Make or break: ONE Championship starts now

April is a make-or-break month for ONE Championship. Over four straight Wednesdays, the promotion will offer up its best talent to American sports fans in the hopes that the brand can finally gain a foothold in the market.

One month should not be a be-all, end-all litmus test to prove that the organization is the international player it claims to be. However, there are reasons why ONE Championship has gotten to this pressure-filled month, and dark clouds loom on the horizon if the promotion can’t impress over the next four weeks.

The ONE Championship’s big wallet

ONE Championship entered 2019 off an absolute talent acquisition tear. In early October 2018, they stunned us all by scooping up former Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder Eddie Alvarez. It was a deal too good to pass up and one that allegedly the UFC could not match.

Two weeks later, they made mixed martial arts history by “trading” then retired former welterweight champion, Ben Askren, to the UFC for the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet in flyweight demigod Demetrious Johnson. A trade as lopsided as it was shocking.

ONE continued swinging their financial weight around by signing a two-division talent — and one of the UFC’s favorite blondes — in Sage Northcutt the following month. Then, in early 2019, the promotion added MMA legend Vitor Belfort and poached talented UFC heavyweight prospect Arjan Bhullar, who was viewed as a valuable piece for building in-roads to a bubbling Indian MMA market.

Since then, though, the ONE checkbook has seemed locked away in CEO Chatri Sityodtong’s desk.

Former champions, legends, and fan favorites like Anthony Pettis, Fabricio Werdum, Yoel Romero, Anderson Silva, and Rory MacDonald have hit the free-agent market over the last two years. The top promotion in Asia was seemingly never in play or even interested in their services.

All this begs the question: Why did the ONE Championship coffers get sealed up, and is there serious financial trouble for the Singapore-based promotion?

Red ink in their financial ledger

The COVID-19 pandemic hurt every single sports organization in 2020, and ONE Championship was no exception. Yet, questions about the promotion’s financial situation have spun around the MMA news cycle even before the coronavirus almost threw the entire world into a recession.

Fight promotion is a tough business, and starting out in the red is commonplace. Eventually with success, you start making more money than you’re spending. Without a doubt, ONE Championship has grown exponentially since its founding 10 years ago. In addition, records and various financial metrics have shown consistent monetary growth for the organization over the years.

All that said, an in-depth expose by Bloodyelbow in February laid bare the promotion’s recent yearly revenue increases, along with their overwhelming losses. While the organization had a great money-making year in 2019, pulling in US $62 million in revenue, they also racked up huge losses of US $130 million.

The debts certainly explain why the big-ticket talent spending ceased in 2019 as if Thanos blipped away the organization’s credit cards. Then, the losses incurred from event postponements and cancellations because of COVID only added to an already existing issue, which then forced the promotion to cut 20% of its administrative staff last June.

That news also came at the same time as the promotion publicly touting an influx of US $70 million in capital investment. Not only does that look like a massive PR miscue, but releasing staff (a hard-working group that I can vouch for personally) after getting copious amounts of greenbacks in investments looks questionable.

One can only hope the promotion did not trade valuable staff so they could fund their highly promoted version of The Apprentice television show.

Throwing Rodtang and the kitchen sink at ’em

It’s a bummer that it took over two years for ONE Championship and TNT’s partnership to actually produce the opportunities we all expected from the start.

After signing a US broadcast deal with the network in December 2018, ONE Championship content has been non-existent on TNT’s airwaves outside of a few broadcasts. It finally seems like the network is giving the organization a fighting chance in the final year of their pact, though.

These four “ONE on TNT” events — with prelims on BR Live — airing Wednesdays at 10 pm EST/7 pm PST will have the benefit of a worthwhile lead-in: The popular professional wrestling organization All Elite Wrestling, and their weekly episodes of “Dynamite.”

This crossover appeal between professional wrestling and MMA cannot be understated. Many fans follow both industries, especially since an increasing number of MMA fighters are becoming wrestlers and vice versa over the last two decades. Additionally, AEW has proven a solid magnet for the 18 to 49 demographic of viewers. That demo is vital to ONE Championship’s cause for realistic growth, as it’s critical for advertising partners.

ONE Championship also seems quite aware of the importance of this moment. Despite bouncing back from pandemic delays and starting up again in the summer, the promotion held off on booking their biggest American stars in Alvarez, Johnson, and Northcutt for return fights in 2020.

Johnson and Alvarez will both be on the first ONE on TNT event, and Northcutt, along with his sister Colbey, returns three weeks later at ONE on TNT 4. That is not a coincidence.

Those names are familiar to UFC and casual fans, but the promotion is also highlighting many of their best talents throughout the four-week TNT prime time invasion as well.

The first event will be headlined by Muay Thai stud Rodtang Jitmuangnon. There are title defenses for elite talent in Adriano Moraes, Christian Lee, and Aung La Nsang, too. Senegalese powerhouse import Oumar “Reug Reug” Kane returns to action on the first event. Plus, former featherweight champ Martin Nguyen, and Japanese MMA superstars Yoshihiro Akiyama and Shinya Aoki are sprinkled throughout the events.

The promotion understands the gravity of the moment, and are doing all they can to grab the hearts and minds of MMA fans in the US.

The ‘fake it till you make it’ period is over

ONE Championship has been far from perfect during its 10-year run in the industry, yet the same can be said for all fight promotions. However, I admire that they are doing their damnedest to make the strongest case possible to be taken seriously as major players in the sport.

The roster is one worth watching, and I do hope fans tune in to their offering. The fake it till you make it period is over for the organization, and this April, they need to prove they belong. Otherwise, their chances at international relevance may slip away for good.

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