Breaking into the Asian market has been a holy grail for many sports organizations. Collegiate football games have been held in China, boxing matches held in Macau, and some of the best NBA players make yearly trips. For the UFC, a solid footing in countries like China could elevate the UFC to a level that just ten years ago would have seemed beyond optimistic. The WWE is currently blazing a trail into China and given the similarities between the UFC and the WWE, the professional wrestling organization might be making a blueprint for the professional mixed martial arts company.
The UFC has modeled themselves after the WWE in terms of how it builds athletes, how it creates narratives, and even in what the business model looks like.
The toughest hurdle that the WWE has come across is the lack of the sport’s history in China:
If you think about how people become wrestling fans, it’s generation passed down to generation… It’s American kids growing up watching wrestling with their parents. … We do not have that benefit here in China.
But the WWE does benefit from universal archetypes that is not limited to certain continents. The Hero’s Journey is an archetype found throughout history and all over the globe. Jay Li, the WWE’s General Manager and VP of Greater China says:
Everybody loves a good story… And WWE is no different. I think the Chinese fans respond to this: good versus evil, the turncoats, the betrayals, the loyalties, and the underdog stories.
WWE China has thrived because of its use of digital media. The company is the largest sports channel on YouTube and most liked sports entity on Facebook. Given that China places some restrictions on social media applications the WWE has had to expand into China-specific networks such as Youku Tudou, WeChat, and Sina Weibo. WWE PPV programs are also distributed digitally by PPTV.
The rise of American popular culture appearing in the Chinese market in the form of network television shows and tent pole movies could be a canary in a coal mine for sports organizations. The sports and entertainment industry is successful because of disposable income.
The UFC has to rely heavily on younger fans because studies have shown that the older an individual is the less likely they are to be a fan of the UFC. Also, one of the strongest agents of socialization that leads one to be a fan of an athlete or team is fandom passed down through the patriarch of the family. The lack of tradition has hurt the UFC because Asia has valued the tradition of its martial arts. Thailand had its first MMA fight in the country a few months ago, largely resulting from a concerted effort to keep Thailand as the most prominent fighting style in the country.
Digital media was one of the key components in the UFC’s marketing mix in order to get traction on cable television and based on the successes of the WWE that emphasis will be more important than ever. Creating short, narrative-driven content mixing English with native languages worked well for the WWE and it would be safe to assume that the UFC would have the same success.