The Asian Champion
This self-made entrepreneur and lifelong martial artist from Thailand has a rags-to-riches life story
Chatri Sityodtong is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of ONE Championship, Asia’s largest global sports media property in history with a broadcast to over 2.7 billion potential viewers across 150+ countries around the world. Through the power of media and the magic of storytelling, ONE Championship is on a mission to unleash real-life superheroes, celebrate values, ignite dreams, inspire nations, and change the world. Chatri Sityodtong has an estimated net worth of US$350 million and will be the star of the upcoming edition of The Apprentice where 16 candidates will be vying to be the protege of one of Asia's leading entrepreneurs. Here’s the Thailand sensation on his self-made journey and how he’s redefining the future of martial arts.
With 'Apprentice' you seem to be raising a 'scion' to your throne. What message would you want to give to 'wantrepreneurs' from India?
I believe there are 5 key traits - merely prerequisites in the world of entrepreneurship. First, integrity. A great entrepreneur knows how to build an enterprise with integrity as its core. Second, the law of attraction and means the uncanny ability to identify, attract, and retain people and institutions who can accelerate success along multiple fronts. It means inspiring employees, customers, investors, partners, vendors, and everyone else necessary to join the mission and help the fruition of a vision. The third is Culture - You cannot have extraordinary performance without a company/team culture that inspires greatness and unity. Execution, in that a world-class entrepreneur is at ease with making major decisions without perfect information. True leaders must be fearless in striving to do the right thing for the people they serve, even if they may be misunderstood or ridiculed. Lastly, adaptability because like Charles Darwin said, it is the one that adapts most efficiently to the changing environment that survives. As an entrepreneur, one should listen, learn, absorb, adapt, and evolve every day. In the business world, humility is the key to learning. There is a multitude of other factors that are required such as grit, emotional intelligence, intellectual horsepower, common sense, leadership, street hustle. Ultimately, entrepreneurship is about changing the world. And it requires everything and more to do so.
You've had an inspirational journey so far? What is your secret mantra to success and who has been your role model?
I’ve been doing martial arts my entire life; I’ve been doing muay Thai ever since I was a child. My teacher, whose name is Kru Yodtong Senanan, was the founder of the Sityodtong Camp, one of the most successful muay Thai camps in Thailand. He taught me many life lessons and one of them was, you know, if you go into the ring to fight, it doesn't matter whether you lose or win - I mean, of course, you try to win - but the most important thing is giving 100 percent heart. That means that if you’ve done your best, and you really gave everything you had, then you’ve done your duty. I always keep those thoughts in my mind and obviously I had a lot of inspirational role models that I looked up to, like Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali. You know, a lot of people like that. During my tough times, I looked at their lives and I was like, ‘Damn, my life is nowhere near as tough as that.’ That gave me the inspiration to go on.
It has been an exhilarating journey in India! This country enjoys one of the largest youth population and has so much to offer to sports - both in terms of talent and audience base. India has the power to turn a sport into a religion and an athlete into a global icon.
How has the ONE Championship journey been in India? How has the ONE Championship journey been in India?
It has been an exhilarating journey in India! This country enjoys one of the largest youth population and has so much to offer to sports - both in terms of talent and audience base. India has the power to turn a sport into religion and an athlete into a global icon. We are blessed to have an amazing partner in Star Sports and Hotstar, where our lives and shoulder content is distributed every 2 weeks to almost a billion households in India on various Star Sports channels. Our social media and broadcast programs in India are also now in Hindi, which will tremendously increase the appeal of ONE’s heroes and content to tens of millions of Indians, especially in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns and cities where English is not prevalent. Furthermore, India is one of our core markets and we have a few huge stars representing India competing on our global platforms such as Ritu Phogat, Arjan Bhullar, Gary Mangat, and Puja Tomar. In February last year, before the pandemic hit India, we held an open workout for Ritu Phogat for the first time in New Delhi, ahead of her match in Singapore (which she won!). She has then gone on to win 2 of her other matches, putting India on the global martial arts map. Our Indian fans and the media got a small taste of our on-ground events and brand of martial arts, but that is only the beginning. We are looking forward to doing so much more in India once the situation with COVID-19 improves.
How important is India as a source market and how much of ONE's strategy will pivot around India expansion for 2021?
India is among the key top 5 markets for us at ONE Championship owing to its increasing propensity towards the sport. ONE Continues to invest in the Indian Market, with Star Sports, and by featuring Indians on the world stage on our other content stacks. The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition already features some great Indian judges such as Ankiti Bose (India’s youngest female CEO of a near-unicorn) and Sudhir Agarwal, CEO of a Global BPO Tech company called Everise. We will also have some amazing contestants from India who will compete with peers from around the world to become my apprentice. Moreover, we will work with Star TV to build a local league in India and establish a talent pipeline to find and build the future Ritu Phogats of India. All our local and foreign athletes are our brand ambassadors and play a huge role in increasing the popularity of mixed martial arts in India. When these athletes do well in the Circle, competing with honor, courage and integrity and adhering to the values of martial arts, they make their country and fans proud and draw attention to the great qualities that embody martial arts.
When will India bear witness to a ONE live event?
Hopefully once the pandemic subsides globally. People don't realise that India has a very rich history of martial arts, especially in wrestling. India has many phenomenal wrestlers. In the next three to five years, India will produce a world champion in MMA. This is apart from Ritu. We have Arjun Bhullar and Garry Mangat (both Canadians of Punjab origin) and we also have signed some high-level wrestlers. We aren't just looking for athletes with an MMA background. The most important thing is whether (prospective signings) have the talent, mental strength, desire, and humility to learn and grow. Do they have the World Championship mindset and instinct? The reality is that there is not that much money in wrestling. The level of training they must put into MMA is the same that they put into their wrestling careers but the rewards are much greater.
What are some of the key learnings from the ONE 'Circle' that has helped you stay afloat in the business?
Our Values (Integrity, Respect, Courage, Discipline, Compassion), Grit, willingness to experiment and pivot have helped me smoothly sail through my entrepreneurship journey. Besides creativity (eg launching esports and apprentice) has helped me to reinvent myself and be agile and nimble-footed just like our athletes who are constantly redefining their skills and strengths basis the opponent they face.
If you go into the ring to fight, it doesn’t matter whether you lose or win - the most important thing is Giving 100% Heart. That means that if you’ve done your best, and you really gave everything you had, then you’ve done your duty
What alterations have ONE made in line with the new normal?
We really focused on what we could do online, what could we do digitally, and we put a lot of focus on that. So again, like our esports division did online tournaments that hit some very strong viewership numbers and revenue numbers. Obviously, coming up with new content stacks that are not tied to our shows. So, for example, in The Apprentice which will be airing on March 2021, we’ve evolved from much more than just a sports media property. We’re truly now you know, a media company with a diverse content stack. And I think this is something that Covid has brought out in us. I told my team when we had a company meeting at the very beginning of the pandemic. The keys to success in this environment are two-fold. One is creativity because we are going to be faced with problems we’ve never seen before. So we have to be even more creative about solutions and products that we launch. And then resilience -- we are going to get more rejections, failures, obstacles, setbacks, and mistakes than ever before. And having the resilience and grit to fight through all that will help us fight the storm. We have been working with various governments to organize tournaments in line with all COVID protocols (eg in Thailand in July, August, and September 2020). In Singapore, we brought back live events last year in October, starting with having no audience to now having 250 fans in the stadium thanks to the support of the Singapore government who worked with us to ensure all health and safety protocols have been followed. We also shot an entire season of The Apprentice in a record time of 2 months during the pandemic, working closely with the Singapore govt to fly in contestants and judges. There is a lot to look forward to. I always say that in crisis, you really discover who you are as a person, who you are as an individual, and as a team. And one quote that comes to mind, always is, you know: “Ships are not made for the calm waters of the harbor, ships are made for the rough seas in search of new horizons” and “Great captains are made in rough seas, never in the calm of the harbor.” That's why I said, you know, I think, I genuinely believe that the best companies in the world will not only survive, they will thrive in the same way ONE Championship is thriving in this environment. The show must go on. You will only see more and more shows from ONE Championship, more and more content stacks.
Do you follow any business magnate from India? Who would that be and why?
Indian entrepreneur, Saurabh Mittal is my best buddy from Harvard. We were among the poorest kids at Harvard over 20+ years ago, but we both somehow managed to make it. The coolest thing is that we have always helped each other every step of the way. It is embarrassing to admit, but we have spoken on the phone almost every week without fail since 1997 until today. I am so thankful that we are together on this extraordinary adventure called ONE Championship.
(This article was first published in the April 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)