UFC Inks Japanese Distribution Deal with TV Bank, NTT Plala

By Tony Loiseleur Jan 24, 2011
TOKYO -- Given Zuffa LLC’s historical successes in wielding the power of new media, the UFC will take a similar route to expand the brand in Japan.

Representatives from the UFC, NTT Plala and TV Bank on Monday during a press conference held at Yoshihiro Akiyama’s Cloud Dojo jointly announced a content distribution deal that will grant wider access to the UFC and related content to Japanese MMA fans.

“I’m really thrilled by this opportunity to bring the global leader of mixed martial arts -- the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- and build it in a region where many martial arts originated. Japan is the most advanced and important market for us in Asia so far,” Zuffa LLC Asia Executive Vice President and Managing Director Mark Fischer said in a statement to the press. “This is a very important step for the growth of the UFC in Japan. Our new media platforms will enable more fans across Japan to access exciting UFC action, news, highlights and features in more ways than ever before.”

TV Bank President Tomotaka Nakagawa and NTT Plala President Koji Bando also touted the newly formed venture.

“The UFC is very global,” Nakagawa said. “It’s not simply Japan- or Asia-based, so their popularity is worldwide. We’re a branch of Softbank, but we’ve extended the content to other companies like [NTT] Docomo and AU. We’re not looking to monopolize the content. We want the UFC name to become popular in Japan.”

A subsidiary of the major Japanese telecommunications company Softbank, TV Bank will serve as the UFC’s primary online content distributor in Japan. Though the company will provide local fight fans with access to UFC events, fights and related programming in the wider online space, a key service of TV Bank will be in its providing similar content through a dedicated mobile site tailor-made for the country’s three major mobile phone Internet services: NTT’s i-mode, Softbank’s Yahoo! mobile and AU by KDDI’s EZWeb. Despite being shielded from the Internet at large, these “walled garden” services and their customized content have historically been the most popular way for Japanese citizens to enjoy the Internet on cellular phones and will prove instrumental in further spreading awareness of the UFC in Japan.

However, Nakagawa added that, as smartphones continue to gain popularity in Japan, TV Bank will also pursue application and content distribution on those platforms.

“The UFC is getting bigger and bigger every day,” Nakagawa said. “We’re happy to be one of the UFC’s partners in helping them gain popularity in Japan, and we’re happy to provide a way for fans to see Japanese fighters competing abroad. The ultimate goal would be to hold an event here, so we at TV Bank want to help bring the UFC to Japan.”

Though unable to confirm a date, Fischer echoed Nakagawa’s sentiments.

“We definitely want to hold a major event in Japan as soon as possible,” he said. “I would say that we’re not ready to announce anything yet but that we’re hoping to have an event later this year or early next year in Japan.”

Backed by a 12-year track record of spearheading the introduction and growth of the NBA in China, Fischer sees the road back into Japan as one that will take time to pave, with particular objectives that need to be met first.

“It’s a step-by-step process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Fischer. “We want to build up a good fan base, grow our media exposure, and we want fighters from different nationalities in the UFC before marketing to that nation and bringing in the big event. That big event will be more successful then, and I think that’s what we’re doing here in Japan.

“Today is a very important step in both expanding the number of Japanese fighters in the UFC as well as expanding our media platforms to bring the UFC to more fans than ever before,” he added. “We want to make sure that any fan who wants to watch the UFC has the best access they can and, at the same time, reach new fans.”

While TV Bank will handle the mobile and Internet end of UFC content distribution, NTT Plala -- a subsidiary Internet service provider of Japan’s and Asia’s largest telecommunications company, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone -- will distribute UFC and related content through its video on demand television service, Hikari TV. The service will be the first in Japan to provide fans access, not only to UFC events, including Versus and UFC Fight Night cards -- both of which have been unavailable through the UFC’s current broadcast partner, premium satellite cable company WOWOW -- but also to the Pride Fighting Championship archives, which have been conspicuously unavailable to Japanese fans until now.

Despite the current focus on online media, Zuffa is not giving up on securing a future terrestrial television deal in Japan. As the undisputed leader in creating popular trends, a network TV deal would provide the UFC the widest exposure possible in the country.

“I think we have to create some customized content, maybe more highlight, educational- type programming rather than full-length events for terrestrial media, but I do think there are some ways to work with [network television in Japan],” Fischer said. “In the meantime, we’ll expand in other areas of media. We’d certainly like to continue working with great partners like WOWOW in the pay-TV space and expand into different platforms with new media.”

Ultimately, Fischer is optimistic of both reinvigorating MMA and growing the UFC brand in Japan, despite the sport’s ups and downs in the previous decade.

“I think the landscape is very good,” he said. “I think we all know that it was maybe tainted a little bit by some of the MMA events and things surrounding them that may have gone on up until now, but I think it’s critical that people understand that the UFC is above all that and stands for excellence in the sport.

“We want to expand the number of partners we have here,” he added. “WOWOW has been great, for example. By expanding the number of partners in media, consumer products and potentially sponsorships, it will allow us to have that really big event here and expand even more. I think it’ll be a virtuous cycle for us, in taking these steps.”

Interpreter Mizuka Koike contributed to this report.
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