Out of great crisis comes great opportunity and the UFC is now planning on moving in. Leading the charge is the man responsible for bringing the NBA to China, Mark Fischer.
Now holding the title of Zuffa Asia Executive Vice President and Managing Director, Fischer spoke exclusively to MMA Fighting about Zuffa's expansion into Japan.
With Strikeforce and the UFC both recently announcing their intentions to promote in Japan in 2011, it seems as though the American promotions are swooping in for the kill while the Japanese scene is weakened. However, Fischer says that the timing is due to Zuffa's own opportunities, not because of the state of Japanese MMA.
"Zuffa has been working on the Japan market for many years, and the various relationships and resources we have built up here over this time have generated some significant opportunities for us now."
The significant opportunities that Fischer mentions are the new distribution deals that were announced ahead of Norifumi "KID" Yamamoto's Octagon debut and Michihiro Omigawa's return to the industry leader at UFC 126.
"TV Bank and NTT Plala's distribution of our content will bring UFC content to new audiences," said Fischer to MMA Fighting. "For example TV Bank's official UFC mobile site is being made available to all 100 million mobile phone users in Japan, and NTT Plala's Hikari TV channel will reach their growing base of 1.3 million subscribers."
The issue with the existing WOWOW TV broadcast and the new TV Bank and NTT Plala deals is that they are supplemental methods of distribution. The consumers must still actively seek out the content and it will be difficult to reach new fans. At the moment, Fischer is banking on the UFC's history of international success.
"This additional exposure will naturally help build the UFC fan base in Japan; given the marketing and promotion of these channels, and the fact that all over the world, when new audiences get the chance to see UFC, many tend to come back for more and ultimately become avid fans."
Mixed martial arts is not new to Japan though. There will be no "Griffin vs. Bonnar" moment. The public has seen it all before. The already established fan base will be enough to support one or two yearly events in Japan, but it is not enough for growth.
The key to being the industry leader in Japan will be getting a network TV deal but since the highly publicized yakuza (Japanese mafia) involvement surrounding the New Year's Eve 2003 events and the collapse of Pride FC, TV deals are hard to come by and difficult to maintain. That is something that FEG and WVR will attest to.
"Certainly, [getting a network TV deal] remains one of our key objectives but we are patient and realize there are a number of steps to take to get there," says Fischer. "The sport of MMA still has a deep base of popularity in Japan. The combination of this fundamental base, the UFC's global leadership of the sport and our commitment to excellence in everything we do, and the participation in UFC of a number of locally relevant fighters, is a potent formula which will ultimately make UFC an attractive property for network TV in Japan. We are also looking at creating innovative programming most suitable for network TV, which will help us get those relationships started and then we can build from there."
Although the NTT Plala deal is only reaching a mere 1.3 million subscribers in a country of 127.6 million people, it will give the UFC a chance to test the highlight and educational type programming that will be essential for network TV.
With a TV deal currently out of the question, the attention will instead be on reaching Japanese fight fans through further development of the UFC website content and traffic, new online and mobile applications for video games, distributing more content to the larger portals, some social networking initiatives and a focus on emerging media technologies.
As TV deals are difficult to maintain in Japan, local promotions have traditionally relied on ticket sales at large venues and generous sponsors in order to be profitable. Fischer declined to comment, but rumors have emerged over the past week that the UFC is close to signing a major sponsorship deal in Japan. Also, Zuffa recently sold 42,000 tickets in four minutes in Toronto. If they are willing to do a show at the Rogers Centre, one would guess that a venue like the Saitama Super Arena is no longer out of the question, although Fischer would not indicate which venues are being targeted.
The Zuffa formula is slowly getting more flexible and that may allow them to grow in Japan.
There is one other problem that must be noted when we consider a Zuffa expansion in Japan: Japanese fighters have had very limited success in the Octagon.
As I noted before Omigawa's UFC return, the judoka was the first top Japanese fighter to compete in the modern era of the UFC in his prime (if we call Yushin Okami an exception as he is basically unknown in Japan). Unfortunately for Zuffa's Japanese expansion efforts, he received a one-sided beating.
"KID" is not considered a top fighter in Japan anymore but he also faltered badly in the UFC. Takanori Gomi, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Caol Uno, Akihiro Gono, Yoshiyuki Yoshida and many more have had limited success in the West. The UFC is having a hard time keeping many Japanese fighters on their roster, but Fischer sees no issue there.
"We believe we have a great roster from which to select a very attractive card for our first major UFC event in Japan, with both local and global relevance," Fischer says. "There is now a strong group of Japanese UFC fighters, ranging from top middleweight contender Yushin Okami to household names like "KID" and Akiyama, to newer entrants who will only improve as they gain more experience in the Octagon. We would also bring other top fighters from the rest of the world whom we know Japanese fans will be excited to come and watch."
Akiyama, Gomi and "KID" will still draw a crowd and significant attention in Japan, but they cannot take many more losses and still remain credible. The "other top fighters" that Fischer mentions will be key. It doesn't say good things about Japanese MMA, but old stars like Mirko "CroCop" Filopovic and Wanderlei Silva will definitely play key roles in bring the UFC to the Japanese public.
A Japanese UFC event in 2011 is still being targeted. It is still far fetched but no longer seems impossible. The pieces are slowly falling into place.