker had met with Sityodtong and was armed with up-to-date stats and figures for the company. It was perfect timing for the elevator pitch to Singh.
Eight weeks later, the deal was done and Sequoia co-led the undisclosed round in One Championship with Mission Holdings.
It sounds unusually fast for this kind of deal but Sityodtong is used to it. One Championship also counts Singapore’s state investment firm Temasek, via its subsidiary Heliconia Capital, among its shareholders. That deal too was done in a short time span. Sityodtong calls it serendipity, but also notes there’s a “congruence of values and vision that makes everything easier.”
Offline to online
Sequoia teaming up with One Championship raised a few eyebrows, since the investor is known more for its tech deals, including online marketplace Carousell, online property website 99.co, and ride-hailing and O2O challenger Go-Jek.
One Championship, on the other hand, is a sports media company. It’s best known for its mixed martial arts events across Asia, where athletes compete in front of a live audience. The events are broadcast on paid and free TV, and posted online in the company’s social media accounts.
While One Championship has a tech element, with a mobile app and an over-the-top platform currently in the works, it doesn’t quite fit the usual tech #startup profile.
As a homegrown, cross-border sports property in Asia, One Championship is well positioned to take advantage of the groundswell.
“Shailendra sees the convergence of content and commerce,” Sityodtong says. Earlier this year, Amazon struck a US$50 million deal with the US’ National Football League, better known as NFL, to stream games through its Prime online video service. The deal includes promotion of the NFL brand across Amazon’s platforms.
And just yesterday, it was announced that Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut snapped up exclusive UK rights to the Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour, the prestigious promotion featuring players like Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Its bid, which defeated that of incumbent cable network Sky’s, was reportedly around US$13.2 million a year.
We have touched before on how Prime Video is a key part of Amazon’s strategy to keep users engaged and active in its ecosystem, ostensibly leading to more purchases on its store. “If you have the three pillars of content, community, and transactions, then you are truly a part of somebody’s life, you have a very deep relationship with that customer,” Sityodtong explains.
The opportunity for these types of partnerships is in its infancy in this region. Catcha Group-owned streaming service Iflix recently announced it would stream football (soccer) matches in Indonesia – where the country’s first league is now sponsored by Go-Jek and Traveloka. But by and large, major sports events are still the domain of free or paid TV.
But internet giants like Alibaba, Tencent, and Amazon are increasing their presence in Asia, and companies like Sea (ex-Garena) are already exploring the opportunity in bringing together ecommerce and media content. Esports properties are sprouting across Southeast Asia to tackle a growing audience. As a homegrown, cross-border sports property in Asia, One Championship is well positioned to take advantage of the groundswell.
“As we become more ubiquitous, we’ll be more important to the Alibabas, the Tencents, the Lazadas, and the Garenas of the world,” Sityodtong explains. “If you have content that resonates with an audience, then all of a sudden the brand, the experience, the relationship become far greater.”
An untapped market
Sityodtong doesn’t think small when it comes to One Championship. Asia’s population of 4.4 billion is a number he mentions multiple times during our interview – he wants to reach every man, woman, and child in Asia.
“Every region in the world has several multi-billion dollar sports media properties that are truly part of the fabric of society, culture, tradition, and history,” he says. The US has the NFL, the NBA, and so on. Europe has the Premier League, Formula 1, and others.
Sityodtong wants to make One Championship as important culturally as the NFL is in the US.
Asia doesn’t have something like that at the moment, Sityodtong says. That’s why he’s so dead-set on the 4.4 billion people opportunity – he feels the combination of martial arts, a uniquely Asian cultural staple, and a professional sports media company is a natural fit for this continent.
“Asia’s been the home of martial arts for 5,000 years – it’s part of its tradition and history,” Sityodtong says. He himself has practiced martial arts for most of his life, and his love for the sport was the key driving force behind One Championship.
Sityodtong sees that tradition as the fulcrum for his ambition to make One Championship a mainstream media property in Asia. He wants it to be something that’s as important culturally as the NFL is in the US, where Superbowl Sunday is an annual country-wide celebration and players are major celebrities.
He envisions the company’s own athletes, like Canadian Angela Lee (of Singaporean and Korean heritage), Filipino Eduard Folayang, and Burmese Aung La N’Sang, becoming major sports figures in their own right. “I view One Championship as telling these amazing stories of these superheroes to inspire the world,” he says.
The sports opportunity
The numbers seem to be on his side. According to PWC’s Sports Survey for 2016 (PDF link), the sports market worldwide is expected to grow in the next five to 10 years in terms of sponsorship and broadcasting rights, ticketing, and merchandising and licensing – all key sources of revenue for One Championship. Meanwhile, Nielsen predicts that global sponsorship spend will surpass US$62 billion this year and expects global media rights spend to hit US$45 billion.
Tech and social media are also increasingly important avenues for engaging sports audiences. “Technology is central to this growth. Sports [brands] are changing their business models to engage directly, and even partner with, fans. This new, non-linear relationship also represents unprecedented commercial opportunities,” the report reads.
Crucially, most respondents in PWC’s survey (39 percent) look toward Asia-Pacific as the most important region for growth, seeing increase in participation as well as viewership.
In this environment, One Championship is currently growing in the triple digits, although Sityodtong doesn’t go into details. He says the company’s revenue is in the eight figures and is expected to reach nine figures in “the near future.” Its sponsors include Disney and Universal Music Group. The company has now raised US$100 million in total, and while it’s not profitable yet, it’s focusing more on increasing its presence and engagement.
“Like all startups we’re much more focused on our metrics. If you’re a media company what do you care about? Social media impressions, video views, TV ratings, broadcast hours per country per year,” Sityodtong says. The company is seeing rising figures there, citing 600 million video views on social media and expecting to surpass 1 billion by end of year, and broadcasting in 118 countries worldwide.
Sityodtong hopes to take the company public some time in the next three years, the market gods willing. Until then, he spends his days working hard to grow the company, but still finding time in his schedule to train in martial arts.
“I’m actually a very boring entrepreneur because I do nothing but martial arts,” he says. “So if I’m not training, I’m watching YouTube videos of martial arts, recruiting fighters, or thinking about our production. This is my life’s work, there’s nothing else for me.”