Last December, Leonard Asper announced he had acquired a 30% stake in The Fight Network, an independent sports channel with about 450,000 subscribers. It was Asper’s first foray back into media since he lost control of CanWest, the company his father founded in the 1970s.
Asper’s newest investment unveiled its rebranded look and positioning just ahead of the record-breaking UFC 129 event in Toronto, which sold more than 55,000 seats within minutes. Asper took a break from the pre-UFC 129 fan expo to talk to me about why he thinks mixed martial arts’ mainstream time has come, why he’s back in the CEO seat again, where he hopes to lead Fight Network and more.
CB: What initially attracted you to investing in Fight Network and taking on CEO duties?
Asper: I’ve always been an active investor, so in terms of being CEO, I wanted to make sure I was able to manage my investment as directly and as closely as possible. I like media, I know it and I think it’s got a great future and I still believe that television is at the epicenter of it. Despite all the talk about the web and mobile apps, in the end a television channel getting subscription revenue, selling advertising and putting great content on to support that is a very good business. Is that every channel? Well, no not anymore. Some are going to have more trouble than others, particularly in the age of Netflix and over-the-top TV. But I feel sports channels, and action sports channels in particular, have a great future. You have live events, and being active in social media that goes on in and around the live events is a really winning combination.
CB: You started last December. How have the first few months been?
Asper: The first few months have been great. The channel was kind of on auto-pilot while it regrouped itself from some earlier difficulties back in 2008 and 2009, so it was just a question of putting in the dollars for programming. We’re going from six hours of live events to 100 hours this year. So immediately there you’ve got something to sell, you’ve got an audience increase and it will continue as we put on better and more current programming.
There’s been a dramatic increase of ad revenue in the first few months and it hasn’t hurt that we’re in the news cycle. The mainstream media – Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail – all have MMA in their sports section. There are also big boxing matches happening right now, particularly with Manny Pacquiao, so it just adds to the possibilities. That’s one of the reasons I got involved. I really did my due diligence on UFC, MMA and where boxing is, it’s just a real wave to be caught right now.
CB: UFC president Dana White has called southern Ontario the “mecca” of UFC. Montreal held UFC’s last event attendance record. Has all the recent hype around Canada’s appetite for MMA helped in your conversations with advertisers?
Asper: Absolutely. It gives people a chance to see who is consuming this sport. They can see that 55,000 seats were sold to the Toronto event in a matter of seconds. This is an audience that spends money and is comprised of a hard to reach demographic that is men 18 to 34. Beer and beverage companies, brands like Axe, movies, and Netflix are all newcomers to the channel. We’ve been able to add about 20 new clients to the network in the last two months that never came near this stuff before. So it’s becoming widely accepted and even now the younger media buyers are telling their bosses that this is what they watch. So it’s all helped to show that we have a great audience with a lot of potential.
CB: With several major sports and cable channels now carrying substantial amounts of MMA, where does Fight Network fit into this increasingly-crowded landscape?
Asper: There’s definitely more competition for the programming than there was two years ago. But the good news is that there’s also a lot more programming being made, by which I mean events. There are still more fights going on than there are places to broadcast them. There are more people putting on good fights, whether here in Canada or overseas, such as in Europe and Japan, than there are broadcasters. We have four or five different kickboxing promotions on our network and they rate well. Then there’s the Canadian guys, in Montreal, Ontario, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg, all putting on fights. So there’s plenty of supply for programming and it’s still reasonably priced. That, and you can put on your own. The Score’s doing it and we’re looking at it, while other people are bringing us potential opportunities all the time.
This is still really in its infancy. There’s also the whole other side of it, being the news cycle. We’re going to increase the number of news shows we have and news-type programming, and then there’s the lifestyle stuff, like self-defense programming, fitness programming, what is MMA, what is jiu-jitsu, biographies of fighters – there’s really an endless supply of content possibilities.
CB: What media has set a good example of what you’d like Fight Network to do?
Asper: I’d liken us to the Golf Channel or Speedvision. Golf Channel didn’t start with PGA, but they created and showcased a lot of quality content. Speedvision found a place for NASCAR, but also F1, American LeMans, IndyCar, a lot of options. So, like that, we’ll have boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and of course MMA.
In terms of the web integration, I think it’s still evolving and no one really has it perfect yet. But integrating the on-air, website and mobile is a must.