UFC’s Akiyama a Key to Other Asian Market

By Jordan Breen Feb 25, 2009
As soon as the news broke Wednesday that Yoshihiro Akiyama was UFC-bound, discussion blazed about Zuffa's continuing international expansion, and the signing's impact toward making inroads in the elusive Japanese market.

Between the ultimately disastrous handling of the Pride Fighting Championships buyout, the company's courting of proclaimed Japanese MMA savior Satoshi Ishii and the recent signing of star Caol Uno, UFC President Dana White and Zuffa have remained adamant that the Japanese market was a priority for the company, a notion only furthered by their signing of Akiyama, who remains one of the few viable draws in Japanese MMA.

It is extremely telling that the largest topic of the ensuing discourse is not where Akiyama, a borderline top-10 middleweight, fits into an increasingly interesting UFC middleweight class, but rather what the maneuver means for Zuffa's global strategy, whether it provides the company with any more leverage or interest in the market and whether it brings the Octagon any closer to a return to Nihon.

It would be myopic, however, to see the signing of Akiyama strictly as an investment in Zuffa constructing a future in Japan. In fact, there's a more immediately extravagant and potentially lucrative market now ripe for the taking with the inking of Akiyama. His ethnicity -- which has been both a gift and a curse over the course of his career -- may provide the company with a genuine cultural superstar in the growing South Korean market that Zuffa has already been keenly courting.

While he was born in Japan, Akiyama is a fourth-generation "zainichi," or ethnic Korean. His status as a K-1 star has afforded him a high athletic profile in Japan. However, as evidenced by their booming and creative film industry, South Koreans appreciate a stellar drama, and over the last eight years, Akiyama's cinematic personal story has seen him ascend from ignominious pariah to esteemed hero.

As an ethnic Korean in Japan, he found himself unable to overcome nationalistic prejudice in his birth country, being systematically excluded from prominent opportunities in the judo world that would have allowed him to make Japan's national team. Instead, he relocated to Busan, South Korea, in 1998 in hopes that his Korean bloodlines would afford him an even shake.

Instead, he found himself not just discriminated against as a Japanese national but institutionally ousted from the South Korean judo world.

Sung Hoon Choo returned to Japan in 2001, became a naturalized citizen and adopted the name Yoshihiro Akiyama. He quickly earned himself a place on the national judo team, winning the 181-pound category at the 2002 Asian Games.

Despite his struggles for a figurative home, Akiyama has never wavered in his pride and love for both his Japanese and South Korean roots, wearing both the taegukki and hinomaru on his gi since the genesis of his MMA career.

While his New Year's Eve 2006 greasing scandal against MMA icon Kazushi Sakuraba turned him into a full-fledged villain to Japanese MMA fans, the cultural lynching that ensued as a result, largely exacerbated by his Korean heritage, served as an ironic rallying point. This Korean solidarity was furthered a year later, when Kazuo Misaki castigated him in the ring following their bout. In response to what it perceived as a prejudicial victimization, South Korea has responded by adopting Akiyama as its own superstar, seen on talk shows and in Sprite commercials.

This past June, he shared the same stage with Korea's biggest pop stars at the 2008 Dream Concert, where he sang in front of a crowd of over 35,000 fans at Seoul's Jamsil Olympic Stadium. Akiyama claiming that he is the "Michael Jackson of Korea" is now a running joke in MMA, but like any good joke, it has a genuine ring of truth.

Akiyama is now, by far, the biggest superstar in arguably the world's hungriest market for MMA.

Zuffa has already begun to make inroads into that market, especially capitalizing on the relative lack of vim and vigor in the Japanese MMA industry, with their larger events airing on same-day (or live, should Dong Hyun Kim be in action) broadcast on Super Action, the country's top cable network.

Nearly every logistical aspect of Zuffa gaining ground in the Korean market is exponentially easier than doing likewise in Japan. Between Akiyama, Kim and the considerably popular Denis Kang, Zuffa already has enough relative star power to stage a successful show in South Korea. The promotion could even bypass a medium-sized facility like the Jang Chung Gymnasium and opt for the 13,400-seat Jamsil Arena in Seoul.

One of Zuffa's expansion strategies is to hope to piggyback on the success of pro wrestling abroad by looking at longitudinal data of World Wrestling Entertainment worldwide. This concept is one of the contributing factors in Zuffa's present interest in Germany, the site of June's UFC 99 card, and the Philippines, which will get its own UFC event sooner rather than later. While WWE was only able to half-fill the Jamsil Arena when it hit South Korea in 2008, despite having enormous cable TV presence on XTM, pro wrestling doesn't share the current excitement and fervor that MMA does in the country. And the WWE card had no Korean talent to offer, unlike Zuffa, which is now armed with no less than three bona fide draws.

Conversely, Japan's market is both abstruse and currently indifferent. The profile of Zuffa and the UFC as a "foreign" company already serves as a strike against it, regardless of what product it offers, not just in terms of exciting interest in casual Japanese fans but also in accessing the political infrastructure. While the South Korean market is a bit more complicated than "if you build it, they will come," Japan's long-tenured MMA industry, which has learned its lessons from the pro wrestling world, is littered with factionalist middlemen, bookers and agents, who are a necessary evil in order to do big business in the country.

Access to venues, fighters, media and the population, in general, run through these power brokers. Not only would it be a paramount necessity for Zuffa to employ a major sports marketing firm such as a Total Sports Asia to carry out its promotional groundwork, it would still be forced to contend with the higher costs of venue bookings and duplicitous "businessmen" looking to earn their own cut.

These sobering facts do nothing to sweeten the fact that attendance and gate figures for MMA in Japan are flagging. Despite drawing over 15,000 fans for its debut last March, World Victory Road's Sengoku has struggled to break 10,000 for subsequent events. And after only being able to half-fill venues such as the Saitama Super Arena and Ariake Coliseum, the promotion has scaled back its March 20 card, staging it at the Yoyogi National Stadium Second Gymnasium, which holds just over 3,200.

Dream, the next-of-kin to Pride, has fared considerably better with its first seven events, but it is still a far cry from the salad days of the kakutogi boom. Just four of the promotion's seven shows have surpassed 20,000, all of which came in Pride's former homebase at the Saitama Super Arena. These numbers, as well as Sengoku's, are in spite of both promotions having established strong draws. However, both are naturally better than the numbers WWE has pulled in Japan over the last five years, where 50 percent capacity was the norm for 12,000- to 15,000-seat venues.

Presently, any venues which Zuffa could actually fill to capacity in Japan might not be large enough, given the purses of the stars it would take to fill them and the costs of doing business.

In addition, it has become part of the accepted gospel of the industry that without a presence on one of the six major broadcasting networks in Japan, no major promotion -- MMA or pro wrestling -- can enjoy any sustainability.

Presently, the UFC broadcasts in Japan on WOWOW, with which it inked a new two-year deal last October. Launched in 1991, WOWOW was the first private satellite broadcasting and pay TV station in Japan and, as of January 2009, has just over 2.48 million subscribers. However, Zuffa's re-signing with WOWOW, which it has been with for seven years, was largely a last resort to keep a meager presence in Japan after the promotion’s enormous struggles in dealing with other Japanese television executives.

Japan is a boom-driven market, and with no present great interest in MMA, there is virtually no opportunity for Zuffa to secure a meaningful network television deal in Japan. K-1 and its associated brands such as MAX and Dream have achieved a level of cultural embedment and can continue on television because of their familiarity, but that's the extent of current demand.

It must be said that amidst sagging ratings, it was Akiyama who was Dream's ratings grabber, though that status does very little to help the UFC because of the low demand for MMA and next to zero brand recognition for the company in Japan. Those who account for the majority of K-1 and Dream ratings are casual television watchers as opposed to MMA fans.

All of this is not say that White should blot out Japan on his map of world conquest. Every TV deal in every country is another revenue source for Zuffa, and with that increasing revenue, it has the ability to attract legitimate Japanese superstars who may be able to at least allow it to fill up larger arenas and run profitable shows.

The signing of Akiyama gives Zuffa another star, who, if nothing else, can excite the interest of your more ardent Japanese MMA fans. However, for a foreign company, Japan is never going to yield its sweetest fruits. Even if Zuffa inks the golden goose of Japanese MMA, Satoshi Ishii -- which is light-years beyond any other move it could make toward market share in Japan -- the company will still get a first-hand lesson in Japanese insularity, not being able to get all the financial juice, no matter how hard its promotional squeeze.

However, there's another country just across the East Sea that would love to be part of the puzzle. In fact, two to four live events a year would be a blessing for a country so starved for more MMA. Live, primetime broadcasts of those events? "Kamsa hamnida," they would say.

Fortunately, the UFC now has their biggest star.
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