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.
The UFC's popularity with the male 18-34 demographic in the United States helped bring a seven-year deal with FOX Sports Media Group, reported to be worth around $100 million per year.
In much the same way as Yao boosted the NBA brand in China, Fischer said one of the keys to success was unearthing future Chinese champions to help fans identify with the sport.
Zhang Tiequan is the first Chinese fighter to compete in the UFC. Video clips of his debut win last year garnered 100 million hits on the Internet in China, said Fischer.
"The UFC has tremendous potential in China. For many people, China was the birthplace of martial arts so when one of their own won in such exciting fashion it was watched over and over by millions of people," he added.
"That's the power of our sport. It generates that kind of excitement and gets that reaction from people very quickly."
While the long-term target was to stage events on the mainland, Fischer said the UFC had chosen Macau to test Chinese waters because it was within a three-hour flight of 2 billion people and offered top-class venues and logistics.
"We have more than doubled the awareness of the UFC brand in China's top 19 cities, going from about a 25 percent awareness level to 50 percent," he said.
"But we really want to grow that fan base until there's a major demand before we stage a bigger event on the mainland."
The former Portuguese colony of Macau, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 and is the only place in China where gambling is legal, is a "bridgehead" to the mainland, he added.
While the UFC can bring its top fighters to any location around the world, other leagues lack that flexibility.
"That's why it's harder for those sports to gain momentum in China in a short space of time," said Fischer.
"For those other major sports that are bound by a season and have lots of teams to consider, it's a major effort to find time in the schedule and they would probably only bring exhibition or preseason games over, which don't mean anything.
"We can bring over our best guys and have titles on the line, and that absolutely means something."
NFL China Managing Director Richard Young agreed that staging a game on the mainland presented challenges, but that after a slow start the NFL was now busy building links with communities and growing the game at grassroots level.
Rated by Forbes as the world's richest professional sports league, with more than $9 billion in annual revenues, the NFL overshadows rivals such as the NBA and Major League Baseball on home soil, but is playing catch-up in China.
An exhibition game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in 2007 was called off as China was not ready for the sport and the league's international expansion was instead routed through London.
"Until our fan base is at a level where it can truly support itself, and there is additional demand for more, I'm not supportive of holding a game here," the Shanghai-based Young told Reuters by telephone.
"Wembley sells out in three hours - that's the NFL. Having empty seats and saying, 'Oh we still have tickets left' - that's not the NFL."
'READY - FIRE - AIM'
While some question whether a relatively complex team sport such as American football can be successful in China, Young said the NFL had a bright future there and the issue was a structural problem, not a cultural one.
NFL figures show encouraging growth, particularly in social media and online streaming, with more than 1 million people in China watching the Super Bowl online last season.
Cumulative television viewership jumped from 48 million to 80 million across China, while Nike is set to begin selling NFL apparel in its stores.
"A lot of people try to make very homogenous maxims about China all the time, but we don't believe there's a cultural reason as to why American football is more popular in the United States than it is overseas."
Jim Small, Asia vice president of Major League Baseball, told Reuters that the decision to build up a presence in China had come only after years of studying conditions there.
"We saw a lot of companies going into China with a 'ready - fire - aim' approach," he said. Instead of going blindly into China, MLB had spent four or five years learning the market.
"What we learned was that baseball could be successful in China, that the sports culture was ready for baseball and that baseball's culture was a good fit for China.
"We also learned that in order to be successful in China, we needed to be in partnership with the government."
While pitchers from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been flying the flag for Asia in Major League Baseball, there are few players for Chinese fans to connect with.
The International Olympic Committee's decision to drop baseball (and softball) from the program has also not helped MLB's cause in China.
However, Small said MLB had helped build a strong Chinese national team and that they were working with the IOC and the International Baseball Federation to get the sport back into the Olympics.
MLB had also built a strong relationship with the ministries of sports and education, bringing baseball to elementary and middle schools and setting up development centers to nurture players that might one day pull on a Yankees or Red Sox or Giants jersey in the United States.
"The Chinese want to be world class in everything, including sports," said Small. "They look at baseball as a global sport, but more importantly as an Asian sport, and they want to be the best they can be."
(Editing by Ossian Shine)