If there's one lesson the UFC learned with their botched purchase of PRIDE, it's that business is not as usual in the Land of the Rising Sun. While the UFC never formally withdrew from Japan, they also refused to remove conquering the Japanese market as a top priority. They have watched as the internal scene has slowly crumbled and it appears that while clear hurdles remain for market re-entry, they are readying the Trojan Horse.
Mark Fischer, Zuffa Asia Executive Vice President and Managing Director, told MMA Fighting about the latest iteration of the organization's effort to regain control of the key East Asian market:
"TV Bank and NTT Plala's distribution of our content will bring UFC content to new audiences," said Fischer to MMA Fighting. "For example TV Bank's official UFC mobile site is being made available to all 100 million mobile phone users in Japan, and NTT Plala's Hikari TV channel will reach their growing base of 1.3 million subscribers."
The issue with the existing WOWOW TV broadcast and the new TV Bank and NTT Plala deals is that they are supplemental methods of distribution. The consumers must still actively seek out the content and it will be difficult to reach new fans. At the moment, Fischer is banking on the UFC's history of international success.
Herbertson's analysis is spot on: in a country of 127 million, reaching some portion of 1.3 million via emerging technologies isn't exactly what will put Zuffa over the top. But they will give Zuffa at least some measure of basic data about consumer habits and preferences, which is critical. More on this later.
The major objective and true necessity for any real success in Japan means securing a network television deal. All promoters are still living in the shadow of the yakuza scandal that killed PRIDE, so obtaining and keeping a network deal in the affected climate is easier said than done. Fischer expands on where Zuffa is on that essential front:
"Certainly, [getting a network TV deal] remains one of our key objectives but we are patient and realize there are a number of steps to take to get there," says Fischer. "The sport of MMA still has a deep base of popularity in Japan. The combination of this fundamental base, the UFC's global leadership of the sport and our commitment to excellence in everything we do, and the participation in UFC of a number of locally relevant fighters, is a potent formula which will ultimately make UFC an attractive property for network TV in Japan. We are also looking at creating innovative programming most suitable for network TV, which will help us get those relationships started and then we can build from there."
The real takeaway for me here is that Zuffa may be once bitten, but they aren't twice shy. Most importantly, what Zuffa has come to grips with is that the UFC product as we understand it will have to be fundamentally adapted to meet market realities - especially in Japan where habits, expectations and idiosyncrasies are unlike anything in the West.
Keeping continuity in the Zuffa/UFC brand is essential as well, so working in flexibility without losing identity will be a major challenge. Armed with a "slow and steady wins the race attitude", though, is precisely what is needed to make the tiny requisite steps forward. I wouldn't be so bold as to introduce a timeline for Japanese re-entry via network television, but I would say we are getting closer to the day where we can say it is inevitable.