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Why the UFC Wants to Replicate the Yao Ming effect

Photo of Alistair Taylor
by Alistair Taylor

The NBA is the third highest grossing league globally, generating $7.4 billion in 2017, behind domestic rivals MLB and NFL. Whereas the MLB and NFL have largely struggled to entice a truly global following, the NBA have become synonymous with Chinese sports fans, and offers a template for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to grow its international fanbase.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) franchise UFC was purchased by Endeavor (formerly WME-IMG) back in 2016 for $4 billion, 2,000 times more than the $2 million which Zuffa LLC paid for the franchise in 2001. The UFC has grown exponentially since, consistently out-performing boxing and WWE pay-per-view events, largely off the back off its star-studded domestic, European and Latin-American heavy roster. Recent international moves by the UFC have highlighted its recognition of the franchise approaching market saturation for fandom in America, and Asia (in particular China) has now become its major focus.

The ONE Championship (ONE), which is broadcast on the Disney-owned Star Sports in China, is the UFC’s flagship competition in Asia, based in Singapore and targeting an audience of four billion, catering to the culture and traditions of people in East Asia. With 72% of ONE fans being under 34, ONE is focused on addressing the East Asian audience, something the UFC has largely overlooked until recently.

Lack of exposure hurting growth

The UFC’s Chinese debut came back in November of 2017, and it has only returned once since then in November 2018. ONE on the other hand has hosted six events since 2017, assimilating with East Asian fight fans and establishing brand equity. Another victory over the UFC is that ONE has 10 Asian World Champions, whereas the UFC has a mere three Asian athletes ranked in the top 15 of all of its divisions, a massive gulf in rosters. This illustrates the UFC’s desire (and need) to uncover and leverage a Chinese athlete, just as the NBA struck gold with drafting Yao Ming in 2002.

The Yao Ming effect on NBA engagement

The NBA is now the most popular sports league in China, with over 300 million inhabitants playing the sport domestically. Back in 2002, a 7-foot-6 Chinese athlete, plying his trade for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), negotiated his release to enter the NBA draft. With thefirst pick of the 2002 NBA Draft, the Houston Rockets selected Yao Ming, drawing 200 million people to watch his first game. Off the back of this hysteria, the NBA became the first American sports franchise to host a game in China, hosting two Rockets preseason games in 2004, resonating with the massive local audience.

The NBA later launched the NBA China organisation in 2008, and in 2015 struck a five-year deal with Chinese tech-conglomerate Tencent to stream games and highlights on social platform WeChat for $700 million, increasing the Chinese viewership of NBA by a staggering 66%. Serving the NBA on a platform reaching 1.1 billion inhabitants resulted in the NBA becoming the most popular sports league online in China, with the NBA’s official WeChat account generating one million total reads per month.

Another deal signed with social media platform Weibo in 2017 allowed the NBA to deliver game highlights, player interviews, photos, stats and behind-the-scene access to more than 400 million monthly-active-users, increasing its exposure further.

The UFC looks set to copy-paste the NBA’s Yao Ming strategy

Seemingly replicating the NBA’s strategy, the UFC partnered with Weibo in May of 2019 to become the official social media platform of the UFC in China. As an MMA-first for China, the partnership will give thousands of MMA fans in China access to live content, interviews, highlights, athlete data, fight announcements and content highlights from its UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, the world’s largest MMA facility, which opened last week. The UFC is making the region a major priority, bringing China’s first ever UFC championship fight to Shenzen on August 31st, the first to feature a Chinese athlete, Weili Zhang, competing for a UFC title.

It is impossible to fully define ratio of luck to strategic intent behind Yao Ming’s NBA involvement. However, the NBA undoubtedly hit the jackpot with Yao Ming’s arrival in the NBA and has since leveraged its profile to capture an enormous and lucrative market. The net result was that a single athlete’s emergence expedited the NBA’s Chinese reach immeasurably, something the UFC needs to replicate.

For the UFC, finding its first Asian World Champion has never been so important.

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