Pounding the pavement: Inside ONE Championship’s pugnacious PR machine

SportsPro travelled to ONE: Unstoppable Dreams in Singapore to learn how ONE Championship’s PR team has succeeded in positioning Asia's largest martial arts organisation as a leader in the fight game.

Pounding the pavement: Inside ONE Championship’s pugnacious PR machine

Loren Mack has been there from the beginning. 

He was there during the early days, when ONE Championship – now the largest martial arts organisation in the world - consisted of just seven people. He was there for the series’ inaugural event in its birthplace of Singapore, when just 6,789 turned up to the country’s 12,000-seater indoor stadium. And he was there on the other end of the phone, when media outlets wouldn’t even entertain the idea of covering ONE’s ambitious plan to strike out in the increasingly saturated fight game.

Indeed, there are few people better placed than ONE’s no-nonsense, straight-talking vice president of PR and communications to track the startup series’ ascent to the summit of the Asian sports market. With a near-US$1 billion valuation and a potential broadcast audience of 1.7 billion across 138 countries, ONE has become Asia’s largest global sports media property in just seven years. But for Mack – the man who has helped establish the company from a global PR perspective - the journey is still in its infancy.

“I don’t consider myself finished,” he says, speaking to SportsPro in Singapore ahead of ONE: Unstoppable Dreams in mid-May. “Every day – that’s no exaggeration – I’m thinking it and breathing it, and I have my team the same way.”

For a long time, that team consisted of just Mack and his industrious PR director Tammy Chan, who came onboard in 2013 to ease the load, before three more members were added as ONE continued its rapid expansion into new markets and filled out its roster of athletes, whose PR is also handled entirely by Mack and his team.

Meticulous in his methods and often described by those around him as dynamic, Mack clearly likes things done a certain way – which is why he’s often reluctant to get help from PR agencies. He admits that qualifications printed on a sheet of paper rarely resonate with him when it comes to making a new hire. Instead, he says he only needs to spend one fight night observing how a potential employee operates before knowing whether they’ll fit into ONE’s pugnacious PR machine.

“I have four girls that work under me; I still don’t know if they ever went to college or if they ever did PR – I don’t talk to them about that – but I know they’ve got hustle, dedication, and go above and beyond the call of duty, and they know I’m doing the same, and that’s why I think that this works.

“I like people that work hard, are determined and focused, and as long as you continue to build the team that way, you’re always going to attract the right people. I’m very selective - if someone wants in I want to see them in action and shadow them. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a résumé in my life.”

Sam-A Gaiyanghadao kicks out at Sergio Wielzen during a ONE Super Series bout in Singapore

A graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Mack is a proud New Yorker, and says that his hard-working mentality is something that has filtered down through his family tree, right from his grandfather who grew up in Brooklyn. He recalls that when he was 13 years old, his friends would go off to day camp while he was sent to work a summer job washing dishes, which taught him the importance of hard work, and the value of the dollar. 

“Really, the silver bullet is pounding the pavement every single day – I’ve been doing that for the last seven years and I plan to do it for however long it takes," he says. "I’ve been rejected sometimes for years by journalists but I will never give up. That’s what I look for in the people I hire – they have to have that same kind of tenacious mentality.”

And it is that mentality that has helped add legitimacy to ONE’s promise to dominate the global martial arts market. One of the first challenges for any budding sports property is to get noticed, and Mack speaks proudly of getting international coverage from major outlets such as CNN, Forbes and The New York Times. But, he adds, maintaining a good connection with the local media is equally as important. The key, he says, has been getting the basics of marketing and communications right, building solid relationships, and then pursuing those channels relentlessly. 

“Every media is a very big deal - no seat is too small,” he explains. “So if you’re a martial arts website, I’m going to treat you the same way I treat the BBC, because that’s going to blossom into something.  

Really, the silver bullet is pounding the pavement every single day – I’ve been doing that for the last seven years and I plan to do it for however long it takes.

“So really what we’ve been doing is, if it’s a big announcement, we want everybody to know. Once in a blue moon I’ll give an exclusive to a big publication and break the news first, but not hold it solely for them.

“When I see a hit in the Strait Times that’s really important because I know the whole of Singapore reads it. When I see Jakarta Globe in Indonesia covering us that’s huge. We were on the front page of the South China Morning Post this past week, and I understand the value of that. So my contribution and my team’s contribution is to generate publicity every day.”

Looking back, Mack admits that when he joined ONE, he saw tremendous opportunity in the company’s PR operations, and after surveying the landscape, he quickly came up with a strategy. With such a diverse slate of athletes from all over Asia, it became apparent that there was an opportunity to create local heroes in each of the series’ markets for fans to connect with. 

Many of ONE’s athletes come from impoverished backgrounds and as such have compelling stories to tell. Eduard Folayang of the Philippines, for example, lost five siblings as a child, but became the first in his family to be university educated, earning a scholarship through martial arts, and was a high school teacher before being picked up by ONE. Stories like Folayang’s - of overcoming adversity to become a world champion - have helped build a unique storytelling platform that has become central to ONE’s PR and marketing strategy. 

“It’s a big one because for a lot of people, they [the athletes] are larger than life,” says Mack. “They embody incredible values. A lot of journalists want to meet them, hear about them and know about them, because they’re doing something unique and so fascinating to so many people.

“I grew up in the States with hundreds of local heroes from the NBA, NFL, boxing, Olympics etc, and a lot of other countries, they haven’t. So building local heroes is huge.

“What’s so beautiful is that Asia is the home of martial arts, so it’s in the region’s DNA. I would say Asian martial artists are the best in the world, but they were missing an international platform, and when you put an Aung La N Sang in Myanmar or an Angela Lee in Singapore on the international stage, the people have never seen that before. This is maybe their first or second athlete on such a massive stage, so it has been a huge part of ONE, and all we’ve really had to do was give them the opportunity.”

Mack says that qualifications printed on a sheet of paper rarely resonate with him when it comes to making a new hire

As is often the case in Singapore, Lee, the aforementioned home favourite, is headlining the event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in a rematch against Japan’s Mei Yamaguchi. Despite being just 21, Lee – whose success has quickly made her the face of ONE, and whose brother Christian is also fighting for a world title on the same card - addresses a packed room at the pre-event press conference with a calmness and eloquence that defies her years. 

Just off stage, meanwhile, Mack is stood wide-eyed and focused, surveying the ballroom at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre. Whether gesturing towards where the athletes should be standing, ensuring that the translator he has flown in from Thailand is on cue, or guaranteeing that the media have enough access to the fighters, Mack’s attention to detail helps to keep the operation running smoothly.      

“What I like about fight week is that it’s execution time,” he says, “because you’re starting to execute everything you plan for – it’s all those days leading up to that when you don’t want any errors and you want everything perfect.

“But what you’ve got to understand with this business is not everything works out the way you want it to work out and you’ve got to let things roll. I used to hold onto it, and if something’s wrong at a press conference it used to stay on my mind for a while, but now I let it roll, and I do the best that I can, turn it over and focus on the next objective.”

I would say Asian martial artists are the best in the world, but they were missing an international platform, and when you put an Aung La N Sang in Myanmar or an Angela Lee in Singapore on the international stage, the people have never seen that before.

Resonating culturally with the Asian martial arts fanbase has been another key piece of the ONE puzzle; above all else, it’s noticeable that the theme of the build-up to fight night is respect rather than trash-talk. In Europe and the US, fans have become accustomed to sensationalised promotions riddled with scripted press conferences, exaggerated rivalries and no shortage of bad blood. In Asia, however, where onlookers typically value honour over insult, Mack says that approach simply doesn’t work.

“In the West they promote the kind of violence and rough and tumble blood aspect of the sport, but that doesn’t resonate in Asia,” he argues. “What resonates in Asia is the values of martial arts, and that’s where you see that massive mainstream audience come into play, because they want their kids to be like our athletes. 

“Meanwhile in the West, you’ve seen the sport plateau, and they need to bring out that vulgarity to get that instant pay-off, but in the long run it’s hurting the sport. I think the sport of MMA in the West is in trouble because they’re trying to go for that quick money as opposed to what lasts in the long run.”

Singapore favourite Angela Lee, 21, has quickly become the face of ONE since becoming the youngest world champion in MMA history

Despite wanting to distance ONE from the way martial arts is portrayed by the likes of the UFC, Mack puts much of the series’ success down to “bringing Las Vegas-style entertainment to the heart of Asia.” And when fight night rolls around, the inside of the Singapore Indoor Stadium resembles something closer to a high-end nightclub than a sports venue, with blaring music, impressive LED displays and a group of ring girls keeping fans engaged well before the bouts are underway.

However, all that pales into insignificance as the fighters – accompanied by an eye-catching pyrotechnics display - walk out onto a raised platform before facing off one last time. In the stands, barely a seat is vacant for a packed card that is being billed as ONE’s best yet, while fans around the world are tuning in for free via the organisation’s new live streaming app.

So now, if you just look at what the UFC has generated compared to what we’ve generated, and if you look at their press conferences compared to our press conferences, every metric you look at, we’ve beat the UFC in Asia.

It is an occasion that resonates far and wide. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is in attendance for his first ever martial arts event, bringing star power to a scene that is a far cry from ONE’s humble beginnings, when just over half of the same venue was filled for the promotion’s inaugural fight night. Now, Mack jokes that he can’t even offer his wife a ticket because demand is so high.

“In the crowd you’ll have a lot of martial arts fans, a lot of people who want to be a part of the excitement, and a lot of people who just follow Angela Lee because they’re inspired by her,” he says. “So the audience is going to be carved up from your hardcore fans to somebody that’s going to be there for the first time. But I bet you that person who’s there for the first time will come back.”

Mack adds that fight night can seem a little more laid back for him and his team than during the pre-event build-up. Nevertheless, just hours earlier, he was whisking Chatri Sityodtong, ONE’s founder and chief executive, around Singapore to promote the event during interviews with major media outlets like CNBC. Before that, Sityodtong did a keynote speech at a sports business conference, continuing a habit which Mack reveals has been another mechanism for getting the ONE brand recognised internationally. 

“It’s a big part of it, but I think it’s the craft,” he says. “I take the same approach as I do with the athletes: I figure out what’s the story, and then I magnify that story by resonating with the right media that’s interested. Chatri first started generating publicity through business media because of his background and life story, while Victor Cui [ONE’s international chief executive] was more to do with his time spent bringing ONE up in the early days. 

“You just have to know who you’re dealing with and what’s going to work for the media. The one thing about the media is that I don’t want to call them up with any story. I want to give them a story that I think is going to work for them so I’m not wasting their time, so they know when I call that I have something legitimate to talk to them about.”

23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps congratulates Martin Nguyen after the Australian defended his world title against Christian Lee

Much of the noise coming from ONE’s hierarchy over the last 12 months has been aimed directly towards the UFC, which last year sparked something of a turf war when it returned to Asia, declaring itself the biggest provider of MMA content in the region. On top of that, the UFC has since agreed a deal to stage annual events on ONE’s doorstep in Singapore for the next three years. 

Sityodtong, however, has declared that the UFC’s bullish approach to promotion won’t be accepted by Asian martial arts fans, going so far as to say that Conor McGregor, until recently the UFC’s biggest draw, wouldn’t be snapped up by ONE even if he was available.  

Taking on an organisation with the commercial clout of the UFC would make many a PR team sweat, but Mack, who has previously worked for the Vegas-based promotion, seems more than happy to keep fanning the flames. 

“I love it – I love a good fight,” he says. “All I’m doing is telling the truth about what we’ve seen succeed. I’m still very close to some people at the UFC, but I like to win, and the reality is that our brand has smoked the UFC in Asia. That’s not PR, it’s the truth. 

“It’s amazing, because when I first came on board, MMA media wouldn’t even cover us. So now, if you just look at what the UFC has generated compared to what we’ve generated, and if you look at their press conferences compared to our press conferences, every metric you look at, we’ve beat the UFC in Asia. 

“We focus on what works for ONE Championship, but if the question ever comes we just let people know what the reality is. We beat them in broadcast numbers, we beat them in social media numbers, and we have a ton of sponsors while they have maybe one or two.” 

Swallowing up the UFC, though, is just a small part of the plan. Already equipped with world-class event production, Sityodtong is adamant that ONE will eventually replace the National Football League (NFL) as the world’s most valuable sports property.

It is the loftiest of ambitions, yet ONE’s senior executive team is nothing if not driven. In the likes of Folayang and Lee – who beats Yamaguchi in Singapore in five gruelling rounds - it has the stars, and in Asia, it has the international platform. For Mack and his team, it’s now about taking advantage of that and pounding the pavement until ONE’s reputation at home reverberates around the world.