The camera rolls and Chatri Sityodtong looks straight into the lens, mostly speaking off the cuff with just a small index card for cues. His voice is clear and confident. His gaze never wavers. In one easy, breezy take, the founder, chairman and CEO of ONE Championship nails The Peak’s Q&A video segment (below). Just like that, it wraps in under 10 minutes.
When I comment that he makes filming appear so effortless – it is normal for most interviewees to require at least a second take – he nonchalantly shrugs it off. “We are a media company,” Sityodtong remarks. “Getting it right makes the process efficient for everyone.”
Spoken like a true media mogul. Nine years ago, he built the Singapore-based ONE Championship from scratch and on the back of a dream to create real-life superheroes by promoting martial arts as an Asian cultural treasure. Today, it is Asia’s largest global sports media property with over 2.7 billion potential viewers across 130 countries. Investors include Temasek Holdings and Sequoia Capital.
But even this mixed martial arts (MMA) behemoth, valued at US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) after a US$166 million Series D funding round in October 2018, has not been spared the fallout from Covid-19. From March till June, it had to halt its live stadium events. In Singapore, Sityodtong also temporarily closed his chain of Evolve MMA gyms that has since reopened.
A lifelong practitioner of Muay Thai and, more recently, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the 49-year-old doubled down on the principles of integrity, hard work and courage his training had instilled in him. “I said to my team that we should embrace bad times because it is a test of how truly great we are. Any company can do well when the economy is doing great but only extraordinary people can perform and succeed in bad times,” he says.
To keep things going, the company shifted from organising live events to creating content for its YouTube channel and Instagram account. Reels highlighting archived iconic moments were interspersed with homespun videos of the company’s 350 or so fighters showcasing their #stayhome fitness routines using such props as couches for leg presses as well as performing viral dance challenges.
The formula appealed to captive audiences with nowhere to go and nothing to do during the lockdowns. “We hit record highs in social media and digital viewership during the pandemic,” he says.
This digital pivot has been in the works for a while. In 2018, Sityodtong launched the ONE Esports championship series. Computer games may seem a world apart from martial arts but this decision was rooted in the fact that up to 45 per cent of its audience are gamers, according to Sityodtong, whose rationale was that the move would allow the company to dominate the smartphone entertainment segment popular among millennials.
“The two content categories that I believe resonate on a smartphone screen are martial arts and gaming. You can’t see soccer or tennis balls very well on a smartphone but you can see champion fighters like Angela Lee,” he observes. “We realised ONE Championship could dominate mobile phones in terms of sports and entertainment.”
The e-sports arm did particularly well during the pandemic. Since the gaming community already inhabits the digital space, it was a relatively smooth transition to switch from holding e-sport tournaments in stadiums to streaming them online. According to The Edge Markets website, viewership, engagement and readership soared. In August alone, there were over seven million page views.
Heading Back to the Arena
By July, ONE Championship had resumed staging fights in stadiums in Thailand and China – but as closed-door events without live audiences. With travel restrictions still in place and most of its production team in Singapore, it had to run these events remotely – a first for the company – and rely on a motley crew of local freelancers. “It was nerve-wracking,” Sityodtong says, “to have to place so much trust in a remote team.” Nevertheless, they achieved the impossible and broadcasted the fights live with “very, very strong TV viewership”.
The company also scored a coup: it will be the first to hold an event – ONE Championship: Supernova, scheduled for Oct 30 – at the Singapore Indoor Stadium since it closed because of Covid-19. It’s the next step in the country’s gradual return to a new normal but it will be audience-free and broadcast on the YouTube channel and Instagram account.
While eagerly anticipating this, the company had to announce a 20 per cent reduction in its worldwide headcount in mid-June. “To preserve our longevity and have the longest runway possible to not only survive but thrive as well in this global crisis, we have to be prepared for all kinds of circumstances,” Sityodtong explains.
In an open letter to the staff, he wrote that the retrenchments were “one of the most heart-wrenching decisions I have ever had to make in life”. His voice breaking just a little, he adds: “I have a deep sense of responsibility and loyalty to my team. I did not feel like a leader because I let my team down. But I had to do everything in my power to save the ship. I would hire them all back in a minute.”
If there is one thing the fighter in him will never do, it is to give up. His unwavering belief that the human spirit will prevail is a running theme through his life, as portrayed in his riches-to-rags-to-riches story that’s received significant press coverage.
Born into a well-to-do family in Thailand, his father went bankrupt during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and abandoned the family. Even though they became “dirt poor”, his mother, believing he had what it took to succeed, convinced the Tufts University economics graduate to apply to Harvard Business School.
“This is something only a mother would say but, since I was five, she always told me my destiny was to help people,” he says. Armed with her unwavering love and $1,100 in his bank account, he scraped his way through school by tutoring and doing odd jobs like delivering food.
“I knew my mother and younger brother were counting on me to pull the family out of poverty, so every time I wanted to give up, I thought of them. If I didn’t learn through all those years of training to be a fighter in the ring, I don’t think I’d know how to be a fighter in life.”
“I wanted to send a signal to the world that if you are the best, your gender does not matter. You should be paid the same as the best in the world.”
Chatri Sityodtong on giving ONE Championship fighter Angela Lee a significant pay bump when she became champion
After earning his MBA in 1999, Sityodtong had a successful career as a hedge fund manager on Wall Street. He raked in a fortune but could not shake off the feeling that something was missing in his life. In 2007, he moved to Singapore to set up a branch of the fund here. At that time, the martial arts scene was very much underground, prompting him to set up the first Evolve MMA at the now-defunct PoMo mall, where the first classes he taught were to less than a handful of students.
In this humble ring, he discovered fulfilment. “Eventually, I told myself that I was going to pursue my happiness more than my success.” So he left his job to focus on building Evolve into Singapore’s premier MMA gym. Today, it has four locations, an academy and several thousand members.
He launched ONE Championship in 2011. True to his ethos, he made it the company’s mission to inspire others to greater heights. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the meteoric rise of superstar fighter Angela Lee.
In 2016, when she became the youngest world champion in the history of any global organisation, Sityodtong decided to raise her salary to within the top five of ONE’s roster. Observers questioned his decision to promote a 19-year-old female, but he held his ground. “I wanted to send a signal to the world that if you are the best, your gender does not matter. You should be paid the same as the best in the world.”
Lee has proved her mettle many times since and continues to be one of ONE Championship’s biggest draws. “To this day, women are still viewed as inferior in many countries and I know Angela has inspired many little girls to dare to dream more.”
Sityodtong continues to champion the next generation of fighters. Evolve has a Warrior Scholarship Award to help students from underprivileged families with their studies as well as a Future World Champions programme to fund the training of athletes with potential. The latter also offers full sponsorship for major tournaments.
This month, he will commence the filming of The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition in Singapore. The winner gets a US$250,000 job at the company as well as Sityodtong’s mentorship. Besides business challenges, contestants will also have to participate in physical ones doled out by the company’s superstars.
The reality series is its first foray into general entertainment content. The aim, as always, is to garner more viewers for MMA events. There are plans to produce more of such TV shows, too. “We constantly think about all the ways we can pull in more fans so they will watch the live sports events.” And, even though large-scale live events are impossible now, he is positive they will eventually return. Organisers may have to enforce social distancing protocols, but Sityodtong believes larger groups will be able to indulge in revelry once again.
“The essence of us humans is that we are social beings. We want to be around people and watch games and music concerts with friends. We need entertainment and a way to celebrate life outside our homes.”