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Chatri Sityodtong of ONE Championship: The king of live sporting content

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-08-2017 Joji Thomas Philip

It was literally an elevator pitch that culminated in recent tweets from Shailendra J. Singh, managing director of Sequoia Capital (India) Singapore Pte. Ltd.

“10 wks ago, casual chat while waiting for a lift, heard abt @YODCHATRI and @ONEChampionship journey ... thrilled & excited to lead new round”

“amazing when VC’s can find a business they’re passionate about, a founder whose values align, a company whose culture is inspiring”.

A chat with an investment banker while waiting for the elevator had got Singh interested in the story of Chatri Sityodtong and the journey of ONE Championship, the Singapore-based sports brand, and led to a Sequoia-led $50 million investment round.

For Chatri, ONE Championship chairman and CEO, it has been a remarkable journey from poverty to a career on Wall Street, running his own hedge fund, entrepreneurship and following his passion with ONE.

“We have arguably the most blue-chip institutional shareholder base in all of Asia for a sports media property. We have raised $100 million in total so far,” says Chatri, 46, when asked about the latest investment round that was led by Sequoia.

The latest investment comes within months of ONE Championship, the mixed martial arts (MMA) competition that Chatri founded in 2011, raising an undisclosed amount from a unit of Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd, Singapore’s state-run investment fund.

Chatri, who is deeply passionate about martial arts and practices the sport every day, says investors were attracted to the ONE story for the potential it holds to become the biggest and most lucrative sporting spectacle in Asia, rather than its current numbers, matrices or revenues.

“Sequoia invested in us because they believe digital media is going to be massive. Live sport content is absolutely critical to creating communities. People want to be associated with it—they want to wear the brand. The way I think of ONE, we are content owners. My job is to make the content as ubiquitous as possible—on TV, laptops, mobile devices, and every platform,” he explained.

Part of that potential is reflected in its numbers.

“On an event basis, we are very close to profitability. I believe we will cross the billion-dollar valuation mark within next 12 months. But the numbers I care about the most is audience reach and audience engagement because that will eventually drive all future revenues. From 300,000 video views on social media three years ago, this year we will see a billion video views; and as a media property, that is very significant,” he adds.

ONE’s revenue, which Chatri said is in eight digits, comes from media rights, sponsorships and in-product placements in its videos. It is now set to open its merchandise store in the fourth quarter.

Its MMA fights are now available on free-to-air TV or pay TV in over 128 countries.

“In our genre of media, views are very important and TV ratings are very important. The reason why let’s say the NFL (National Football League in US) or Super Bowl (annual championship game of NFL) is the biggest event for TV is because they have 100 million households watching concurrently live,” Chatri explained.

The landscape is rapidly changing as sporting events attract massive interest from internet firms. According to Chatri, Amazon’s recent move to pay tens of millions to stream NFL was a game changer, and a business model that Asian internet unicorns could emulate.

“You are going to see Lazada, Alibaba, Tencent, and Rakuten all hungry for content—they don’t want just a transactional site anymore. They are creating ecosystems and communities, and this is a huge shift. Content is absolutely essential and critical to form a community,” he said.

While the Sequoia-led investment round should give the 200-member company “significant runway”, Chatri sees ONE Championship raising a much larger round within next 12 months, riding on investor interest.

For his investors, Chatri is of the view that an exit opportunity would come in the form of a listing, adding the company is being built with an initial public offering in mind.

“We want ONE Championship to list on a major stock exchange as Asia’s first multi-billion-dollar sports media property. I also really want to reward my team and my institutional shareholders who have been with me,” he added.

Chatri grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, and his comfortable life was turned upside down when the financial crisis hit South-East Asia in the late 1990s.

His Thai architect father and Japanese mother had met in Japan during the former’s university days.

Soon after, the family moved back to Bangkok where his father ran his own real estate company.

“Rewind 20 years, and my father went bankrupt—he left the family, and we were left homeless and dirt poor, often surviving on a meal a day,” he recounts.

As a teenager, he learnt Muay Thai (a form of martial arts) under the revered Yodtong Senanan in Pattaya’s Sityodtong Camp, and also competed on the martial arts circuit for some time.

Pressure from his mother led to him applying to Harvard Business School after graduating in economics from Tufts University.

“I got lucky in getting to Harvard. But I was still scared. I had no money. The discipline of thousands and thousands of hours of learning and practicing martial arts made me a fighter,” he said. “I did odd jobs, the scholarships helped with the fee part, and there was a Korean buffet outlet that cost around three dollars, that got me through university,” he added.

With no home in Bangkok, his mother came to live with him in the university dormitory.

He got his first break when Nextdoor Networks, the internet company he co-founded, raised $0.5 million in angel funding, and then raised about $40 million in venture capital funding.

On exiting Nextdoor (which was eventually acquired by Oracle Corp.), Chatri spent over a decade on Wall Street, with stints at Fidelity Investments and Bain and Company, before becoming the managing director of Maverick Capital, a $12 billion hedge fund.

He then launched his own hedge fund, Izara Capital Management, backed by Farallon Capital.

A career in Wall Street had left him wealthy, but even a record year in terms of the fund’s performance, left him yearning to do more.

Realizing that Asia had yet to create sports content with a global appeal, he left New York to launch ONE Championship in South-East Asia.

He decided that there was a business case for martial arts, which he calls his greatest passion, to be enjoyed by a global audience.

“Again, if not for the discipline of martial arts, I would have quit multiple times within the first three years of launching One Championship. My mother thought I was crazy to leave a career on Wall Street,” he said.

The first ONE Championship fight kicked off in September 2011 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

The sport that began in 1993 has globalized. Last year saw the biggest deal in this space when Las Vegas casino owners, the Fertitta brothers, sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) brand to a consortium headed by Hollywood WME-IMG for around $4 billion.

ONE Championship is rapidly expanding, and hiring key talent will be critical to its success.

Chatri says the company provides an attractive proposition to its employees to “create history and be a part of history” by building Asia’s first multi-billion sports property.

His plans for ONE include 52 events annually, translating to a series of fights in one major Asian city every weekend, and making that content available on mobile first.

With each Asian country having preferences for a particular form of martial arts, Chatri is confident ONE can unify this, and adds that martial artists across platforms did not find it a challenge to compete under standardized MMA rules.

ONE currently has more than 350 fighters, and offices across all major Asian cities. It organizes fights across most countries in this region from Indonesia to Myanmar and China.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Apart from TV rights, how do you plan to monetize?

Branded merchandise will be a massive business for us. There are 4.4 billion people in Asia. If only 5% of the population were to buy one $10 T-shirt, that is $2 billion. That is just merchandise—this is not media rights or sponsorship rights. Our media revenue potential is massive. I believe ONE Championship has the potential to become a $10-30 billion opportunity. Then there is advertising, merchandising, brand licensing, ticket sales, and the list goes on. Look at Star Wars—they’ve built a massive franchise from movies and toys.

You will also see some big news coming out of ONE Championship on media rights because when your TV ratings are strong, the broadcasters will pay. We are also set to launch our branded gyms across this region. We have been approached by video games manufacturers—we don’t have the resources right now but eventually, we will enter that space.

In the next stage, we will have our own OTT (over-the-top) platform, which will house all of our archives and special content for a subscription fee.

This will enable users to engage with our fighters, our content and our brand.

You are a TED speaker, and you also do a lot of motivational talks. What is the message that you are trying to convey?

I believe all human beings have fears, doubts and insecurities. It doesn’t matter if you are a billionaire or the poorest pauper. Our duty as human beings is to overcome those fears, doubts, and insecurities to listen to our dreams and our passions so we can unleash our potential and give back to the world more than we received.

Ultimately, if every human being can leave this world better than how they entered it, then the world will be become a better place over time and humanity will win.

My name in Thai—Chatri—means warrior. If there is one thing I would love to share with everybody, it is that you have to be a warrior in life. You have to fight for your dreams, your family, your beliefs and for your values. If I could spread one message—learn to be a warrior in life and all your dreams will come true.

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