In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was first beginning to make its presence felt, ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong called a meeting with his team and emphasized the importance of creativity and resilience in an increasingly uncertain climate.
Well over a year later—and after plenty of creativity and even more resilience—the Singapore-based martial arts promotion is not only surviving the pandemic but thriving in spite of it.
Sityodtong, who knows as well as anyone how devastating the pandemic has been for business the world over, is grateful for what his team has been able to accomplish.
"We've hit record viewership numbers throughout the pandemic," Sityodtong told Bleacher Report, citing a Nielsen Sports study that identified ONE Championship as one of the most engaged sports properties in the world. "2020 was a record year for us across TV, digital, social, et cetera, in terms of viewership numbers. Same thing this year: we're breaking new records and setting record highs for social, digital, and TV metrics. So we haven't seen an impact on our business from that perspective.
"I am surprised and grateful that we are top-10 in the world, according to Nielsen, in terms of our viewership and engagement metrics," he added, noting that the cooperation of the Singapore government has been crucial to ONE's continued success. "It's been a challenge, but we've still been able to pull it off."
ONE Championship has promoted close to 50 events since the World Health Organization first classified the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020 (including its Road to ONE events, which are co-promoted with smaller leagues all over the world). The promotion's next two events, the all-female ONE: Empower event on September 3 and the stacked ONE: Revolution event on September 24—both in Singapore—are among the biggest of the bunch.
Beyond those two blockbusters, Sityodtong and his team are also plotting a massive event in December to commemorate the martial arts promotion's 10-year anniversary. That event, he says, will go down as the biggest ONE Championship has ever promoted.
"We haven't announced anything, but our 10th anniversary will be in December," Sityodtong said. "It will be our biggest card by far—the biggest card in the history of ONE. That's all I can say so far."
Big events such as ONE: Empower, ONE: Revolution and the promotion's 10-year bonanza give the impression that ONE is returning to its pre-pandemic habit of promoting blockbuster events all across Asia. That's an exciting thought for fans, but Sityodtong estimates it could be up to 24 months before things really get back to the way they were for his company and others in the sports media space.
Despite his pragmatic outlook, however, the ONE CEO and his team have resumed their mission of promoting an event in the United States—a mission that was briefly paused during the pandemic—and expects to be erecting the ONE Circle on American soil sooner rather than later.
He also anticipates a warm reception from American fans.
"The plans are 90 percent done right now," Sityodtong said of ONE's planned US debut. "When the plan's 100 percent done and I'm ready to announce it, I'll announce it, but I think American fans can expect ONE to be in the US within 12 months.
"We want to make it as big as possible and we want to showcase the full spectrum [of the ONE Championship product]," he continued, explaining how ONE sets itself apart by promoting MMA, kickboxing, muay thai, and occasionally other attractions like submission grappling and boxing.
"ONE offers something that none of the U.S. promotions offer in terms of the variety of different martial arts. Also, our fighter entrances, our fighter videos, there's a lot of production that goes into it. I would argue that our production is better than Pride, and Pride obviously was the gold standard for a long time. So I think the U.S. fans are going to be really, really surprised by how different we are from the current players in the U.S."
ONE has always been a distinctly Asian promotion, placing great importance on honoring the continent's rich martial arts history. While Asia will always be ONE's home, Sityodtong sees the US as a crucial market for the promotion.
"The reality is that ONE has become a global property—a truly global property," he said. "America is important because it's the world's largest sports market, and our entry into the US is inevitable. 100 percent we will be there, it's just a question of when."
Cracking into the competitive U.S. market will not be easy for Sityodtong and his team, but the ONE boss is confident that, with a continued blend of creativity and resilience, it can be done.
In fact, he's hoping that by the time ONE Championship is celebrating its 20-year anniversary, 10 years down the road, the promotion will be well-established stateside, as well as in Europe, South America, and Africa.
"We're going to become a true household name in every country in Asia—truly mainstream" he said. "Equally importantly, I want to become a household name in North America, in Latin America, in Europe, in Africa. I want ONE to be a truly global brand that fans love and appreciate, and that every day we're surprising and delighting our fans all over the world.
"I think it's very possible from where we're sitting," he concluded.