While Ronda Rousey was the most talked about new star in mixed martial arts in 2012, it was considered a major risk when it was announced she would have her first match in the UFC as a pay-per-view headliner.
While major women's matches have done well as far as television ratings are concerned, only one MMA fight, the 2009 battle with Gina Carano vs. Cris "Cyborg" Santos, was a big ticket seller in a major arena as the main event. And no women's fight had been on, let alone headlined, a successful MMA pay-per-view show.
Furthering the risk is that Rousey's first opponent in defense of her UFC women's bantamweight title, essentially the former Strikeforce title belt being brought over, Liz Carmouche (7-2), was a name only known to hardcore MMA fans.
The location, the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., was also a risk. While Rousey is from Southern California, the Los Angeles/Anaheim market has never been an easy one after the immediate sellout of the company's debut show there in 2006. Generally speaking, the more a city is run, outside of Las Vegas which is a strong casino market, the harder it is to sell tickets.
While the 2010 Brock Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez heavyweight title fight at the Honda Center got off to a strong start even that wasn't an instant sellout. But most shows at the Honda Center or Staples Center in Los Angeles have in recent years done more in the range of 6,000 to 7,000 tickets over he first week of sales.
With tickets having gone on sale the week before Christmas, less than 5,000 tickets have been sold for the Feb. 23 date and the ticket gross is in the $600,000 range. That's slightly less tickets, and slightly more dollars, than the company's previous major event in the market, the Aug. 4 FOX show, headlined by Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Brandon Vera, at the same point in time.
It's slower early sales than most major UFC pay-per-view shows. There have been several Las Vegas shows that sold at a similar rate early, but that's a unique market because it's run so frequently, and casinos will buy tickets. Every UFC pay-per-view show, no matter what the first week advance is, will do in the $2 million range minimum, and the arena will be nearly full the night of the show.
The Southern California market has done strong walk-up business in the past. The Aug. 4 show ended up selling 10,151 tickets to the Staples Center and had 16,080 in the arena.
It's also ahead of the pace for UFC 150 in Denver on Aug. 11, headlined by Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar for the lightweight title. It's also selling tickets ahead of the early pace of UFC 133, a show on Aug. 6, 2011, the company's second trip to Philadelphia, which was originally headlined by Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis. When Davis was injured, Tito Ortiz took his place and sales turned around with the bigger name added to the main event.
For UFC pay-per-view main events, come the day of the show, there is always going to be a big crowd, whether sales start moving as the show gets closer, they discount tickets late, or, at times they give tickets away late.
But it is a sign that Rousey's media fame hasn't yet translated into people beating down the doors to buy tickets.
Rousey headlined two shows last year for Strikeforce, drawing 5,500 in Columbus, Ohio for her fight with Miesha Tate where she first won the title on a show that really catapulted her stardom. She drew 3,502 in San Diego for her fight with Sarah Kaufman on a show with a weak undercard, but one that did Strikeforce's best ratings of the year. Those were the first- and third-largest crowds of the five events Strikeforce produced in 2012.
The feeling is also that this show will generate more mainstream media interest the week of the show than all but the biggest events of the year. Rousey is expected to be everywhere, including places that usually don't promoter or cover UFC events. There is also the belief Carmouche will get far more media coverage and attention than most unknown fighters, because she is a former Marine who served in the Persian Gulf war and is the first openly gay fighter in UFC history.
The hope is that would translate into ticket sales, and more importantly, pay-per-view buys. Pay-per-view is usually a late impulse buy and late hype is very important. Attending live shows more often is something people plan out farther in advance. But media hype for an event doesn't guarantee success.
Women fights have garnered generally better crowd reactions at live shows than male fights, usually because they are different. Big fights have proven success at drawing television viewers. But as the main attraction, they are unproven, with one very successful live event and no real track record on pay-per-view.
Even during the period when boxers Christy Martin, Laila Ali and Mia St. John were well-known stars, they were undercard attractions and never really made a difference in pay-per-view numbers. The attempt to use Martin as a headliner, in a proposed fight with Lucia Rijker, considered by insiders as the best female fighter in the world at the time, ended up with poor ticket sales. When an injury caused the fight to be postponed, promoters decided against trying it again.
The lone boxing success was a gimmick fight when Ali faced Jaqui Frazier-Lyde in 2001. It was promoted as the daughters of the greatest boxing feud of the last 50 years, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, going at it. The curiosity led to 125,000 buys on pay-per-view, which was a number shockingly high for a show of that magnitude. But Frazier-Lyde was not even that serious of a boxer and whatever success that had was far more attributable to who their fathers were as opposed to the potential of women fighters headlining on pay-per-view.