In November 2012, UFC president Dana White announced the arrival of women in the UFC, a moment that he said would never happen just a year prior. Ronda Rousey, the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion, became the inaugural 135-pound champion in the UFC, and the very first female fighter to sign a contract with the promotion since its inception in 1993.
We all know what happened next. Rousey became the biggest star in the company, selling millions of pay-per-views and drawing in a mainstream audience that few stars had managed to encapsulate in the past. Her dominant reign as champion was as publicised as any streak in the world of sports, and Rousey proved that women had the potential to be huge draws in even the most vicious and unforgiving of sports.
MMA is now the most egalitarian sport on earth. Women and men are given equal footing to display their skills, which is not something that can be said for most other athletic endeavors.
Yet, since Ronda Rousey’s sudden fall from grace and presumed departure from the sport, the UFC has failed to create another star from their vast roster of women. The talent is there, and so are the personalities. So, why haven’t they replicated their monumental success with Rousey since the American’s move to the WWE?
Appealing to a limited demographic
The approximate age of an average viewer of the UFC’s product is 49, with most of their fans being men. The coveted 18-34 male demographic that the company so heavily relied upon in years past is no longer its largest audience, although the change in TV viewers can be attributed to the growth of social media and other video platforms.
However, the UFC still targets a very limited audience, and this shines through in how they promote their women. They are sold just like the men, which is perfectly fine, but not if you want to broaden your viewership and get the most from the massive commodity that female fighters are.
The WWE, who the UFC has emulated for years, have had huge success with their ‘Women’s Evolution,’ a movement that has seen their female talent take center focus on the grandest stages of wrestling. While the UFC has certainly given this opportunity to their women, they haven’t used them as a separate attraction. The amount of women watching the WWE has grown substantially, but the UFC has done little to invite a female audience to their product.
I’m sure many women, including those who are regular viewers of the UFC and MMA in general, will agree that the UFC needs to do more to welcome them to their product. While I absolutely don’t advocate their abolishment, Octagon girls are the face of the enormous issue that is the promotion’s tunnel vision when it comes to their audience. There are millions of females out there who will gladfully pay money to view the UFC, but their presence is rarely welcomed, and many are put off by the way events are presented. Ronda Rousey drew swarms of women to watching her fights. And, although men will probably always take up the largest constituency of the UFC’s viewership, there is no reason why the many other world-class competitors in the women’s divisions cannot bring in female fans as well. They just need the company behind them.
The UFC needs to follow the WWE and do more with their women. They can be inspirational stars for millions of women worldwide, just like female wrestlers are on this very day. Their demographic could be far broader, but there are other reasons as to why they have failed to create a new women’s star since Rousey’s departure.
A lack of promotion
It’s not easy to create superstars, but the UFC has managed to make numerous fighters household names in recent years. Since we’re speaking about women, I will use the example of Ronda Rousey.
Rousey’s pay-per-view success was no mistake. Her heavy promotion started in Strikeforce, and the UFC picked up the torch when they secured her arm-breaking services in 2012. Ronda appeared throughout mainstream media. From talk shows to radio stations, the word got out that she was a must-see attraction inside the Octagon, and with the machine behind her, she became the biggest star in the company.
Her counterparts have not been treated quite as well. Amanda Nunes, who finished Rousey in just 48 seconds at UFC 207 in December 2016, faced a noticeable lack of promotion for her bout with the women’s star. Hardcore fans and experts took note of the UFC’s one-sided promotion for the fight, with the promo packages for the event primarily centered around the return of Rousey.
While it was understandable for the company to use their biggest female draw to sell the fight, the under-promotion of Nunes hurt the Brazilian champion. Instead of being presented as the unstoppable force with dangerous power and finishing ability that she is, Nunes was an unknown face to the massive amount of casual fans who tuned into the huge event. Most of them didn’t know just how horrible a matchup Nunes was for Rousey. Instead of the fight being a passing-of-the-torch moment, the post-fight discussion in mainstream media was around Ronda’s failed return, rather than the birth of a new female superstar.
And, despite annihilating Rousey, Amanda’s first title defense was a major flop on pay-per-view, drawing an estimated buy rate of just 100,000 at UFC 215 last September; the same card that saw Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg canceled one day prior. Since her last-minute withdrawal from UFC 213 on International Fight Week, Nunes has not been given as great a push as expected, and her next bout with Raquel Pennington is poised to draw low numbers once again.
But, there are brights signs (at strawweight)
The current happenings at strawweight are very interesting. After underdog challenger “Thug” Rose Namajunas took on, and finished, fearsome 115-pound champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 last November, the division was turned on its head. Joanna’s two-and-a-half-year title reign had ended, and the victims of her undefeated streak were suddenly in with a second chance at claiming championship gold. The weight class is brimming with talent, and the title scene is more fascinating than ever, regardless of who comes out victorious at this Saturday’s UFC 223 event in Brooklyn, New York.
The star power is there for this to be a profitable weight class for the UFC. Rose Namajunas has become a true fan-favorite in recent months (and years), with both her and Joanna Jedrzejczyk being as promotable of champions as the UFC have ever had. Jessica Andrade has been on a tear, with the sole blemish on her record being her title bout with Joanna. Her ferocious, pitbull-esque style is one that makes us excited to watch her fight each and every time. Claudia Gadelha, who was defeated in her last fight by the dominant Andrade, has a substantial backing and is one of the women’s division’s shining lights. Felice Herrig, Michelle Waterson, and many others are also highly-entertaining contenders that have sizeable fan bases.
When you look at the women listed above (and the others who are well-liked by fans), there is no reason why the weight class cannot be huge. Yet, the UFC has never given a strawweight title fight main event billing on pay-per-view. It seemed like the Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk rematch was the perfect occasion to do so, but the fight was given co-main event billing on UFC 223. Even after the calamity that this fight week has been, the promotion was tentative to go all-in on the division and give its massive title fight a place at the top of the bill.
It isn’t because the women here can’t draw; UFC on FOX 22: VanZant vs Waterson peaked at 4.8 million viewers by the time the two women battled it out, securing the UFC with its highest TV rating since Benson Henderson defended his lightweight title against Josh Thomson on FOX in 2014. Joanna’s title fight with Claudia Gadelha in July 2016 drew big numbers, with it being one of the year’s most anticipated fight night main events.
The strawweight division is packed with potential stars. The UFC needs to capitalize on this and create big-name women from the 115-pound weight class while the title picture is still red hot in 2018.
Using the wrong method
A prime example of the UFC’s promotional method is Paige VanZant. Paige is a very talented fighter with a massive future in the sport. At just 24, she is already a top fighter who has exhibited her unbelievable toughness in grueling bouts with the likes of Jessica-Rose Clark and UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
Despite being so young and skilled, Paige has been pushed way too fast by the company due to her popularity. The UFC most likely see in her what made Ronda Rousey so famous – she is, as you may guess by reading the comments on her social media posts, an easy-on-the-eye young woman with an interesting personality, top-level skills and an ability to draw fans to her fights.
However, this talent is wasted when not harnessed and developed. VanZant has maintained her fan base, but she won’t be fighting for a title or headlining pay-per-views anytime soon. So, why is she the only promising contender in the women’s divisions that the UFC seems intent on pushing to stardom?
There are far more promotable aspects than the ones that even Rousey and VanZant, the two most-promoted women in the UFC, possess. Here are a few examples. Marion Reneau is a full-time high school teacher who just so happens to be an elite bantamweight. Amanda Nunes is the first openly-gay UFC champion in history (her next opponent, Raquel Pennington, is also openly-gay). Germaine de Randamie is a police officer who once beat a man in a kickboxing fight. Cat Zingano, Michelle Waterson, and many others are mothers of young children. The UFC should use these features and use them to create big names.
How the UFC can create women’s stars
Promote the women’s divisions as a whole, then make individual stars by getting behind them
Women are a huge commodity in modern sports if used correctly. The UFC needs to promote their women as something special and unusual. As I mentioned earlier, MMA is the most egalitarian sport there is. The UFC needs to take advantage of that and promote the strength of the women who risk it all to compete in the Octagon. The female roster can be used in its entirety to draw eyeballs to the product. People want to see high-level female fights.
From there, individual stars can be born. Top women’s fights need to be given main event billing and promotion to match. The current four women’s champion’s each need a big push, especially new flyweight world titleholder Nicco Montano, who is relatively unknown to even regular UFC viewers. Cris Cyborg is a proven draw, with her UFC 219 matchup against Holly Holm doing an estimated number of between 340,000 and 380,000 PPV buys. After she stepped up to save UFC 222 last month, I have faith that the promotion will give her plenty of promotion going forward.
Amanda Nunes was not successful in pay-per-view sales during her first title defense, which is surprising when you consider UFC 207 and UFC 200, two events she headlined, brought in around a million buys each. Had she been pushed as a big star for both of these events, her name value may have grown substantially, but the UFC is still to get behind her. However, there are plenty of big fights for her down the line, so there is a chance she will become a profitable champion for the UFC.
After defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk again, Rose Namajunas needs to be given a major billing in her next fight. It seemed as if though the UFC were ready to provide Joanna with a big promotional push before her UFC 217 defeat, but I would argue it should have happened multiple fights before that. These two women are seen as being very important by the hardcore audience, and both of them could quickly become massive names.
The UFC needs to get behind their female champions in this post-Rousey landscape. She is not the only woman who can become a megastar. They need to show confidence and give their current female headliners the same promotion Ronda got, and back their events with stacked cards that show female-headlined cards are just as important as the others.
These would be a rare occurrence if done at all, but it’s not a bad concept to try. As fans, we have become accustomed to seeing three events during International Fight Week. It is the PPV that usually steals the headlines on this week, with the two fight nights to either side often falling flat.
A way to freshen up this schedule and test the waters on such an idea would be to turn one of the two fight nights into a card exclusively featuring women. The event would need a major main event so as not to seem like (or be) filler. If you want to make a statement as a promotion that women are a significant attraction, having them stack a card by themselves is a way to do this, and also to draw female fans to the product.
If successful, the female-only cards could be done more often, but I’m not at all suggesting separating the women from the other events. The current formula of promotion is adequate, but some changes and additions always help.
The UFC has failed to make a female fighter into a star since Ronda Rousey left the sport, but the talent is there for them to do so. There are two dominant female champions in the UFC at the moment, with another being recently dethroned and on a quest to reclaim her championship. If what the promotion wants is dominance, they have it. If what they need is charisma, personality, and talent, there is that in abundance throughout the women’s divisions.
Women are stars. The WWE are cashing in big-time on their females right now, and the UFC needs to follow suit. They brought them to the Octagon in 2013 to give them an opportunity, and they took it and ran. Now it’s time to repay the women by giving them the promotion they deserve. They can be megastars. The UFC just needs to help them.