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Chatri Sityodtong’s journey as an entrepreneur is the stuff legends are made of. The Founder, Chairman and CEO of ONE Championship, the world’s No. 1 martial arts organization, has lived a childhood shorn of financial stability. His biggest support – as solid as rock – has been his mother, a fragile lady who was always fearful of her son picking up an injury in the mixed martial arts biz he had decided to kick off. ONE, the company he founded, has more than 400 million fans worldwide now, according to Nielsen, with global broadcasts in more than 150 countries. With an already unprecedented footprint in the Asia-Pacific region, ONE has now set its sights firmly on the hugely promising Middle East market, alongside the US, China and other key markets.
Sityodtong, the founder of the company that recently announced a landmark agreement with global broadcasting giant Amazon Prime Video Sports — which has more than 200 million subscribers worldwide — believes Qatar is on its way to becoming one of the most important sports media hubs in the world and is deeply impressed with the work ethic of Qataris and the grand vision of Qatari leadership. The Singapore-based organization has on its list martial arts world champions from more than 80 countries, including Iran, Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East.
Right now, ONE is exploring partnership opportunities with various potential partners in Qatar, he told Mehre Alam, during a one-to-one online interview from Singapore. “We hope to set up our regional headquarters in Doha,” he divulged in a long chat that covered a fairly wide canvas of topics. Here are excerpts of the interview (edited for concision):
You managed to reach Harvard despite a financially-strained childhood. Post-Harvard you were offered big paychecks but you opted to set up your own venture. And when your company was doing great you chose to launch from scratch your venture in mixed martial arts. Do you love taking risks?
Well, I think if you ask my childhood friends, I think many of them would say that, yes, I was always the crazy one. I always took risks. I was always a little bit weird in that way. But at the same time, if you ask my mother, she would say that, I always follow my heart – professionally or personally. And once I’m ignited by a calling, I always follow it. At the end of the day, all of us leave this beautiful earth. For me, the only thing meaningful is the love we share with our families and our friends and equally important, the impact we make on our countries or the world. All of us have such little time that when we leave, we should’ve utilized our time to make the world just a little bit better place than how we found it. For me, this is the meaning of life. We must search and discover our true purpose, our true passion in life.
How do you look at the COVID-19 pandemic – a challenge or an opportunity? Going by your company’s track record, you seem to have grown more robust in this period.
We were very fortunate to hit record-high viewership numbers in 2020. We hit record-high viewership numbers in 2021. And we garnered record-high revenue in 2020-2021. As you know, the world shut down in March 2020 and we were not allowed to hold live events anymore. For two or three days I was very depressed. It seemed my life’s work was going to go down the drain. One day I woke up after two days of slumber. I woke up and said to myself that this, actually, is the best time for us to prove ourselves. Is this the worst economic crisis in 100 years? And my team – the greatest team, as we say – and I decided that this was our opportunity to shine, so I called a company meeting. I said, ‘I know everyone’s feeling down. I want everyone here to feel inspired by this adversity because adversity is the mother of greatness’.
I said, ‘if we are resilient, if we’re fighters, if we’re warriors, if we have grit, and if we have creativity, we will be fine’.
You need the grit to keep fighting, you need the creativity to solve new problems. So, with the flip of mindset, I challenged my team to set sights on record-high viewership numbers and record-high revenues. And we achieved it. And again, I give all the credit to my team. I’m blessed to serve the greatest team on the planet. And I truly mean it.
How do you see Qatar emerging as a global sporting event?
Qatar is on its way to becoming one of the most important sports media hubs in the world. I’ve been to Middle East countries many a time in the last few years. I’m very impressed with the Qatari people. I am truly amazed by the Qatari leadership. I have met many Qatari leaders. I have met His Highness the Amir of the State of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The Amir has laid out the roadmap of Qatar’s future economy after natural gas and oil starts to decline, after the next 20/30 years. And you know, the key industries are obviously going to be finance, media technology, sports etc.
Who would have thought that Qatar could become such a powerhouse that it wins the World Cup hosting rights? And then on top of the Asian Games as well, and possibly the Olympics? So, when you look at all these pieces, you really say, ‘Wow, Qatar is a country, a visionary country that punches way above its weight. And I find Qataris to be some of the most humble, kind and intelligent people who are genuinely doing good work across the world. I really believe that Qatar is going to become one of the epicentres of sports globally.
How conducive the Middle East is as a market for martial arts events?
The biggest misconception about martial arts is that it’s about violence. That’s the farthest from the truth. I’ve been doing martial arts for 37 years and I can tell you as someone who has been a student, a competitor, a teacher, a coach, and now CEO of a martial arts company, that through the thousands of hours of training, I have inherited integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. And why do millions of parents send their kids to martial arts schools all over the world? It’s to empower them with these values. You know, they want their kids to be courageous, to be respectable, and include honour and humility in their work ethic. And, of course, it gives you the confidence that you can defend yourself against any potential dangerous situation. So, there’re so many beautiful things about martial arts.
I’m a lifelong martial artist. Martial artists’ grace is Asia’s greatest cultural treasure with incredible values. For thousands of years, people have been practicing martial arts all over the continent of Asia. I want to showcase the beauty of these values. I want to showcase the heroes who inspire people with their stories of overcoming adversity, poverty and tragedy.
How is your company’s Middle East push going to benefit the locals?
The locals here are global talents and global stars. We have Moroccan athletes, we have Egyptian athletes, and we have Iranian athletes. We have Abdulaziz Al Obaidly, the Qatari swimmer who hogged limelight all across the world a few months ago. He’s a homegrown talent and is a ONE channel-sponsored athlete. We celebrate martial arts in the right way as we build heroes. And we’re doing the same thing across the Middle East. He is an extraordinary talent, who I believe will be a world champion in the future. Now think about it. If Qatar can produce a homegrown martial arts world champion, that’s going to be an incredible story. And I really believe it’s possible.
Your company’s last major (live) show in the Middle East was in the year 2014 (in Dubai). What explains this eight-year gap that marks your company’s new Middle East push?
I think it has to do with the fact that we were born in Asia, and obviously, Middle East is a part of Asia. Those were the early days – we were born in 2011. In those early days, we were going from country to country. But now we’ve grown so big and we’re truly global. We’re entering America with our Amazon Prime deal. We are entering Middle East with our Middle Eastern athletes and Qatar Investment Authority’s (QIA) investment in ONE. So many great things are happening like the Nielsen industry report showing us at number five on the list of the world’s largest sports properties. So now we feel this is the right time to scale globally, out of Asia, to Europe, to Middle East, to North America, to Latin America, we really feel it’s the right time. The next step is truly global, for ONE Championship.
Your company is gearing up for some live events in the Middle East. What should the sports buffs expect?
I cannot announce anything right now, but I can tell you that we will be hosting events in the Middle East, we will be hosting events in Europe, we’ll be hosting events in North America. So, when you ask how our events are going to benefit the Middle East region, my answer is that our live broadcast will be spanning over 150 countries. So, the whole world will be watching wherever we host out of the Middle East. It’s a very big opportunity to do something very big and significant in the Middle East. When you look at this region, it’s very clear that everyone believes in the power of sports. Everyone wants to drive business investment and tourism and eyeballs through sports, media and entertainment.
We believe ONE has the right property with its values of integrity, humility, honour, respect, courage, discipline, and compassion. And we’re doing it the right way – shattering the misconceptions about martial arts, that it’s about violence. In fact, it [martial arts] really is Asia’s greatest cultural treasure. And we’re here to celebrate the values that every family can celebrate. We’re here to tell stories that inspire the world. We’re here to unleash real life heroes, who give hope and dreams and inspiration to everybody. So that’s the mission of ONE and I believe, again, with the Qatar Investment Authority investment that, we’re going to do some very big things together on the global stage of business, and sports.
How do you see the future of eSports in the region?
Yes. We look at both martial arts and eSports. These are the two most popular content stacks for millennials and Gen Z all across the world on social media or digital TV etc. The time is ripe for this industry to grow considering how popular sports and video games are with the youth. If you look at how fast martial arts is growing in the Middle East, I can see it as a great way to build multi-billion-dollar industries – from employment to driving foreign talents into the region to pushing tourism and business investment. Martial arts and eSports are two concepts that are homeruns, really big, big sports trends that Qatar and the Middle East can benefit from.
Your company has successfully completed the Funding Round with Qatar Investment Authority. How do you think this is going to impact your business strategy?
Right now, ONE is exploring partnership opportunities with various potential partners in Qatar. We hope to set up our regional headquarters in Doha. I think very big things will come up. Again, I’m so grateful that Qatar Investment Authority and the incredible leadership really promote a partnership mindset. It’s amazing how partnership-minded QA is. They’re always thinking about how to help ONE and think of ways we can work together to increase the pie for everybody. I think we’re just at the gates of something spectacular for Qatar and for the region.
The fact that you are planning a regional headquarters in Doha is big news for the region. What kind of fillip will it provide to your company’s overall strategy?
I think that was a big part of Qatar Investment Authority’s investment in ONE and the partnership mindset to do big things together. Right now, we’re working together on partnership structures, we’re in the very early stages of setting up our regional headquarters, but I think it will happen, over the next 12 months. That’s a significant investment from ONE, and also something of a deep partnership to propel ONE among top five sports properties. Having a regional headquarters in the region will be a tremendous boost for us, really,
Qatar is known for backing big ideas. Does your company’s motto find a symmetry there?
Qatar’s media industry is still young, relatively. That’s another reason why I think it’s a win-win partnership. For example, ONE has helped to build the media industry here in Singapore over the last 10 years. Qatar’s media industry is like Singapore’s some 10 years ago. So, we’ve gone through all the growth and learning from key foreign talents, to, spreading intellectual property – the know-how knowledge transfer from foreign talent to local talent. We’ve grown brick by brick. I feel we can do the same thing with Qatar by helping build a world-class media industry, a world-class sports media industry, in partnership with the Qatari government.
What’s your message for budding and aspiring entrepreneurs?
My advice to anyone who wants to succeed in life is to be authentic. Authenticity is everything. But you must look inside. All of life’s biggest questions are actually not external but internal. You must find your true passion, your true purpose in life. And when you find alignment with your authentic self, this is when you can live your greatest life.
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