UFC puts marketing in the ring for Asia comeback

Mixed martial arts organisation UFC is looking to put its focus back into Asia with its first live event in Asia in 2017 taking place at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

“We are very excited to kick off our 2017 Asia event calendar with UFC Fight Night Singapore,” said UFC senior vice-president of international business, Joe Carr, during an interview with Marketing.

Singapore is currently the home of UFC’s Asia headquarters, and as such, is a key market in its strategy to grow the brand’s presence.

He added that currently, bringing the sport to Asia is one of UFC’s “biggest costs” and “millions are spent just bringing the sport into Asia”. Outside that, all the content creation, ticket marketing, general brand marketing and activation, costs the brand north of the US$2 million range per year.

In Asia, he said, the UFC brand was still in growth mode and “needs as many eyeballs as possible”.

“We need to take advantage of our corporate partners to get our brand out there alongside them. I think on the sponsorship side, it is going to be a snowball effect. Once you get your first few corporates, other big corporates will come on board and the momentum will grow,” he said.

For the Singapore event, UFC will be leveraging several global activating partners such as Harley-Davidson, Monster and AB InBev. It is also in the midst of discussions on having new partners specific to the region.

One brand which has partnered with UFC in Asia for years is Hudson Shipping, and more are joining up.

The business in Asia is at an inflection point now. I think if we get one or two more Asia sponsors we will see it take off,” he said.

When asked why this hadn’t been a strategy in the past, Carr said finding available space back then was a challenge.

“That’s what happened last year. We had one event and it got cancelled because of this issue. We would have liked to do more events. It is just tough,” he said.

Another reason is that local talent and fighters in the SEA markets are hard to find.

“It is hard to cut through and be popular in a market without a local fighter and finding good local talent is really hard,” he said.

Korea and Japan are popular because there are strong fighters in the market that can compete on a global level.

As for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, there is no meaningful local talent yet. There is no one that can compete in the top tier of talent at the UFC level.

But as the Asia sports market is now maturing, UFC has decided to hold three events in Asia in 2017. Following Singapore, UFC has an event lined up in Japan and another market which hasn’t been decided upon yet. He added it was in UFC’s DNA to try a new market whenever possible, with the right business strategies in place.

When asked if this lack of consistency in hosting events in one market hampers brand awareness, Carr said while the main events were the UFC’s best marketing tools with the biggest splash and most coverage, it doesn’t mean the organisation can’t hold smaller fan events, fighter tours or other events and activations in those cities.

“It is our job to fill that space with activities and activations. It is almost like a concert. You don’t have to see a Beyoncé concert every year to be a fan.”

But there are plans in the pipeline – in about three to five years – to have a fixed calendar date – much like the Grand Prix.

“For us at UFC, we don’t have the big costs races like F1 has. As long as we have a viable arena, it is fine. Three to five years in the future, you will probably see the UFC have tent pole events in the major markets,” he said.

Why Singapore?

With Singapore, UFC hasn’t been back in SEA since 2014.

“The event in 2014 was smaller and not representative of the UFC brand now. It made the right business sense then to hold a smaller event, but now when we think of where we are positioned, we are much bigger than that,” he said.

As such the Indoor Stadium as a venue was chosen as opposed to “a ballroom at Marina Bay Sands” to promote a more VIP experience with better production values.

“We just thought it was a prime point in the UFC brand’s life cycle in Asia to make a splash in Singapore given the transition with WME-IMG’s acquisition, and HQ in Asia being in Singapore,” he said.

“We have a lot of resources on the ground, a good relationship with STB and corporate partners and broadcasters in the region.”

What is different about marketing in Singapore for the UFC is that because of the size of the market and the proximity to the rest of Southeast Asia, marketing for the event is not just confined to the city state, but is extended to other neighbouring countries.

As such, the brand is spending hard marketing dollars in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Going forward, China, said Carr, was a market the UFC is looking at given its population size and talent possibilities. Currently, the UFC is also investing in training up fighters in China.

“The market is quite fragmented and scattered in terms of promotional rules and the MMA sport itself is so new there. Talent is not quite at the UFC level yet so we are looking at how to really build it up in the market,” he said.

“The opportunities in China are endless.”

But sensitivities remain when marketing to Asian consumers. While UFC’s promotional content in the US is boisterous and loud, in Asia there is a lot more cultural sensitivity tailored to its promos. In Asia, MMA is more about lifestyle, respect and discipline, said Carr.

 “How we connect with fans and consumers differs market to market. There is no one-size-fits-all. We have actually softened our image here,” he said.

“You can’t replicate a US concept and dump it in China and expect it to be successful.”

Setting itself apart from ONE Championship

With ONE Championship growing in the region, we ask Carr if the UFC is falling behind in the race. He said ONE Championship has done a great job at filling the vacuum in the SEA market, which UFC hasn’t been focused on.

“It has done a great job in developing talent, but these talents are not yet ready to fight on an international level,” he said.

Carr added ONE Championship was doing a great job at the grassroots level of growing MMA awareness and the sport and local Asian fighters.

But if fans want to see “the best” fighters in the world and top-tier talent, UFC is the only place you can go to in the Asia market.

“I think when you come to a UFC show, the production value and celebrity turn out and how it feels, it feels like a high-end night out on the town – unlike any other sporting event you have been to,” he said.