Steve Kaplan was drawn to the commitment of the athletes in the arm wrestling circuit. He’s convinced the rest of the world will be too.
“You have this preconceived notion of what it was, but I was blown away – I couldn’t believe it,” said Kaplan, an entrepreneur and former advertising executive. “I expected out of shape dudes, but [instead I saw] NFL tight end-caliber athletes – fully committed athletes.”
Kaplan launched the World Armwrestling League in 2014 with an aim to grow the sport globally.READ MORE: Brutal Business: How WLC is Selling Lethwei to the World
Now, with a streaming deal with B/R Live, as well as media partnerships with Anthem Sports and Fanseat, he thinks the time for the niche sport is now.
“It’s perfect for today’s market,” Kaplan said. “The ability to build a sport from scratch, that was exciting for me. The cross-section of the world of people who compete, it brings people together, it’s a cool culture and got me hooked.”
When the league launched, Kaplan found a willing partner in ESPN for broadcasts, which he said recognized the competition as more World Series of Poker, less UFC.
But similar to other niche sports – with a passionate yet small core audience willing to consume that content on mobile platforms – doing a deal with over-the-top provider became more appealing for the league as it looks to lean into that digital-first fanbase.
Last year, the World Armwrestling League signed a deal with B/R Live to broadcast its events, which has continued through 2019. It costs $2.99 to stream one of the live matches.
Recently announced broadcast partners Anthem Sports & Entertainment and Fanseat will further help to reach that goal, Kaplan believes. With Anthem, World Armwrestling League events will air on the Fight Network and Game+, while Fanseat will stream all the league’s events in more than 140 countries — the league has welcome wrestlers from more than 40 countries.
“[World Armwrestling League] has many competitors from Europe, where the sport is highly evolved, as well as around the globe. This partnership will allow our company to continue exploring new and relevant content for our subscribers while providing sports fans around the globe with a never-seen-before level of live WAL coverage,” Fanseat Managing Director Jean-Maël Gineste said.
The league’s YouTube channel has generated more than 185 million impressions and 100 million viewed minutes the past year, according to a release.Right now, B/R Live broadcasts 20 events a year, with six being elite major events for a total of 50 hours. Kaplan said he hopes to have a formal announcement with substantial sponsors for a qualifier tour and likewise hopes to broadcast two elite events from Europe and one from Asia next year.
Kaplan, who first encountered the idea on a tour around Afghanistan with the U.S. Army seeing how many troops were arm wrestling in their limited space across the country, was intrigued by the fact that these committed athletes can come from every walk of life – to have a plumber go against an investment banker or priest against a guy who makes tires, all creating unique storyline lines. Kaplan believes the sport can be a draw for participatory athletes, those same people who helped grow organizations like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race.
Conveying that everyman aspect and concentrating on making sure visuals were there to bottle the energy and excitement of the community that shows up to events is a key part of these new media deals, things that Kaplan believes are crucial to the property’s success.
“For us, it’s all about exposing this to more and more people,” Kaplan said. “Not everything we do is purely economic, some of it is about getting the best partners for where we want to go tomorrow, not just today. We are a global sport, so we’re trying to build the brand in a global context.”