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ONE Century will be behind a paywall in the US: Is it the right call?

ONE Century will be behind a paywall in the US: Is it the right call?

Chatri Sityodtong speaks at the ONE Championship: Enter the Dragon press conference

This past summer, ONE Championship announced that in celebration of their 100th live event, they would be hosting an MMA double-header aptly titled ONE: Century, on October 13, 2019, in Tokyo, Japan.

The first card is headlined by a champion vs. champion rematch between Angela Lee and Xiong Jing Nan for Lee’s ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship, while the co-main event features the finals of ONE’s Flyweight Grand Prix with Demetrious Johnson taking on Danny Kingad. The second card will see another champion vs. champion main event bout when two-division ONE champion Aung La N Sang defends his light heavyweight title against the company’s heavyweight champion Brandon Vera, with the bantamweight title on the line in a co-main clash between Bibiano Fernandes and Kevin Belingon.

In the months following the announcement, ONE also revealed a new broadcast partner for the event. In early September, popular combat sports streaming platform FITE TV sent out a press release stating it had reached an agreement with the Asian MMA promotion to show both cards of ONE: Century on pay-per-view. The streaming service will have exclusive international distribution rights of the events outside of current deals set in place in the US, Asia, New Zealand, and the DACH region.

The broadcast deal set forth in the United States is of particular note, however, when it comes to ONE’s historic event. Up until this point, stateside viewers have had the ability to download the ONE Championship app and, after registering an account with B/R Live, watch ONE events for free. ONE: Century, however, will be shown on across two different platforms in the US: the first card will be shown live on TNT, while ONE Century: Part 2 will be broadcast via B/R Live, which has a monthly subscription price of $9.99 per month.

You read that right; the promotion has finally decided to move its content behind a paywall for its North American viewers. The Body Lock has confirmed with ONE Championship that neither of the ONE: Century events will be available via the promotion’s app.

The move isn’t entirely unexpected. Ever since ONE partnered with Turner and its subsidiary at the beginning of 2019, pundits have speculated that the Singapore-based MMA organization’s content would be packaged with other Turner Sports offerings behind B/R Live’s subscription service. Given the stacked lineup of both cards (although Eddie Alvarez is no longer featured) its not surprising that the parties involved decided to pull the trigger at this time.

How North American fans will respond to the change is an entirely different question. ONE: Century Part 1 will be broadcast live on TNT during primetime television in the United States at 8 pm EST and will go head to head against UFC Fight Night 161, which is headlined by a pivotal strawweight bout between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michelle Waterson. Although ONE will most likely capture the unknown subset of MMA fans that haven’t cut the cable cord but don’t subscribe to ESPN+, that number is probably relatively small, and if fans are forced to choose between watching between the two events the UFC will have much stronger name value for an American audience.

Demetrious Johnson attempts a kick against Tatsumitsu Wada at ONE Championship: Dawn of Heroes in Manila, Philippines
Demetrious Johnson attempts to kick Tatsumitsu Wada at ONE Championship: Dawn of Heroes in Manila, Philippines (ONE Championship)

For ONE: Century Part 2, the event will be available to stream live through the B/R Live app, but starts at the daunting hour of 4 am EST. Although fans will have the option to watch the replay on demand if they don’t want to get up that early, avoiding spoilers in route to re-watching fights can be a hassle depending on how the app is set up. What’s more, it doesn’t exactly entice American consumers to pony up the $9.99 per month for the first time on an event that isn’t during a convenient timeslot, especially with illegal streaming sites usually having access to such content the day after it airs.

All that being said, there probably isn’t a better time to make the switch. MMA fans have already proven that they’re willing to pay a fair amount for content, and hardcore ONE Championship fans in the US will most likely pay for the subscription to B/R Live. Airing the first card on TNT also has the potential to create new/convert casual fans with little exposure to MMA, as the network has little sports content aside from NBA basketball. Even if that number is small, it’s very possible that ONE has realized it may have more success attracting new or casual consumers with little exposure to the sport rather than getting existing MMA fans to pay more on top of their current subscription plans.

ONE also needs to find ways to raise revenue as it continues its push into the North American market. As exposed last year in a report by John S. Nash, the promotion’s finances don’t appear to be in the best shape with accumulating losses reaching over $92.5 million. While the organization has continued to raise capital despite mounting losses, venture capitalist firms have taken a beating in the past year over betting on Unicorn IPOs and there could be increased concern from potential investors over ONE’s financials moving forward.

Either way, come October 13 we’ll have some objective data regarding ONE Championship’s viewership claims and whether or not the change is a success. The first part of ONE: Century will report ratings because its broadcast on network television, and if the numbers are good, we can expect B/R Live to announce an increase in subscriptions after the second card has aired. For ONE there isn’t much downside to going behind the paywall, but in terms of it actually being worthwhile to the promotion from a financial and growth standpoint, only time will tell.

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