Epidemic: How Will the Coronavirus Impact MMA’s Biggest Emerging Markets?
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Late last year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced that women’s strawweight champion Weili Zhang would make her first title defense against former 115-pound queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk, serving as the co-main event of UFC 248.
Set to take place on March 7 in Las Vegas, the fight is viewed as one of the most intriguing matchups in the division, with Zhang currently on a 20-fight win streak and Jedrzejczyk’s only losses at 115-pounds coming against the woman who took her championship, Rose Namajunas. As with many high-profile fights, the two began trading barbs at each other in interviews and over social media, culminating in an Instagram post by Jedrzejczyk which seemed to poke fun at the recent coronavirus outbreak in Zhang’s home country of China. Zhang and the media were quick to slam the Polish native for her insensitivity to the situation and the 32-year-old former champion has since apologized, stating that she simply thought the picture was funny and did not mean to offend anyone.
The sensitivity of the subject demonstrated by Zhang and others is easy to understand. In the month since Jedrzejczyk’s Instagram post, the coronavirus outbreak has gotten significantly worse, with there being over 80,000 confirmed cases and over 2,700 deaths resulting from the virus as of this writing. Entire cities in China are on lockdown, and in several countries schools have closed as a way to prevent the sickness from spreading. As cases of the virus have begun to increase internationally, the disease has started to take a toll on businesses and financial markets, with investors flocking to put their money in safe havens like gold and U.S. treasury bonds.
The effects of the virus can be seen in the MMA industry as well. On Feb. 18, One Championship announced that the promotion’s end-of-the-month show One: King of the Jungle would be converted to a closed-door broadcast event due to the outbreak of the disease in Singapore. Zhang was forced to cut her training camp in Beijing for the upcoming bout with Jedrzejczyk short due to the epidemic, initially moving her preparations to Thailand. After a few days, however, she was once again forced to relocate to Abu Dhabi as Thailand saw more cases of the virus begin to appear. The UFC strawweight champion then had to wait 11 days for her visa to be approved to the U.S., as restrictions have been tightened on travelers from China in recent weeks.
Although Zhang is now in Las Vegas and the fight with Jedrzejczyk seems to be out of jeopardy, the strawweight champion’s ordeal and One Championship’s decision highlight a growing problem that the virus poses for MMA promotions—it threatens their largest emerging markets.
It’s no secret that Asia and the Middle East are the current targets for expansion in the mixed martial arts business. One Championship’s rise to prominence has been fueled by hosting events in regions such as Singapore, China and multiple countries in Southeast Asia in a bid to capture what they believed to be an underserved market. The UFC has recently made a push to capture the Chinese market by putting on multiple cards in the country over the past several years and building a UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai. Once Zhang became their 115-pound champion, the promotion renegotiated their media rights deal in China in hopes of doubling their broadcast revenue in the region.
The Middle East has also been a point of focus for the UFC. Prior to UFC 242, the promotion signed a multi-year agreement with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi to bring one event per year to the country through 2024. The organization’s lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, has become a star in the region due to his dominance and religious ties to Islam, giving the UFC an edge in attracting fans in a market where there is a substantial amount of discretionary income. Although the UAE currently has only 13 cases of the coronavirus, the country’s next-door neighbor Iran has been battling a surge in recent cases of the virus, and fears are that in time it will spread throughout the entire Middle East.
Should transmission of the virus continue to affect those markets in more severe ways, several promotions could see their plans for growth in those regions diminish. China and Middle East UFC events have done well recently when it comes to attendance, and, although gate for events in either market are rarely announced, one would assume that a fair amount of money was earned from those endeavors. Should the UFC and other organizations be forced to cancel cards that were planned for those areas due to the coronavirus, it would undoubtedly hurt their bottom-line and hinder continued brand growth. While streaming and television broadcast viewership is unlikely to be negatively affected by the global health issue (in fact, they may get a slight boost), the money that promotions receive from such deals are fixed in multi-year contracts, meaning they won’t see any benefit from a temporary spike in viewership unless a deal happens to be up for renewal (which isn’t the case in China for the UFC, at least).
For a company like One Championship, the situation could have a particularly painful impact. Asia is One FC’s backyard, meaning that the shuttering of events like One: King of the Jungle could be a growing trend. Depending on how much One relies on live events for revenue, the coronavirus could impact income, forcing the company to make adjustments due to external factors out of its control.
At this point, it’s still too early to know exactly how the coronavirus will affect MMA promotions, let alone the rest of the world. The CDC has warned United States citizens that they may need to prepare for an impact to their daily lives, meaning that the UFC could end up facing a similar situation to One, though their primary revenue sources are television deals and pay-per-view purchases. No matter what happens, the MMA industry will be following and making preparations for impacts to their business by the coronavirus outbreak, just like the rest of the world.
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