Chatri Sityodtong survived on a diet of budget Korean buffets while an undergraduate at Harvard.
Now, the protean martial arts expert, former internet entrepreneur and one-time hedge fund manager wants to create the biggest and most lucrative sporting spectacle in Asia, the world’s most populous region.
The glitzy One Championship Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competition, which 46-year-old Mr. Chatri founded and heads, hit Singapore at the end of May and is due in Myanmar, Macau and Malaysia over the next few months. Mr. Chatri, who was raised in Thailand, believes the championships have the potential to attract 2bn television viewers and sellout events in a different Asian city every weekend.
“If you look at the history of sports in Asia, we’ve always only imported,” he says, pointing to the popularity of English football, US basketball and Formula One motor racing. “So I had a very simple thesis: I said, ‘Man, it’s time for Asia to have its own sports league – and Asia’s been the home of the martial arts for 5,000 years.’”
Mr. Chatri says five-year-old One Championship achieved record viewer figures for its show in Manila in April. But its finances remain closely guarded: he says only that the event is now “very, very close to profitably”, with revenues that are in “eight figures and growing very rapidly”. Investment in One exceeds $50 million, and includes a stake bought last year for an undisclosed sum by Temasek, the Singapore state investment fund.
James Goyder, a journalist who has covered combat sports in Asia for a decade, says One has had to overcome a “lot of cynicism” from people who “expected it to fold after a couple of shows” like previous similar big ventures.
“I think those people underestimated Chatri,” Mr. Goyder says.
One Championship is the synthesis of Mr. Chatri’s two long-time obsessions: martial arts and financial investment. He is a practitioner of Muay Thai – Thai boxing – and he took the name Sityotong in honour of the master at whose training camp he studied.
His life changed when his “quite well – to – do” family in Bangkok lost everything in the financial crisis that affected Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in the late 1990s.
He had a place at Harvard, but little money to live on. He recalls visiting an all-you-can-eat Korean buffet that cost “three dollars and change” and became “the big highlight of the day”. His mother even lived with him in his university dormitory because the family had lost their home.
Mr. Chatri acknowledges that – for all the financial stress of that period – he still had the advantages of education and connections. He went on to study at Harvard Business School and to co-found an internet software start-up, which he later sold.
He then spent 10 years in the hedge fund industry but recalls finding the world of pure finance “empty”. He was ready to act on his insight about the gap in the market for big-money sports in Asia. “Every region of the world has several multi-billion-dollar sports properties entrenched in society and culture and tradition – and I see no difference here,” he says.
Mr. Chatri presents One Championship as a “responsible” outfit, compared with western combat sports, whose “entire marketing platform is focused on glorifying the fights, the violence, the blood, the antagonism”.
He casts the event in a social role by featuring the “inspiring” life stories of fighters who have sometimes come from crippling poverty.
Purses per fight range from $5,000 for an entry-level fighter to $300,000 or more for a top name – riches in a martial arts world full of stories of fighters being exploited by unscrupulous promoters. He says most even have been sell-outs or close to full in stadiums with capacities typically between 5,000 and 20,000.
Mr. Chatri says One Championship is made for changing sports viewing habits as a fans have moved away from television and on to smartphones. “No one is going to watch a 90-minute soccer game on their mobile device,” he says. “But our contact is three [five-minute] rounds per fight and 80 per cent of our fights end before that, through either a knockout or submission, a finish.”
Nevertheless, television is till part of One’s strategy. It broadcasts via a mix of free-to-air television, cable and $9.99 event livestreams. The company says it now has a broadcast footprint in 118 countries with a potential 1bn viewers, while its social media video views have grown from 312,000 in 2014 to a projected 314 million in 2017, based on company forecasts from data gathered by Nielsen, Facebook, and Repucom.
The company already bills itself as the largest sports media property in Asia and aims to build revenues further through brand licensing, among other means, for products such as protein shakes and video games, Mr. Chatri says.
It is too early to judge if Mr. Chatri will hit his target of listing the company in New York or Hong Kong. But he reckons he has already proved his central idea that Asian audiences will flock to see performers of Asian heritage do battle in Asia.