While reaction has been mixed since news of the tiered Reebok payouts for UFC athletes leaked onto the internet earlier this month, an ample number of the promotion's fighters have voiced concern about shrinking paychecks under the new deal, creating an unusually restless climate within the broader MMA world.
Or in other words, "the phone's been ringing," as Bellator President Scott Coker recently told MMAFighting.com. And according to ONE Championship CEO Victory Cui, effects of the sponsorship program between the UFC and Reebok haven't just been limited to the western hemisphere.
"We've gotten a lot of interest," Cui said to MMAFighting.com. "Because now sponsors are looking for other opportunities. This was just another reason for them to look at Asia. Unfortunately we're turning down sponsors now. Watch our canvas [at ONE Championship 27] and it just blows my mind where we are with sponsors right now."
The UFC's exclusive partnership with Reebok, which goes into effect July 7, will see fighters paid anywhere from $2,500 to $40,000 in sponsorship income depending on tenure. The deal, worth $70 million over six years, effectively wipes out additional fight week and in-cage sponsorship, which until now was a significant source of secondary revenue for UFC fighters.
While ONE Championship remains largely in its infancy, the promotion has made major inroads into the eastern mainstream in a few short years, establishing itself as the largest promotion in Asia since its launch in 2011 by securing global broadcast deals, successfully entering the Chinese market, and occasionally serving as a player for high-value free agents like former Bellator champion Ben Askren.
"You can see that everyone who comes is really loyal to the organization and excited to be a part of what we're building," Cui said. "That being said, on the business side, our sponsors that we have are completely different than any sponsor that the UFC has in the U.S. In fact, I don't think we have any identical sponsor that has traditionally been with MMA in North America. Our sponsors here are all blue-chip sponsors who the first time they've been with the sport has been with us.
"Disney is our sponsor, launching all across Asia, Star Wars and Avengers. We have LG televisions; on every smart LG TV that they're launching, you get ONE Championship content and the live broadcast on your TV preloaded. We have Canon, Casio, Kawasaki, Panasonic. These are all blue-chip companies that are with us that are typically not with the sport, so our base and what we're able to deliver from a business side is, I think, considerably different."
Cui acknowledged that an apparel deal for the Singapore-based organization is a possibility for ONE Championship's own future, though admittedly in the distant one. In the meantime, as managers and fighters navigate the uncertain waters resulting from the UFC-Reebok deal, Cui, like Coker, could become an inadvertent beneficiary of MMA's newly changing world.
"Matt Hume and Rich Franklin handle all the fighter stuff, but man, I don't even open up my Facebook e-mails because it's probably, I don't know, 500 or 600 e-mails a day on Facebook from fighters, managers, agents, other promotions that want to work with us and send their fighters," Cui said.
"I don't think there's a shortage of talented fighters around the world. It's a matter of if it's a right career choice for them, and if it's a right option for us as a company and for our fans."