Getting hold of Loren Mack for more than a few minutes is an extremely tough job, and once you do it is easy to understand why.
As the man in charge of all PR for the fastest growing sport in Asia, Mack barely has time to pack and then re-pack between promotional jaunts that take him all across Asia and often further afield.
That sport is mixed martial arts, or MMA, and its main product in Asia is the ONE Championship, a brand started in July 2011 by entrepreneur Victor Cui. In the intervening years, it has become a huge global sports product that attracts sponsorship from the likes of Budweiser, Panasonic, Kawasaki and Yahoo, among several other big names.
"Right now, we can’t meet the demand," Mack tells PRWeek, having landed from a fight in Indonesia shortly before heading off to Malaysia two days later to start again. "A lot of our markets we do [events in] twice a year, we’re constantly expanding into new markets, and as we’re expanding other countries and cities are clamouring to get ONE Championship.
"We’ve been growing at a breakneck speed, and that requires a lot of hiring and other infrastructure that you need to pull off so many events each year."
The numbers make for impressive reading. After just four years, ONE Championship is broadcast in more than 75 countries to over 1 billion homes, and in 2012 ONE signed a 10-year television deal with FOX and STAR Sports described as the biggest MMA media deal ever in Asia.
Mixed martial arts now has a global profile to rival that of boxing or wrestling, and the origins of bringing it into the mainstream derive from the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which was founded in 1993.
With that in mind, Cui could not have made a shrewder recruit to launch his competing brand than Mack, who began his career at UFC after graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"I interned with the UFC and went from when the company was US$40 million in debt – the employees were telling me to look busy because they didn’t know if the company was going under – to seeing the company being valued at US$1 billion and the owners being on the cover of Forbes magazine. So I’ve been in the fight game pretty much my entire career," he says.
Mack took what he learned at UFC and applied it to ONE Championship when he joined over three years ago. But he realised quickly that promoting MMA in North America was a very different thing to doing so in Asia.
"Asian fans like to know more about the martial arts, the disciplines, the backgrounds; the respect, honour and dignity that’s associated with martial arts and MMA," he says. "So you do different things in each market in Asia, and a lot differently to say America, where just the word ‘fight’ gets people really excited."
Mack employs different strategies to suit the different demands within Asia. What works in a developed MMA market such as the Philippines, where consumers "like the trash talk and that whole drama that’s associated with the fight game", is not right for a newer audience like Singapore, where fans are more reserved and value honour above sensationalism.
"We get to an arena in the Philippines and there’s nothing like it; I mean, you have 20,000 people screaming their heads off," he tells PRWeek. "Whereas when you get to a venue in Singapore you don’t hear a word; it’s like a pin drop. To them, it’s like watching a baseball game, or something that requires quite a bit of technique, and that’s what is attracting them."
Yet, while tailoring to individual markets is important, Mack says the foundation of ONE’s success is its overarching strategy of creating local superstars in each of its markets that fans can connect with. This has been a game changer for consumers who are more used to having sports heroes imported from around the globe, in the form of EPL footballers or NBA basketball stars.
"Building local stars and giving them national platforms has been a fantastic formula just in the past few years," Mack says. "Fans are so used to imported sports, if that’s the way to put it, so building these local heroes has been critical. People are getting behind them and creating a frenzy."
It’s paying off for the athletes too, who are becoming celebrities in their own right. Recently a leading Malaysian female fighter, Ann Osman, was part of a countrywide advertising campaign for Nestle Milo, one of the few Malaysian athletes ever to gain that level of domestic popularity. That in turn, Mack says, benefits the ONE brand by attracting more Fortune 500 companies, TV stations and government interest.
Mack remains determined to maintain the local connection by making the athletes as accessible as possible, and their willingness to engage with fans is a "tremendous advantage" for the ONE brand.
"The fighters are very fan-friendly; they’ll stay around for hours to take as many pictures as fans want and sign autographs. I can’t think of many other sports that have that type of access to the athletes," Mack says.
"I try to not bother them too close to the fight when it comes to any type of media request; we try to take care of all the interviews and shoots way before."
As well as ONE’s PR operations, Mack and his PR manager Tammy Chan handle all the PR needs of the approximately 350 fighters. But such is the rocketing popularity of ONE Championship that Mack says it won’t be too long before athletes are hiring their own publicists and PR teams.
"I know within two or three years we’ll get to that point. I look forward to that; that’s another step in the development of MMA becoming a mainstream sport," he says.
Despite the massive workload shared by just two people, Mack has refrained from employing external PR agencies to support him, relying on what he calls the huge dedication and effort put in by Chan and himself.
"She has the same mentality as me and we work very well together because of that," Mack says. "I have had help in certain markets - China, when I first started in the Philippines – but I normally only like to hire internal PR staff as opposed to using agencies, because of the hours that we work and the situation we’re in.
"We’re four years into this, it’s all brand new, just like many of the markets we operate in, and it takes a very dedicated attitude to keep up."
For all the advertising, sponsorship and marketing opportunities available to ONE, Mack says PR has been the most important in bringing legitimacy to the brand and to mixed martial arts as a sport. He says strong media relationships are crucial to ONE’s success and its growing fan base.
"When you have major publications and networks like the BBC and CNN covering you consistently, it brings a lot of legitimacy to more people getting interested in you, other TV networks getting interested in you. That’s really what PR brings to the table," he says.
Mack has a comprehensive network of media contacts in each of ONE’s markets and the relationships are paying dividends. In promoting a contest in Indonesia last month, CNN Indonesia ran a week-long Focus MMA page on its website, complete with regularly updated video, audio and stories.
It is all a far cry from where he began at UFC in America, when no mainstream media company "would dare cover MMA", he says.
"There was always that ‘human cockfighting’ angle. So when the phone would ring at my desk, I would actually start shaking, thinking ‘oh my god, here we go again’," Mack says. "Whereas in Asia, the local media, which would certainly be considered the mainstream media, covers MMA as a sport and has done so much quicker than I was used to in North America."
Mack has always had a healthy respect for journalism and is a keen writer himself. Another strand to his PR strategy is his blog for the Jakarta Globe, which will soon be turned into a column. Mack says he approached the Globe’s owner, BeritaSatu, and the idea blossomed from there.
"It’s been very beneficial," he explains. "One, I love to write, so I get to cover all the events that are important to me and certain events happening in countries that you don’t hear too much about, such as Turkmenistan. But then, of course, it also gets the word out about ONE Championship."
Somewhat unusually for a young, global brand, Mack remains closely tied to traditional print media, and works as hard to promote ONE Championship in newspapers as he does online or on television.
As an example, as part of his PR strategy to promote a big international fight coming to Singapore in November, Mack gave the exclusive fight announcement to a US newspaper, the Las Vegas Review Journal. The home of UFC, the city is a core market for MMA.
That led to several other media outlets covering the announcement and citing the journal, and Mack ensured a well-respected journalist wrote the article.
"That really gave a lot of credibility to the announcement and it blew up very quickly. So I think it’s really important and I know journalists appreciate it. At the end of the day, I really respect what writers do and what good content is all about; it’s challenging," he says.
In fact, if you ask Mack what his proudest media pitch is to date, he says it is a story that made it onto the front page of The International New York Times website, about two female Asian MMA fighters.
"Because we gave the journalist the type of unlimited access he wanted and we really respected his craft, it was great content," Mack explains. "He flew to Singapore to meet me; we met both fighters, their families, we spent a lot of time on this story. Two terrific fighters, there was no better person to write the story, and it appeared on the front page. That in itself became huge news for the MMA community."
In tandem with this, naturally, is a significant social media PR strategy; Mack says ONE Championship’s main demographic is 18 to 34 year-old men "who live on the internet".
He sits down regularly with ONE’s social media team to discuss the best ways to promote each event; is a traditional press release required, or should it be a Twitter announcement and campaign?
"Also, the video and audio content, we work a lot on strategy with that," he explains. For the aforementioned Singapore fight, as well as the newspaper exclusive, Mack had both fighters take video messages using their iPhones, which were cut and uploaded to Facebook, before sending out a press release with links to the video content.
Despite having so many markets to juggle at the moment, Mack is continuously looking for how to grow the ONE Championship brand, and sees China as the next market to really crack.
"The moment you land in China you realise the potential is tremendous. In China I get a lot of local help," he says. "It’s one market that I always look for the right people to work with, and I’m looking to hire someone to just focus on it. The nice thing about China is that it’s just rich in fight history. There’s not much need for explanation as to what MMA is; they get it."
If the planned Chinese expansion goes ahead as plan, the next few years could be even more successful for ONE Championship. Mack has no hesitation in expressing how far he thinks it could go.
"I expect that this is going to be the biggest sport in Asia, and I get a lot of people saying ‘come on, can you really compare it to football?’ And I think yes, without a doubt, and I’ll tell you why. You can mute the TV in Asia and people understand what’s happening. They understand martial arts; it’s in their blood. Asia is the home of martial arts, it all originates from here."