Li Kaiwen wants to win as many UFC belts he can. Photo: ONE Championship
Li Kaiwen wants to win as many UFC belts he can. Photo: ONE Championship

Everyone wants a piece of China’s sports industry and the figures show exactly why. By 2020, the market is expected to be worth more than 3 trillion yuan (US$434.4 billion) – and around 5 trillion yuan by 2025 – as the central government throws its weight behind sport as a mainstay of both society and of the Chinese economy.

“The giant is gently being awakened,” Tenniel Chu, vice-chairman of Mission Hills Group, told the LeSports Connect’s forum at his company’s complex in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan last month.

The horror stories are having no damping effect. It’s common knowledge that doing business in the world’s most populous country can send even the savviest executives into a tailspin.

Striking the right partnerships, finding talent and navigating one’s way around complex government and media regulations has put the brakes on many aspiring companies looking to China for growth.

Major players in sports are undaunted. A wave of the globe’s largest franchises – from the WWE to the NFL and the NBA – are sharpening their focus and homing in on the huge potential that sits before them. And Mixed Martial Arts is trying to beat them all to the punch.

Read: Meet two dragons leading the MMA charge

As part of its “aggressive expansion” into the world’s fastest-growing sports market, the Asia-based ONE Championship MMA organization is making a renewed push to gain ground – and gain it quickly.

So far, the company has held five events across mainland China, including in tier-one cities Beijing and Shanghai, and one in the southern gambling enclave of Macau. But come 2017, this will grow to as many as 10 events, according to chief executive Victor Cui, who is personally making the move from Singapore to Shanghai to oversee these growth ambitions.

CEO Victor Cui is overseeing the China push. Photo: ONE Championship

“I’m moving in December and I’m very excited about that,” Cui says.“Our company is still young, we’re only five years old, and we have spent a lot of time focusing on the region outside of China. We’ve held five events in China so far and next year we are doubling that to 10.”

As part of a huge 2017 schedule, ONE’s events in China will start with Beijing, before heading to Macau, Shenzhen and Shanghai. This is in addition to 13 events already announced across Asia, with more expected to be unveiled in the coming months. “This is the beginning of our focus on entering China and making sure we do it right,” Cui adds.

Earlier this year, ONE Championship opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and the organization now has a team dedicated exclusively to the China market. Cui added that growing ONE’s staff base across both cities would be a top priority.

MMA in China is still a young industry, but recent developments have garnered interest from some powerful corners.

Watch: Manny Pacquiao buys stake in One FC

Earlier this year Chinese property developer Dalian Wanda Group was said to be the leading bidder for the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), along with China Media Capital.

Flush with new investment funds, domestic promotions Art of War and Kunlun are continuing to make ground by holding regular events and signing new talent.

Korean promotion ROAD Fighting Championship is equally aggressive in its Chinese growth ambitions. Already, ROAD has held four shows across mainland China and management says plans are in place for five and potentially more, to be held in the year ahead.

Fast and furious action. Photo: ONE Championship

But perhaps the biggest unknown is how the UFC’s new owners – WME-IMG – will tackle China. When UFC launched in Asia, Beijing was picked as its regional headquarters, but that quickly shifted to Singapore, where it remains today.

Although the UFC has held events in Macau – a special administrative region of China – it has not done so in mainland China. That, too, may change.

Earlier this year, WME-IMG announced plans to reestablish a China presence, naming NBA veteran Michael Ma as chief executive of WME-IMG China, with the goal of expanding the company’s sport and entertainment properties, including the UFC.

WME-IMG’s presence in China has spanned several decades and includes representing athletes such as now-retired grand slam tennis champ Li Na, as well as managing pro golf and tennis tournaments, as well as niche events such as The Color Run (a 5km race) and the Tough Mudder obstacle course race.

Finding success in China is a long-term game, but one that will prove lucrative in the years to come. The battle lines for this ever-expanding market have officially been drawn.

Matt Eaton is Managing Editor of The Fight Nation