One of the stories that will be getting the most media attention in UFC in 2013 will be the introduction of women fighters to the organization, built around Ronda Rousey.
Rousey, likely as soon as is legally possible in the Zuffa/Showtime divorce, will be defending her newly-created UFC women's bantamweight championship, essentially the Strikeforce belt moved over.
This has already garnered more attention than moves in recent years like adding men's featherweight, bantamweight and most recently flyweight to the organization, and we don't even have a date, a place, or an opponent for the first fight.
All we have are questions.
At one point, a UFC championship match almost guaranteed a successful pay-per-view show. It was a combination of things as to why. Only having five championships had its advantages. It was those five titles along with the people who held those titles from 2006 to 2010 that fueled UFC's rise to set and later break annual business records on pay-per-view.
Today, you can categorize the championships, and perhaps the champions, as the "haves" and the "have-nots". The big four weight divisions - heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight - can be counted on to do good numbers almost every time out, and great numbers when the right match-up comes along. You can't overlook that it's the four heaviest weight classes, but part of it is also the guys themselves. Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre have established themselves as the three biggest stars in the sport for various reasons. Junior dos Santos did well in his first headline match, and historically, there are things worse to have than a likeable heavyweight champion who knocks out almost every opponent.
The lighter divisions are not as successful when headlining. The idea the big four classes can be counted on to draw good to great while the bottom four are not in the same ballpark can't be coincidental. But it's a combination of both the division and the face of the division. B.J. Penn was a big draw as lightweight champion. Urijah Faber had the ability to double and even triple the normal television numbers in the old World Extreme Cagefighting promotion when he was either defending or challenging for the title. The current champions Ben Henderson, Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson haven't established major drawing power yet.
This is the world that a 135-pound women's champion walks into. Unlike Johnson, however, she will go in with a far bigger spotlight, far more talk, and inevitably, far more expectations.
UFC President Dana White said this past week that Rousey's debut will be on pay-per-view, and it will be the main event, unless there is a title fight at a heavier weight class on the same show.
As likely the first women's fight in a UFC cage, and Rousey's personal magnetism, the event will garner the kind of media attention UFC only gets for its biggest fights. But there is a flip side to that. There will be detractors waiting in the wings. There will be the backlash of those who think women shouldn't fight in UFC. There will be also be those who would love to say that all the Rousey hype didn't translate to the box office and call this experiment a failure right off the bat. And the last thing you want in introducing a new product is an immediate stigma that it was hyped like crazy and the public rejected it.
And the reality is this is completely uncharted water.
What we do know is that women have been on MMA shows for years. Of the larger U.S. organizations, UFC has really been the last holdout. As far as being on shows, the idea fans will reject it because it's women has been disproved nearly every time out.
What has been proven is a great women's star can be very successful as a television draw. A women's fight being in the main event, or in a featured spot on a show, has never once hurt television ratings and has at times helped them.
But there is only one example of a women's fight that has had a show built around it that was a big box office success: the 2009 Gina Carano vs. Cris "Cyborg" Santos.
The inevitable arguments about women's pro soccer and the WNBA are meaningless because this will be women appearing on shows with mostly men's fights, and we've had years of precedent in other organizations to show fans will not reject women as part of the show, and will embrace them when the big fight comes along.
In UFC, maybe each show will have one or two women's fights out of a dozen or so. An all-women's fighting league, like Invicta, is a completely different animal. I don't believe Invicta will ever be able to draw big crowds, or do numbers on pay-per-view. That organization, over the long haul, is dependent upon being able to get a television deal that pays them enough make it worth while.
There is also the question of UFC commitment. All the women fighters have to be thankful for Rousey coming along and winning the championship when she did. White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta were publicly negative for years on women's fighting. White first thought women shouldn't fight, and questioned whether the public would want to see it. When Carano became a big star, he changed his stance to that there just wasn't enough depth to introduce a women's division. When someone with the obvious marketing potential of Rousey came along, they opened their doors.
That's very different from men's bantamweights and featherweights, who weren't used in UFC because they were the province of WEC. When brought in, even though they haven't set the world on fire at the box office, they are an established part of every show and aren't going away. They weren't brought in due to the marketing potential of one person, but because the company had already proven with WEC that they could add exciting fights and more championship matches to their ever-expanding schedule.
The fact they added flyweights, and White has even spoken of adding 115 pounders, tells you that they view lighter weights as a good long-term investment.
Part of it is those weight classes have been established in boxing, and many that sport's biggest stars have either started in low weight classes or still compete in them.
With women, you don't have that boxing precedent. Boxing had a short window with women in the 90s, built around Christy Martin, that garnered enough attention she was once featured on a Sports Illustrated cover. But Martin was really promoted as a novelty act, like Butterbean, an undercard attraction before the serious main event that you bought the pay-per-view to see. If anything, while women's boxing still exists, its lack of staying power in the spotlight is ammunition for those predicting failure before this has even started.
Having been in arenas seeing women's fights for years, the reaction is no longer gender-based. It was a little when first introduced, and came off like a novelty act in the early days.
Today, if a woman is a star or the fight is exciting, people are with it every bit as much as the men. If the fight is boring, and the personalities don't click, the crowds are usually not as quick to turn on it, but lose interest just the same.
When it comes to watching on television, if a woman is a star, she will move ratings equal to her male counterparts.
When Carano fought on CBS, every time, her fights added more than 1 million new viewers to the broadcast from start-to-finish. If you understand television, that is an amazing statistic. No other non-main event in history, for any promotion on any station has ever done that. And only a few male main eventers ever have.
But there has also in the history of women's MMA been only one Carano. Judging women in MMA based on what she did could be taking the mentality that bringing in backyard fighters will draw record ratings because Kimbo Slice did, or bringing in pro wrestlers can draw record pay-per-view numbers because Brock Lesnar did.
Carano's lone main event against Cris "Cyborg" Santos is the only example we have of a women's fight being a huge ticket seller.
Strikeforce and Showtime have done four women's main events starting with the 2009 Carano vs. Cyborg fight. The promotion of that fight was a huge success. They drew 13,976 fans. No show in the history of the Strikeforce promotion headlined by anyone but Frank Shamrock sold more tickets. The reaction to the fight in the arena was near the level of the biggest men's fights of all-time. The show did a 2.17 rating and main event did a 2.91, both setting records for MMA on the station and numbers only broken once since.
But nothing like that has happened since, largely because that perfect dynamic hasn't been there.
Sarah Kaufman vs. Takayo Hashi on Feb. 26, 2010, a Challengers show that did a 0.59 rating, exactly what an average show of that type would have done. Building a show around women in this case was neither a plus nor a minus. That was also a boring fight, a five-round decision in front of a sold out crowd at the 2,500-seat San Jose Civic Auditorium, that had maybe 300 fans left in the building as the final stanza ended.
Rousey vs. Miesha Tate on March 3, 2012, did a 1.15 rating, slightly below average for Strikeforce events this year. It drew 5,500 fans, the largest Strikeforce crowd of the year. It should be noted that it Rousey had never even appeared on a major Showtime event before this, with two appearances limited to smaller Challengers shows that far less people saw. It probably wasn't fair to expect her to draw big numbers, even though the fight was well promoted and garnered a lot more media attention than most Strikeforce shows. It also had little in the way of undercard support. The same fight today would do a lot better because both women became bigger stars just being involved in the promotion. The fight itself was a huge success, with far more talk after the fact than all but a few Strikeforce main events.
Rousey vs. Kaufman on August 18, 2012, did a 1.43 rating, Strikeforce's best number of the year. That number was more impressive than it sounds because they had no undercard support, and the main event went only 54 seconds. The rating would have been significantly higher had the main event segment, which was already at a 1.9 level for the ring intros and the first minute, had time to build. But attendance was only 3,502 fans.
Rousey is a significantly bigger star since the Kaufman win. Having the UFC machine behind her is a game changer. But pay-per-view is a different animal. The attendance figures may cause concern, but Strikeforce didn't draw big crowds for anything this year.
But there is also a second and in the long run, much more important question. What about after Rousey?
I can recall at a boxing show when Manny Pacquiao pretty well ended the career of Oscar de la Hoya reporters were talking about it being a bad day for boxing because the sport's biggest draw was clearly past his prime. Bob Arum said that what happened was Pacquiao winning was going to make him a new level of star. That's exactly what happened.
When Santos beat Carano, and Carano left the sport, no such thing happened. I was actually amazed at how little of a fan base Santos had in her subsequent fights considering the high profile and magnitude of her win. While women's fights were fine as second from the top fights on Strikeforce shows, it wasn't until the emergence of Rousey that they dared headline a big show with them.
If this division is here only to take advantage of the marketing potential of Rousey, then it's incumbent that be a success early. Rousey isn't always going to be there. She can always lose, as a better quality of female athlete will inevitably start gravitating to the sport if it's spotlighted on UFC shows. And in many ways, she's an almost inevitable Catch-22.
If she continues to win and becomes a big draw, as a woman who looks like she does in a fighting sport, it's almost inevitable outside offers from the action-film world will start coming her way. If she doesn't continue to win, women's MMA is going to have to show enough to stay in a crowded nine-or-more division battlefield.
As for this case, if they are going to introduce Rousey on pay-per-view, the first fight or two would be best-served as being part of a double main event show with one of the big four champions. The key is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and if the first impression is that all this hype didn't equal public interest, that's a bad start.
Granted, with as many shows as UFC runs, that may not be feasible.
As a No. 2 fight on a big show, the media attention will still be there for her debut. It will also result in additional attention to the show overall, including the male main event. There would be no pressure when it comes to ticket sales or pay-per-view numbers, since the "haves" are pretty much assured of doing well. Whatever curiosity interest is added will make the show that already has a big star anchoring do a little better.
If her previous fights are any indication, the fight will likely be exciting, or end quickly and decisively, either of which will serve its purpose. From that point on, audiences will be more acclimated to her as a headliner going forward.