Jumabieke Tuerxun (James Goyder/Sherdog)Back to the Roots, Part 3: Market Forces Deterring MMA’s Growth in China Aidan O'Connor June 20, 2014 Spotlight This week marks the final installment of the “Back to the Roots” series, concluding our insight into the various elements shaping MMA’s social and cultural foundation in China. Part one of the series explored martial arts’ role across Chinese history, and part two delved into the state authority’s apathy towards private companies like Chinese MMA promotion Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, and explored the lack of American-esque patriotism throughout the country as two of the greatest obstacles to MMA’s success in China. We round off the series exploring China’s diverse yet disjointed media landscape and its effect on MMA’s growth in the nation, from impacting nationwide viewership to deterring an amateur MMA system. Disjointed Media Landscape A consequence of China’s sheer land mass, provincial divisions and use of different languages among the Chinese populations is a partially regionalized media. China’s surviving professional MMA promotion, Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, has successfully traversed the provincial media landscape to secure broadcasting on Shandong Sports Channel, Xinjiang 10th Channel and the Jiangxi Sports Channel. However, province identity remains a significant stumbling block affecting audience size, revenue opportunities such as sponsorship, and branding capability. Spread across 34 provincial-level administrations, China’s localized communication stream has limited the number of national broadcasters in China. This translates to impacting professional MMA’s growth by limiting domestic MMA from achieving maximum exposure in its infancy. Paying for television time can be a significant overhead, while shopping content out to different providers is a time-consuming process. These are demands that would stretch the resources of most budding MMA organizations. Multiple broadcast agreements with regional outlets translate to less network support, lower network-production facilities, and even higher broadcast fees, compared to signing with one national broadcaster as the UFC and Bellator have done with Fox and Spike TV respectively. These factors proved decisive in the failure of another Chinese MMA promotion, Legend Fighting Championship, which closed its door in 2013 after losing the support of Asian media investment group CA Media. In contrast, the UFC’s in-house broadcast platform, Fight Pass, allows the organization to control the quantity and reach of its content. The organization’s additional domestic broadcast agreement with Fox Sports also exhibits how a healthy and liberal working relationship between provider and broadcaster, in a nation less susceptible to third-party interference from state government, can benefit all parties. Sociologist Tim Oakes (2000) affirms China’s distinct provincial identities, citing the trend as “part of a regionalist social and cultural outlook that repudiates the homogenizing project of state socialism.” Provincial plurality across China represents a new approach to reaching fiscal solvency and securing commercial growth in an increasingly deregulated and decentralized economy. Breaking China up into a series of smaller markets, this approach is a reaction to the bureaucracy, inefficiency and fear of innovation perpetuated by the state government in modern history, as explained in part one of this series. Dr. Jonathan Benney explores this provincial pluralism in the media industry in Defending Rights in Contemporary China (2013): “The process of commercialising the media, which began in the mid-1980s, gave media outlets economic independence. They had to raise their own revenue and…move from a highly centralized media, which prioritized the promotion of news and the framing of issues as approved by the central government, (epitomized by People’s Daily and Qui Shi), to a more regionalized media…publishing increasingly sensationalized stories about local people and issues.” Benney’s outlook reaffirms the difficulty of establishing a national product like MMA in China. The sport’s nationwide ambitions do not fall under the quasi-private interests of regionalized media, nor is it fully endorsed by national television broadcasts run by the state. While the powers to broadcast international news, contract programming slots to non-governmental organizations, and establish private media ownership might remain distant goals, influential domestic institutions including the Central Propaganda Department and State Administration of Radio, Film and Television still constrain efforts toward private autonomy and political diversity. China’s largest media company, Chinese Central TV (CCTV), is a state-run initiative that has been challenged in recent years by provincial television networks for the dominant market share of the television media landscape. State authorities also wield significant influence in the wider media, censoring media with the capacity to reach a national audience, including television, print media, radio, film, literature and the internet (Xu, 2014). Occupying a no man’s land between the two sides, domestic MMA promotions struggle to grow as brands in the regionalized media and, as a private company, are also unable to secure broadcast rights on a nationwide, state-owned network. With state censorship also extending to social media with imposed restrictions on global platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the filtering of domestic alternatives like Sina Weibo and RenRen, the convoluted media landscape puts Chinese MMA organizations at a disadvantage against its competitors in the global-media marketplace, suppressing the ability to use creative campaigns and extensive connectivity as part of an organic branding strategy. Lack of Amateur Infrastructure Without a coherent national broadcaster essential to mainstream commercial success, weakened exposure has affected Chinese MMA in another way, compromising the setup of an adequate amateur MMA system at the sport’s grassroots level. Without an education to the sport, practitioners of popular Chinese martial arts including wushu and shuāijiāo are not making the transition to MMA in the same way that top specialists from amateur wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu and sambo have. Lacking an amateur scene, professional MMA in China is less able to attract talent and promote a healthier appreciation of the sport’s professional and competitive qualities in a semi-sheltered environment, where the safety of the fighter and integrity of the sport are definitively prioritized over financial gain. These systems have helped nurture talent in other countries around the world, including Brazil, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Unlike most professional sports such as tennis and soccer, which start at the tertiary and local level and progress toward professional and international competition, professional MMA’s private, for-profit interests usually bypass the amateur aspect of the sport. With an immediate focus on generating revenue that is complicated by qualities including questionable regulation and a fragmented national media, the forgoing of amateur MMA has become the unfortunate norm in China. In contrast to amateur MMA’s smaller existence in China, leading Asian-based MMA promotion ONE Fighting Championship and its Vice President of Operations, Matt Hume, have taken the bold step of introducing amateur events into its 2014 calendar. Organized on a monthly basis under the supervision of qualified officials, the ONE Amateur MMA Series broadens the promotion’s function from simply hosting events to facilitating the introduction of new talent into the sport. While China has been one of the locations selected by ONE FC to host this initiative, the nation’s domestic organizations should make their own effort to create an amateur infrastructure that harnesses the potential of its talented national pool of martial artists and rewards them with media exposure at a younger age. In their respective countries, some of the sport’s top names, like Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagomedov and UFC Fight Night: Macau‘s own Hector Lombard have profited from learning their crafts at a young age and taking their talents to the Olympic stage before migrating to MMA. Using amateur MMA to catalyze their transition to the sport, these talents have capitalized on this infrastructure to effectively use combat skills learned as a part of their respective nation’s formal education process. Their arrival to the sport has boosted MMA’s credibility while allowing the sport to harness talent across different disciplines. The sooner Chinese MMA can create its own amateur system to bridge the gap between MMA and other disciplines, the sooner domestic professional MMA outfits like RUFF can reap the same rewards. Conclusion For now, China remains the land of theoretical fortune. Its unique combination of questionable regulation, provincial identities, a fragmented media landscape and the mysterious absence of an amateur sporting infrastructure creates a hard puzzle to solve. The UFC’s reputation for in-cage entertainment is matched by its tenacity in the political sphere, having risen from the ashes of social condemnation and certain failure in the United States. Now, the promotion faces another great challenge in China. For its relative autonomy, Macau is the natural—and literal—stepping stone to the Chinese mainland. The UFC’s marketing machine and two strong headline bouts at UFC Fight Night: Macau 3 form an impressive arsenal for its Kung-Fu endeavour against the Quan Fa of China’s complex MMA market. Notable Sources Benney, Jonathan, Defending Rights in Contemporary China, 2013. Oakes, Tim, China’s Provincial Identities: Reviving Regionalism and Reinventing “Chineseness”, The Journal of Asian Studies, 2000. Xu, Beina, Media Censorship in China, Council on Foreign Relations, 2014.