Ronda Rousey’s first full day of what she called her full-time gig with World Wrestling Entertainment saw her being talked about constantly on a three-hour Raw show that she never appeared live on.
She was first mentioned at the open of the show by Stephanie McMahon. McMahon, currently her earmarked WrestleMania adversary, gave no hint of a match or confrontation in a few months. McMahon talked about different women at the show the night before. Rousey was just one of the names. The crowd reacted to the mention of her name, but no bigger than any of the stars of the WWE past that were brought back as surprise guests.
But over the rest of the show, she was mentioned constantly, and clips were shown from the night before, along with news clippings from news outlets that covered the story of her signing. In a business that lacks subtlety, more than ever, the announcers were emphasizing women, far more than ever before.
Rousey wasn’t on the show. She didn’t even do a taped interview. At this point, past the strong implication she will wrestle at WrestleMania on April 8 in New Orleans, there are no dates for her appearances being promoted.
In the long run, how wrestling fans react to her will be the key in how she is viewed as a performer. Rousey, in her ESPN interview, said she’s in full-time, but she, nor anyone in the company has defined what full-time means.
In WWE, full-time wrestlers are on the road, going from city-to-city, four nights per week, sometimes more during weeks of overseas touring. They appear in television matches usually once a week, or more than that if it’s pay-per-view week.
For Rousey, that would make no sense. It would be far more effective for her to be used selectively, so she becomes viewed as a special performer and not a routine performer. The prototype would be how the company uses Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar did 14 matches in 2017, and while he would appear on television shows leading up to his biggest matches, he never wrestled on those shows. He rarely talked. He would stand there and smirk, while Paul Heyman, his so-called advocate would speak for him, promoting his matches. What makes Lesnar special is that to the fans, he’s not a pro wrestler, he’s a scary real fighter who does major pro wrestling matches.
Unless Rousey has proven that she is great at speaking, in wrestling that means being able to believably repeat scripts and keep people’s attention from mid-ring in front of 10,000 people for minutes at a time, it would be best for all concerned to use Heyman, one of the company’s best talkers, in a similar role.
Unless they do that, it will be her ability to talk, as much if not more than her ability to perform in the ring that will lead to success or failure in her new endeavor, at least as viewed by fans.
But for the business of the WWE, she is already tremendously influential, and successful, at least short-term.
Rousey received more media fanfare for her WWE debut than anyone has for comebacks, including when Lesnar returned in 2011 after being UFC’s biggest drawing card, and when The Rock returned after becoming a bonafide movie star. It is usage of celebrities out-of-the-box that have historically paid huge dividends for the company.
The company first broke through past the pro wrestling audience in 1984 and 1985 by involving Cyndi Lauper, then one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and Mr. T, a huge television star at the time. In early 1998, when the company was struggling, they used Mike Tyson, who helped them gather momentum and led to the breakout year of Steve Austin. In 2007, they set a pay-per-view record by having creating a rivalry, called the battle of the Billionaires, with Donald Trump and Vince McMahon, the company’s outlandish CEO and one of its greatest television performers. The most revenue ever generated for a pro wrestling event came when Dwayne Johnson returned after establishing himself as a movie star.
That type of role, rare but significant and heavily promoted appearances, are how celebrities fit in best.
But today, the business has changed. Getting fans to buy tickets and purchase pay-per-view shows is yesterday’s business. Today’s business is, more than anything, about signing lucrative long-term guaranteed money television contracts.
WWE right now is in a similar position as UFC. Its five-year television deal with the USA Network expires at the end of September 2019. They are looking at pinning down a new multi-year contract by midway through this year. The timing of the news that Rousey has signed couldn’t have been more perfect. The idea that Rousey will be featured on their programming will make that programming more valuable to television people, who are well aware of her drawing power and huge fan base in UFC.
But that’s months into the future. The little secret is that Rousey already is, and has been for some time, a huge influence in the WWE.
For years, female performers in the company were hardly chosen based on how well they could wrestle. They were chosen largely for how they looked. Company executives not that many years ago used to scour bikini catalogues looking for new talent. The phrase they used when they stopped having a business relationship with Playboy, was that even though they won’t let their women pose for Playboy, they only wanted women who looked like they could.
Matches were mostly kept short. Quality-wise, they were nowhere near as good as the male performers There was little emphasis on their storylines past being secondary to the men they often were hooked up with. They were more an interlude during the show as a break between the men’s matches and interviews. The feeling is they were part of the product, but that women in combat sports, or simulated combat sports entertainment, were not the major attractions and couldn’t draw money in main events.
It was Rousey, in the UFC, who dispelled that thought process, putting numbers on the board that couldn’t be denied. The WWE slowly started transitioning away from what they had done for decades, and changed the presentation of women. They put more focus on them. And in time, they started looking more at athletic backgrounds of women instead of modeling portfolios. They even ditched the branding name they had used for years, divas, when talking about their female performers.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the handling of one of Rousey’s best friends, former UFC fighter Shayna Baszler. A few years ago, Baszler would have had no shot to be a WWE star, no matter how well she could talk or wrestle in smaller promotions. She’d have never been allowed in the door to begin with.
Today, not only is she in the door, but after just a few months since starting out, she’s already a headliner in the company’s developmental league.
If Rousey has a similar work ethic and learning curve, she’ll make it. But she will be under a microscope in a business where her athletic ability will help her, but her ability to sell her persona to the public is even more important. It’s a business of repetitions and experience with crowds. It takes most years to get good at it, but Rousey will be in a headline position with no experience, because of her name value. It’s a very difficult position to succeed in if used frequently.
A few years after Rousey proved women could headline and draw big money in MMA, pro wrestling followed suit, slowly, putting women in more prominent positions. On Sunday night, during the Royal Rumble show, the company’s No. 2 show of the year, it was the women’s match, not the men’s match, that was put in the main event position. That was more because it had to go on last since they wanted to close the show with Rousey. But even a few years ago, doing such a thing would be unthinkable.