Shinya Aoki and Xiong Jing Nan after ONE: A New Era

“We don’t sell fights. We build heroes.”

Those are the words of ONE Championship Chairman and CEO, Chatri Sityodong, in a Facebook post published early Saturday morning discussing ONE Elite Agency (OEA), an invitation-only sports agency tied to the promotion that launched in November of last year. The post prefaced an announcement made on April 29 that the company was increasing the requirements to become a certified agent, manager, or advisor that works with fighters under the ONE Championship banner.

Some of the requirements include a mandatory one-year residency in Asia, a college or university degree, and ten years of mixed martial arts industry experience, though it is unspecified as to what that experience can be. There is particular concern among many regarding the residency requirement, with one manager who failed to satisfy the condition reaching out to The Body Lock asking, “So, I cannot offer them anymore to One FC?”

“Requiring an Agent to live in Asia for a year is absurd. No other Professional Sports league in the world requires that,” tweeted prominent MMA manager and NFLPA certified agent Jason House of the requirements. “Requiring an agent to have lived in Asia for a year discriminates against most of the agents across the world. If One wants American fighters, they are going to have to deal with American groups.”

It’s hard to argue that the move doesn’t create a clear conflict of interest for the Singapore-based mixed martial arts promotion. Along with the ability to deny or revoke an agent’s accreditation arbitrarily, only ONE certified agents will be allowed to work with the company’s athletes moving forward. Considering the aforementioned Sityodtong Facebook post regarding the creation of the OEA, it certainly appears like ONE is trying to push fighters into management options that play to the organization’s favor, including itself.

“The biggest competitive advantage for OEA is that it has the full backing of ONE Championship resources, connections, and IP around the world to build global heroes and to help secure opportunities for our athletes,” Sityodtong states in the post. “Whether it is financial opportunities, big fights, marketing dollars, social media content, media coverage, government relations, business connections, retirement packages, or everything else, OEA works with all of the key departments of ONE Championship to drive the biggest opportunities in and out of the circle for OEA athletes.”

With the unlimited access and solidarity OEA has with ONE, OEA can emerge as a dominant force to rival any independent managerial firm. And as an extension of ONE Championship, ONE can effectively cut out the middleman when it comes to negotiating OEA-managed fighters’ contracts.

The decision to only let certified agents work with its athletes may stifle any expansion ONE had planned in international markets as well. Many current managers, agents, and advisors that are well-established in the sport do not meet ONE’s certification requirements, and while the company has successfully recruited notable names from other companies during recent free agency periods, it will be much harder to do moving forward. Without known stars to help raise ONE’s profile as they enter these markets, success will be anything but assured.

While the ethics and business impact surrounding the announcements are certainly an issue, ultimately, they play a critical part in the promotion’s long-term goal: All of its assets, including athletes, under a single umbrella that it can exclusively and wholly control.

Looking at ONE’s recent business decisions, the pattern isn’t hard to see. Just last week Sityodtong announced the launch of ONE Studios, a film and television production division of ONE Championship that has already started filming. ONE eSports, a competitive esports series hosted by the organization that launched around the same time as OEA, is planning multiple events with former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson as its chief brand ambassador. The company even partnered with fashion e-commerce platform Zilingo to create an athleisure business, selling athletic gear and apparel as well as “urban lifestyle streetwear in line with the latest trends.”

That’s the endgame—building a brand through vertical and horizontal integration that encompasses the entirety of – and transcends – mixed martial arts.

It’s a similar idea to what World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) currently has in place. While professional wrestling is their bread and butter, the WWE has an ownership interest in the Tapout clothing brand, a music label, and a film production company, WWE Studios. The products that come from each of these companies all revolve around the “WWE Universe”, with wrestlers often having a lead role in films, and Tapout regularly producing custom WWE fan apparel.

This type of strategy focuses less on attracting new customers and more on leveraging from the existing consumer base. Instead of attempting a new service/product that may or may not attract the new, casual viewer, a business can sell more of a brand that it knows already resonates with a die-hard following. While the amount of potential revenue that can be generated this way is lower than if a group of new customers began to buy the product, it comes with considerably less risk.

ONE has stated that it will make an exception to their new certification rules, including the Asian residency requirement, on a case-by-case basis, opening the door for some of the bigger names in the industry to still work with the organization. Although the company’s financials are concerning, the promotion shows no signs of slowing down its diversification in its product mix, trying to build its own ONE universe, where its fighters will be seen as more than just men and women in the cage.

As Sityodong’s opening quote of this article stated, ONE is trying to build real-life superheroes, not just sell fights. While we wait and see if the company can successfully pull that off, they’ve at least already revealed who will play the villain.

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