Indian promotion Super Fight League now has three shows under its belt and is continuing with its mission of trying to create a mixed martial arts scene in India, where cricket is king. As the UFC also has India in its sights, SFL is ahead of the curve but will have a fight on its hands if the North American promotion does come over.
In fact it seems that the SFL has a fight on its hands anyway, as the reaction to it among the Indian population has been decidedly mixed. The youth on the whole don’t seem to have rushed to embrace it as American youth did with the UFC, possibly because - outside of traditional wrestling - India doesn’t really have a combat sport heritage or scene.
Millionaire entrepreneur Raj Kundra is behind the SFL, along with Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt, and they have been using their connections to draw celebrity friends into the audience and pique interest. Again results have been mixed, with live attendance numbers fluctuating, but Super Fight League CEO Ken Pavia, formerly head of the MMA Agents talent agency, says that there is more to the attendance than meets the eye, and that SFL is well on track in terms of satisfying its partners and sponsors.
“First of all, we didn't just give tickets away. We required people to go to a newspaper - our equity partner -and clip an ad - our sponsor - and go to the box office -commitment - to get a ticket,” he said when asked by Fighters Only if giving tickets away to events was surely going to be a loss-maker.
“And a filled arena meant happy sponsors (way more then north American promotions) plus leverage for our Fall TV commitments. The first three shows we sold modestly and now we have a bidding war for Fall and a vehicle for sponsors.
“We were almost break-even on SFL 3 without a gate or significant TV deal and with minimal international TV revenue… SFL 1 drew 6,000 fans, which we were happy with. SFL 2 drew 3,000 to a 4,500 seat venue which deceptively looked bad. This [latest] one drew 12500 and netted a higher gate. It was a win across the board.”
Regarding the popularity of mixed martial arts in India, or lack thereof, Pavia is equally buoyant. He says the whole thing is a work in progress and that a market has to be built from the ground up. But thus far, according to him, all the signs are positive.
“The population is four times the US with a rising middle class. They fill every cricket match - there are seventy-two a season - with thirty, forty thousand people in an arena even on weekdays. Not an empty seat till the very end. The market is plenty big enough, all they have is cricket and Bollywood here,” he says.
But cricket is one thing, fighting quite another. Do the Indian populace - many of whom subscribe to the Hindu philosophy of non-violence and the ‘ghandigiri’ legacy of pacifist Mahattma Gandhi - really want to see martial artists battle it out in a cage?
“Endemic feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Numerous cities have asked for events. Multiple TV partners are bidding. We have commitments for the reality show which has begun development. We will be cash-flow positive by SFL 3 or 4 and have a shot to be profitable in year one,” Pavia says.
“It took the UFC eight years and $50,000,000 to do that - and mind you, this is 1993 in MMA years in India.”