Sengoku Profitability in ‘Fight-Lanthropy’

By Tony Loiseleur May 1, 2009
After Sengoku “Seventh Battle” wrapped in March, Sherdog.com’s Jordan Breen wrote an article painting the promotion’s featherweight tournament as a kind of charitable contribution toward the mixed martial arts community. Breen dubbed it “fight-lanthropy.”

During my interview with World Victory Road Public Relations Director Takahiro Kokuho, I found Breen’s assessment about Sengoku’s charity to be dead-on. However, according to Kokuho, the promotion’s magnanimity need not be a losing venture. Luckily, it looks like international MMA fans will be able to enjoy Sengoku’s sportive matchmaking for some time to come.

In more of his exclusive interview with Sherdog.com, Kokuho discusses Sengoku’s beginnings, its backers and the shrinking Japanese MMA market.

Sherdog.com: How did the idea for Sengoku and WVR come about?
Kokuho: We formed World Victory Road in October of 2007. At the time, Pride had been bought out, so there were no large-stage platforms in Japan for either Japanese or international mixed martial artists. That’s what concerned us the most. As the owner of J-Rock, I spoke with the Kinoshita Group and [discount department store] Don Quijote and proposed that we work together to create a new promotion for these fighters to be able to compete.

Sherdog.com: Sengoku has gone to great lengths to forge relationships with the indie promotions of Japan, such as Deep, Pancrase and, most notably, Shooto. What was the reasoning behind Sengoku’s interest in building formal ties with these organizations instead of just trying to poach their champions and stars with big money?
Kokuho: Pancrase, Deep, Cage Force and Shooto do a great job of grooming fighters, but these promoters often find it difficult to do business since there isn’t a lot of money to go around these days. Their staffs are typically small, they can’t pay richly and their fighters sometimes even have to sell their own tickets. It’s a difficult situation to be an independent promoter.

We don’t want to wave money in front of their stars just to bring them into our ring. We’d rather have a good relationship with the indie promotions in order that fighters can move back and forth between them and Sengoku. By coming to Sengoku, they’re already bringing their fans to our shows, so when they return, we feel that they will be able to bring back more fans who have watched them in Sengoku. It’s one of our ways to give back to these promotions and try to keep them profitable enough to stay around.

Our aim is not to gather everything under one umbrella. Shooto will remain as Shooto, and Sengoku will remain as Sengoku. But to come together and all work together, I think that is great.

Sherdog.com: From WVR’s inception until now, what do you feel you’ve learned from promoting? Is there anything that you’d do differently or things that you believe strongly in that you’d do the same?
Kokuho: Last year was really the year for us to establish and build a firm foundation for Sengoku. In Sengoku’s first six shows, we just wanted to create a place where fighters can fight, and so we often operated in the red. We didn’t make any profit from those events.

This year onward, we need to make progress, making the event better than last year, of course, but we also need to keep in mind how to make a profit. Luckily, starting from Sengoku “No Ran [2009]” in January, we began to make a profit. We also now have more in the way of sponsorship and investment, some with major companies, as well as IPOs. With that kind of backing, we’re back in the black and here to stay for a while.

Sherdog.com: As a result of the decline in popularity and the shrinking of the MMA market in Japan, Sengoku has recently been scaled down to smaller venues, such as the Yoyogi National Stadium Second Gymnasium. How long do you foresee operating at this level before returning to larger stadiums?
Kokuho: We’ll eventually return to a larger venue. For the first two rounds of the featherweight tournament, though, the Yoyogi National [Second] Gymnasium is more suitable because it isn’t feasible to fill a full-sized stadium given that the featherweight class isn’t as popular yet. To fill a large arena, we’d have to “comp” a lot of tickets, and that’s also not feasible. We need to draw the attention of more fans first, and, as excitement over the tournament grows, we’ll be able to stage the finals alongside other bouts in the Saitama Super Arena later this year -- like a lightweight championship on Aug. 2.

Sherdog.com: Don Quijote is currently the primary sponsor of Sengoku. Are there any other sponsors backing Sengoku?
Kokuho: Actually, we’re sponsored by a number of companies. One of them is Daioji Seishi, a big paper-products company.

We also have sponsors that buy tickets from us and resell them on their own. We’re planning on creating a sponsor supporters system based on this model for the future, such that by the time we’ve announced an event, most of our tickets will have been already sold out. Our sponsors don’t always end up on our ring mats, however.

Also, due to the recession all over the world, a lot of our IPO sponsors want to refrain from showing off by having their logos displayed during our events. It’s a clear sign that they’re making profits then, and they don’t like to advertise that too much, considering that they’re helping us out and not the many other companies who have also asked them for sponsorship deals. They, of course, wouldn’t want to hurt relationships with those companies by showing preference for us. That’s another reason why we’re working so hard to build the structure for this supporter system.

Sherdog.com: The Kinoshita Group’s logo disappeared sometime last year. What happened?
Kokuho: They decided to take a step back and remove their logos from our ring mats and posters after they took over a company involved in geriatric care. We originally thought about inviting some of their elderly patients to events, but, of course, that wasn’t such a good idea, according to public opinion. As a result, they didn’t think it suited their corporate image to be associated with something as potentially bloody as MMA. They sponsor shows like the Blue Man Group and figure skating, so that works a little better image-wise with the elderly. We do still have a relationship with them, however.
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