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It feels hard to believe, but One Championship is only a few months away from celebrating its 10-year anniversary. The often-maligned promotion has had its successes: It has raised plenty of money from investors, drawn impressive live crowds in its home base of Southeast Asia and signed some high-profile free agents. The struggle for One has reportedly come in its efforts to reach profitability. Thus, One Championship has been searching for ways to better monetize the product it puts out.
One’s shows have been primarily concentrated in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These are locations with money to spend—all four are in the top 20 percent of nations in gross domestic product—but none have a tradition of being key markets for thriving MMA promotions. Thus, when One sought to bring in additional revenue streams, it looked outside its traditional base.
First, the company made a big play before the coronavirus pandemic to break into the Japanese market. It ran a two-part One 100 at the famed Ryogoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo with all of its top stars. Japan is a notoriously difficult market for foreign companies to crack, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship discovered in the nearly five years it took to get to Japan after purchasing Pride Fighting Championships from Dream Stage Entertainment. Japan’s strict rules on foreign entry following the global pandemic further complicated matters, sending One looking to another MMA stronghold: the United States.
Despite declining television ratings for most MMA organizations, it’s a good time to seek out an American television deal. Live sports are at a premium, and many MMA companies have lined up deals. The Professional Fighters League has been similarly situated to One for years, lining up investors and hoping for a breakthrough. The PFL now has a deal with ESPN and seems to be in a much more stable position with its tournament format.
One’s American opportunity comes with a four-show series on TNT that started on April 7. This is a pivotal moment for One, and its debut on TNT was one of the most important shows in its history. One Championship had its two most well-known and highly paid fighters on the card with the goal of gaining new fans and convincing television executives that it was worth investing in as regular programming.
The controversial disqualification of Eddie Alvarez was a perfect confluence of negative factors. There was only a brief period of action before the fight was over. There wasn’t a decisive winner, and most disagreed with the referee’s call. Plus, it took a significant amount of time to work out how it would be handled, leaving new viewers with what was effectively minutes of dead air. It made for dull and unsatisfying television.
Things got only marginally better for One when Demetrious Johnson was knocked out by Adriano Moraes. Working in its favor, it did have an explosive finish. However, there were marked downsides. While Johnson was never a drawing card commensurate with his skill level, he is as big of a name as One has on its roster. Moraes is an excellent fighter in his own right but isn’t going to attract casual fans at this stage. One came out of the event with its four fighters collectively feeling diminished rather than enhanced.
Bad luck sometimes strikes MMA promotions at key moments, from the UFC’s infamous Victory in Vegas to Showtime’s MMA debut, which ended with a disqualification in the Frank Shamrock-Renzo Gracie main event. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, particularly a sport as unpredictable as MMA. Promoters simply have to move on from misfires. However, the bad news for One Championship went beyond just the results.
Despite putting forward its top stars to the American audience and receiving a solid lead-in from potentially synergistic AEW wrestling, One on TNT 1 did fewer than 200,000 viewers. That’s a marked decline from a one-off show on TNT that One aired in 2019 in a less-advantageous 11 p.m.-1 a.m. timeslot. Pro wrestling proved not to be as strong of a lead in for MMA as it has in the past, perhaps because the audiences have diverged or perhaps because the audience that enjoys both has reached a saturation point when it comes to new programming.
It’s possible that viewers will stick with future shows more without a foul delay and disqualification leading things off, but One also won’t have anywhere near the same star power moving forward. John Lineker and Shinya Aoki are likely the two most well-known fighters on the upcoming three shows. Regardless of what transpires in the next three weeks for One, its show on April 7 was a step backwards at a key point in time. For a promotion that can use every break it can get, that’s surely a disappointment.