SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced on Thursday it has signed a multi-year deal with venues in Macao and Singapore to stage mixed martial arts events in the region from next year.
The UFC said it would hold events at The Venetian resort hotel in Macau and Singapore's Marina Bay Sands from 2014, and produce a Chinese version of its reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
The organisation made its first foray into Greater China last year with a glitzy event in Macau and Mark Fischer, the UFC's Asia chief, told Reuters the success of that event had been a springboard to their latest expansion plans.
"The event in Macau was a tremendous success and I think it was an eye-opener for both the fans and the UFC," Fischer told Reuters by telephone from Beijing.
"We'll be bringing at least one live fight event to the Singapore Marina Bay Sands, with the first one coming early first quarter next year.
"We'll have well-known fighters on the main card but we want to fill the card with more Asian fighters. We really want to build a base and... create more relevance with local audiences."
Fischer, who was one of the driving forces behind the National Basketball Association's growth in China, said The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show could be key in cracking the Chinese market.
"We are still at the investment stage but we do see tremendous long-term potential here. TUF China is a watershed, we believe it's going to do more for growing the brand and the sport of MMA among the Greater China audience than any other programme to date.
"In terms of making money, I'm sure Asia is going to be very fruitful but right now we still consider it a building phase, but this is a huge step in that build."
One of the fastest-growing sports in the world, MMA is a full contact combat sport that allows fighters to utilize techniques from both striking and grappling martial arts such as boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling and judo.
Already hugely popular in mature MMA markets such as the United States, Brazil, Japan and Canada, the UFC is looking to extend its reach throughout Asia.
Clearly looking to hook Chinese viewers, the UFC statement said applicants for The Ultimate Fighter show must "speak Mandarin, be of Chinese decent and able to compete as a featherweight, lightweight or welterweight".
The show features up-and-coming mixed martial artists living and training together, and competing with each other for a UFC contract. The U.S. version catapulted the UFC, and the sport, into the mainstream in 2005.
"It's definitely a series targeted at a Chinese audience," said Fischer, adding that the sport's following there had so far been built on provincial television channels and on Internet streaming sites.
"But it's been relatively niche, and we think this series is going to spread that niche following to more of a mainstream one."
As to when the UFC would hold events on the Chinese mainland, Fischer said they first had to reach a critical mass.
"It's a question of strategy and how aggressive we want to get. We've had a very deliberate and patient strategy to date, and TUF is a very big step in the middle of that strategy.
"Certainly in the longer term we want to hold regular events here, but we need to do it at the right time. We want to build up demand, build up a very strong understanding of the sport, before we bring the live events here."
With the growing popularity of Asian fighters such as the "Korean Zombie" Jung Chan-sung, Kim Dong-hyun and Yushin Okami, Fischer said the UFC was looking at several other cities in the region to host events.
"Seoul and Jakarta, no firm plans yet but we are in discussions in both of those cities," he added.
"Manila is in our sights, we're in advanced talks with Tokyo and I guess to round it out would be Bangkok. There's lots of interest throughout the region but those are the key cities for 2014."
Editing by John O'Brien