Opinion: Emerging Markets and World Domination

By Eric Stinton Oct 24, 2016
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It’s easy to assume that MMA always has something going on because it has no proper offseason. Most of the time, that’s basically correct; there are few weekends when the Ultimate Fighting Championship doesn’t have an event, and when those doldrums roll through, it’s a near-certainty that Bellator MMA, the World Series of Fighting or someone else will take advantage of the open space.

Maybe you watched Alexander Shlemenko wilt Kendall Grove at Bellator 162 this weekend, or maybe you watched Nieky Holzken record his 12th straight victory at Glory 34. If you were lucky, you caught some of the bizarre, awesome moat grappling at Ganryujima 5. Either way, the big news of the week was outside of cages, rings and circular moats. A major component of the headline news of the combat sports world was the ongoing layoffs of UFC executives and front office folk.

The layoffs have mostly affected the UFC’s international presence, which makes sense. Though the UFC has long clung to its description as “the fastest growing sport in the world,” it has never been the international phenomenon it has tried to be. In the history of the sport, there have been 67 different divisional champions. This includes interim champions but does not count the same people who have separate reigns -- Matt Hughes, for example, only counts once, even though he had two different stints as the welterweight champion. Of those 67 champions, 48 have been American. The rest have come from Brazil (12), Canada (two), and various European countries (five). That’s hardly a picture of an internationally competitive sport.

Before you start the “USA!” chants, consider for a moment why that may be the case. Nothing is ever as simple as “we’re the best because we’re the best.” Take, for instance, the industrial revolution. Long used as evidence of some innate European superiority, the reality is that it spawned from the most geographically obvious starting point: a place with several ocean ports and a wealth of coal. Had England been landlocked or had it not coincidentally had a bunch of plants die millions of years ago, the industrial revolution would have certainly happened elsewhere.

Similarly, the MMA revolution, if we can call it that with a straight face, has been the result of several factors, including population size, athletic infrastructure and culture. The top two countries -- the United States and Brazil -- have both benefitted in one way or another from these factors. America has a large population, a culture that celebrates violence (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and an unparalleled network of well-funded, high-level athletics in the form of college wrestling programs. Brazil has two out of the three factors, with a large population and a history of athletic combat in the form of vale tudo. Canada and the European countries that have produced champions tend to have one or two of those factors going for them, with economies strong enough to sustain high-level athletics and cultures that accept and promote violent competition: hockey, boxing, and kickboxing. Only America has the complete trifecta.

The international markets that the UFC has tried to break into with modest degrees of success have been Asia, Australia, Mexico and virtually any country that produces a champion: Poland, Ireland and the United Kingdom at the moment. For these markets to grow into viable talent pools and, consequently, meaningful places for MMA business to take root, real investment in infrastructure and star-building is required. So far, very little of that has occurred; the extent of investment has mostly been occasional events with standard fight-week promotion, and that’s it.

While I don’t have the space or expertise to comprehensively diagnose the successes and failures in each and every market, I can discuss some of the obstacles for one country: Korea.

From a western viewpoint, martial arts is synonymous with Asia. Japan has lost its mojo for various reasons post-Pride Fighting Championships, and China has its own set of issues, leaving Korea as the most reasonably capable Asian country for MMA to flourish. It has a strong enough economy to support leagues and facilities for nearly every major professional sport, a population nearly twice the size of Canada and a rich cultural history of martial arts that have transferred nicely into MMA in taekwondo and ssireum, a wrestling style that’s as old as Korea itself. There are two major promotions in Korea -- Road Fighting Championship and Top Fighting Championship -- which are broadcast for free on the major sports channels here, and a number of professional fighters are visible and well-known outside the world of sports, including Choo Sung Hoon (aka Yoshihiro Akiyama) and Hong Man Choi, who also happens to be a former ssireum champion. Both men frequently appear on advertisements and TV shows.

Despite all of these factors, the growth of MMA in Korea has been sluggish for several reasons. Ssireum is dying; taekwondo is a starless amateur sport that is not seen as a viable profession so much as a good way for kids to be active, much like youth soccer is in the states; and the most popular sports in the country by far are baseball, soccer and computer games. The average child in Korea spends 10-plus hours in school per day, leaving little room for any athletic endeavors more serious than social hobbies. This is embedded in the postwar culture of the country and is likely here to stay.

The rapid economic development that Korea has undergone since the 1950s is hard to understate. Korea went from a subjugated, impoverished country to one of the largest, most advanced countries in the world in the span of 40 years. This was largely a result of a cultural shift that has emphasized education and technology above all else. Accordingly, the benefits of capitalism have developed hand-in-hand with its ills, meaning kids are herded into high-paying fields, which doesn’t sound like a bad thing until you consider the fact that young South Koreans are the most likely demographic to kill themselves on the planet. The point: The percentage of population that actually pursues professional athletics is increasingly small, and of that fraction of people, very few look to fighting as a legitimate career. Kids are better off trying to make it into the comically mediocre Korean Basketball League -- which has way more open positions and an average annual salary of $144,000 -- than trying to fight their way to a $12,000/$12,000 spot on the one or two yearly UFC Seoul undercards. It’s far more lucrative to play League of Legends than it is to fight another person, and bad posture and carpal tunnel beats brain trauma any day.

That’s just one example of one country. Ultimately, expansion into global markets is a lot more complex than putting on a good show every now and then. Beyond building infrastructure, promoting regional stars and gaining casual exposure, there are tremendous cultural barriers in the way, barriers that are unique to the specific countries and markets the UFC is trying to break into. Thus, it’s no surprise to see the new owners start hacking away at their international teams; it has yet to be seen that the existing strategy for international growth is worth the effort.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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