Race to breach China market heats up for U.S. sports

Wed Nov 14, 2012 3:07am EST
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By Peter Rutherford

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - China lies at the heart of global expansion plans for many of the world's biggest sports organizations. But whether it's the search for a new superstar or selling caps to 1.3 billion people, most find cracking the Chinese market a whole new ball game.

Among the heavy hitters of North American sport, only the National Basketball Association seems to be a slam-dunk with Chinese fans so far, thanks in no small part to Shanghai-born Yao Ming's success with the Houston Rockets.

After getting off to a slow start in China, the NFL has been ramping up its efforts to match those of the NBA and Major League Baseball, though unlike the other leagues it has no plans to stage a game there anytime soon.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), with its high-octane China debut in the glittering gambling Mecca of Macau on Saturday, is the latest sports organization from the United States to look East for future growth.

The world's biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion is keen to muscle in on the action in China and while other leagues take it one step at a time, the UFC can afford to adopt a more aggressive approach, its Asia chief Mark Fischer told Reuters.

"We are moving faster than the other leagues simply because we can," said Fischer, who was one of the key figures in the NBA's drive into China before moving to the UFC.

"Fighting is universal. It doesn't require a full team, it doesn't take a ton of explanation about the rules, you watch it and you understand it."

The UFC has worked to distance itself from an early incarnation as a blood-spattered spectacle to a highly professional combat sport blending striking and grappling martial arts such as boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling and judo.   Continued...