For Shannon Knapp, Saturday’s Invicta pay-per-view represents another step in a number of different struggles.
And one of the biggest struggles was the decision to do it. Ever since the original UFC owners starting having significant success on pay-per-view in 1994 and 1995, it seemed like an easy business model to copy. Get some fighters, preferably with names, buy some belts, put on a show, and swim in cash.
The reality has been altogether difference, as MMA on pay-per-view has become a cemetery, filled with tombstones of promotions who dug their own graves through overspending and overestimating the hardcore fan base and its monetary rewards.
Knapp, the President of Invicta, already went through one run as a pioneer as the struggling men’s version of the sport gained acceptance over the past decade. She was one of the first women working in an executive capacity, and had experience with a number of different promotions, a few of which ended up in that cemetery. She talks of her struggles, whether it was with the IFL, Strikeforce, or others, of working to build a promotion, and then it’s gone and you’re left with the empty feeling the work has been for naught.
Going the all-women route is even more of a risk, although she’s learned plenty over the years.
"It is a struggle," she said. "We’ve had so much growth, we’ve exploded, but I also know hat I worked for companies that overemployed and at the end of time, they weren’t successful. We always have to be very budget conscious."
It’s been a few years since Gina Carano proved that tons of people, in the millions, will watch a charismatic woman’s fighting star compete on network television. Later, when matched with Cris "Cyborg" Santos, Carano proved the right women’s match could pack a major arena and set ratings records. Earlier this year, the success of UFC 157, headlined by Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche, proved a woman’s main event could be very successful on pay-per-view, something there was incredible skepticism about until literally the day of the show.
But Saturday’s event from the Ameristar Casino in Kansas City, Mo., represents something altogether different. It’s not a women’s match headlining an otherwise all-male card, but a show of nothing but women’s fights.
Whatever the ceiling would be today for such a show without the UFC name attached to it will be made clear. The main event, featuring "Cyborg," whose real name she goes by today is Cristiane Justino (11-1), faces Marloes Coenen (21-5).
They are the two best known active women fighters not under UFC contract, and the two most successful in the 145 pound weight class. The two battle in a five-round fight to become Invicta’s first featherweight champion.
Cyborg, the muscular and controversial Brazilian, was champion with the Strikeforce organization until being stripped of the title after a positive steroid test at the end of 2011. One of her victims, on Jan. 30, 2010, was Coenen, a 13-year veteran of women’s MMA fighting dating back to some of its earliest shows in Japan.
The main event is a battle of technique and experience against strength, aggressiveness and ferocity. The latter traits allowed Cyborg to dominate the first fight, winning via third round TKO.
"This is our biggest card," said Knapp, who began the promotion more than a year ago, running shows that have gotten critical acclaim by the hardcore fans, but up to this point, have had no presence past the Internet.
"I always struggled with going to pay-per-view. It took a while for me to make my mind up about a televised pay-per-view. My mind has always been that you never go to pay-per-view until you really build things up. It took a while to break this mindset. We got a good enough (financial) deal. This wasn’t costing me any ore than the last show. I was already buying satellite time. It’s just providing more options for the fans to watch it, and hope it will lead to more opportunities for the athletes and for sponsorships. It’s a big step for me. I had it so stuck in my head after all these years that you never go to pay-per-view until you’ve really elevated the brand, but I think it’s a good move. We have nothing to lose. We’re just going to get new viewers," Knapp said.
Knapp, frustrated with problems of Internet streaming, switched to using a satellite feed to distribute the last show, held on April 5. She said she got a fantastic deal, only costing her a few hundred dollars more than she was paying for streaming.
The rule of thumb on combat sports pay-per-view is that no promotion has ever been able to pull it off successfully without some form of television. With the exception of the early UFC events, even the UFC was losing money as a pay-per-view producer until getting on Spike TV in 2005.
And television has to be the ultimate goal. Knapp has had offers to get the shows televised, but she’s insisted she’s looking for a broadcast partner looking to help the company grow, and not just a station who will put them on the air.
Rumors of Showtime have been around ever since the Zuffa/Showtime relationship ended earlier this year, but Stephen Espinoza has of late openly questioned whether there is a demand for more MMA on television.
Knapp herself talks of a reality show idea which she said is completely different from either The Ultimate Fighter or Bellator’s Fightmaster concepts.
Saturday’s event airs live at 9 p.m. Eastern time, both on pay-per-view on virtually every system in the U.S. and Canada, but also on the Internet, though Ustream.TV, priced at $14.95. Eight fights are earmarked for the four-hour broadcast, but she’s planning on almost no down time, and the plan is, if all goes well timing-wise, to get 10 fights onto the pay-per-view.
To give viewers a taste, a free four-fight pre-show will air at 7 p.m. Eastern on the Internet at UStream.TV, as well as on television through DirecTV, The Dish Network and Fight Now TV in the U.S. and Bell TV, Viewers Choice and The Fight Network in Canada.
Knapp decided on a low price by pay-per-view standards, and with the number of options for viewing, most notably the traditional pay-per-view model and a low price, hopes it encourages people to give the product a chance.
"If everybody else is like me, I just purchased the UFC show last week," Knapp said. "We’re being conscious about the economy. We wanted to make sure as many fans as possible have the opportunity to see it. If we were driving the price up, we’re cutting off some fans. This was a good fair price, a manageable price for fans. But I’m not selling my athletes short. I think they’re worth a lot more. But coming off a weekend pay-per-view, I just want to make it a fan-friendly price."
Although she was one of the first woman in major executive positions, she was not one of the early proponents of women’s fighting.
"I was very old school," she said. "Usually when a promoter came to me, they would say, `What we want is hot chicks.’ I had no respect for it and it turned me off because it wasn’t about talented female athletes. They were just looking for good looking girls. I first thought it was taking a spot on the show for one of the boys. It wasn’t really until I saw Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg and Marloes Coenen. They trained like the guys. They fought like the guys."
Selling a predominately male MMA audience on women is difficult, and overcoming a general public perception of the idea of putting women in a cage to fight is another barrier. Things have come a long way in six years, since Showtime had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing Carano to fight on Showtime back in 2007. It wasn’t until February that UFC opened the doors.
In both cases, it took a woman who was both a legitimate great athlete, but also possessed almost Hollywood like looks, to break down the barriers. Carano has been getting regular movie work and ultimately, Rousey, who was the impetus for UFC opening the doors, is likely to reach the same end destination.
"It’s gotten a lot better, but people are very cautious," she said about the reaction. "I don’t blame them for that opinion. I’ve seen a lot of mismatches. We’ve seen athletes take fights two weight classes up, just to have the opportunity to fight."
This has led Knapp to have fights from 105 pounds to 145 pounds on Saturday’s show, allowing everyone to fight in a proper weight division
Knapp expects a sellout Saturday, with only a few hundred tickets left, but the arena she’s using only holds 1,100. Because of the main event, she has raised the live ticket prices from previous events.
It’s really an international event. The main event pits Coenen, from The Netherlands, against Cyborg, who grew up in Curatiba, Brazil, and whose style is very much like Curatiba’s all-time most popular fighter, Wanderlei Silva.
There are also fighters from Japan, Canada, Scotland, Australia and Austria.
With her background in talent relations, Knapp noted managing women is different than men.
"The big difference is these are young athletes, new athletes, we’re educating them an helping them to grow into professional athletes," she said. "They’re a little further behind due to the lack of opportunities. They fight the same way. I give a lot more pregnancy tests. But for the most part, they are extremely grateful, happy, excited and committed to both themselves and the organization. Sometimes that is not always so true on the men’s side."
She noted with men, everyone‘s dream is to get into UFC. With the women, they’re just happy to be fighting.
But there is a lot of pressure. A lot of people will be watching the product for the first time on Saturday. The company doesn’t have the budget to have UFC or HBO Boxing level of production. The people in charge are few, and have to wear multiple hats. But on television, they can’t come off rinky dink for people to give them a second chance. It’s important to have good fights, and the company has built a reputation in previous shows for providing excitement.
"The one thing I can always depend on is with my athletes, there is no playing it safe," she said. "They’re there to battle. They’ve all been fighting just for the opportunity to get in the cage. They take it very serious. It’s a huge card. It’s history, the first all-female MMA pay-per-view. Sometimes I feel bad because they’re carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders. They will all be judged. They are the pioneers, each and every one of them on the show."