Ronda Rousey and Moving Women’s Sport Forward

In November the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) rolls into Melbourne for the first time. It’s doing so with the intention of breaking the record for the biggest attendance in Mixed Martial Arts history. Etihad Stadium in Docklands is capable of seating over 70 thousand people with the additional ground seating, and UFC President Dana White has booked two title fights to help fill every seat. But what stands out is this potentially record breaking card is being headlined by two women’s title fights. Of the four women on the poster, the one name on everybody’s lips is that of “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey. And while sport isn’t usually on the agenda here at 1Up Culture, Rousey is a name that is transcending the sport, and societal issues affect all aspects of life including popular culture.

A Judo specialist who was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport, Rousey’s move to mixed martial arts has proven to be a profitable one. In her twelve professional fights she is undefeated, with only one of those fights lasting more than a round. In fact, in her professional career she’s fought for just under sixteen minutes. She is the first and currently only holder of the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship, and people are starting to label her the ‘most dominant athlete in the world’.

The resume certainly speaks for itself, but there is a larger story at work here. Sport has always been seen as a man’s domain, at least professionally. That’s where the money, fame and recognition can be found. To get an idea of how substantially different the salaries between genders are, take a look at the comparisons between the NBA and WNBA. The minimum rookie salary for a WNBA athlete sits at $35 000, while the max is around $101 000. The minimum salary for an NBA player? $507 000, five times more than what the top earning female can make. Meanwhile, aging Lakers legend Kobe Bryant is set to be paid a $25 million dollar salary despite coming off of two season ending injuries in consecutive years.

In terms of recognition and money, the women fare a bit better in individual sports. Tennis stars like Serena Williams are constantly mentioned when discussing the sport, while Australian athletes like Cathy Freeman and Stephanie Rice have both enjoyed prominence in the sporting media at their respective peaks. The Australian media in general is hungry for success, and if they can’t find it in their mens teams they’ll get on board with the women, like when the women’s soccer team made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup after beating Brazil. But generally, if there is time to talk about sport, it’ll be about the men, and that’s where the money almost always is.

Ronda Rousey is proving to be the exception. She’s the most recognisable name in the UFC right now, especially for casual fans, she makes more money than any of them and she’s also arguably their most important athlete. Her recent performances have only continued to build her legacy and reputation too. Complaints of her being a one trick wonder – which came through her victories coming almost exclusively from the armbar submission – were busted with three of her last four fights ending in TKO or KO. And then in her last fight, after her opponent Bethe Correia’s pre-fight trash talk got too personal, she took to defeating Bethe at her own game by standing and punching, and proceeded to knock her out in thirty four seconds, earning thunderous applause even though they were in Correia’s home country of Brazil.

She has what is required to be at the top of the sports headlines. Not only is she a talented competitor, she has personality and charisma to demand the attention of the fans and the media. And male or female the path to all-round success in the sporting world essentially requires that. Being the best sprinter in the world might bring you accolades, but it’s because of Usain Bolt’s personality, charisma and media presence that people outside of his own country give a damn about him. It’s the same reason Shaquille O’Neal is still so popular after his retirement from basketball. Ronda Rousey has started to make real waves in this regard. In between fights she’s been acting in movies like Furious 7 and even appearing at Wrestlemania. In doing this she’s building her brand and her value on the open market. And as a result, even casual and non-MMA fans are getting to know the name Rousey.

It speaks to her drawing power that not only are the UFC willing to have the Rousey fight main event the Australian show, but that they’re excited that it is. Since the announcement of UFC193 taking place at Etihad, Dana White been pushing for a record breaking attendance. To achieve that you need confidence in your main draws, and even though the original main event between Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit had to be rescheduled due to injury, the hype surrounding the show and the record being broken only grew when Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm was announced as the replacement.

Breaking the record with two women’s fights headlining (the other being Jedrzejczyk – that’s not a typo by the way – versus Letourneau) will be huge for the push to build the prominence and value of women’s sport. There is a dangerously cyclical nature surrounding sports and gender. The argument is that men are the main focus in sports over women for two reasons:

A) That the men are better athletes and play at a higher level
and
B) That men’s sport brings in more money than women’s sport, and as such deserve a higher pay.

It’s the second point that is perhaps most important to debate. If you look at it strictly from a money standpoint, it makes perfect sense. If Lebron James can bring in more money by performing, then he should be getting paid more than his female equivalent. But the problem is that the attention is already on Lebron and other male athletes. Lebron can bring in more money because the media pay more attention to men’s sport, people recognise his name and therefore the audience cares about Lebron and are willing to pay to see him. And while some of the salaries male athletes earn border on the ridiculous, the truth is they make that money because of the money fans are willing to invest in them. For every dollar Lebron is being paid, he’s making the Cleveland Cavaliers five or six more. And as long as more fans pay more money to see the men than they do the women, that divide will still exist, and kind of should.

BUT, if women were given the same possibilities, then maybe they too could bring in more money and subsequently earn more. If the media don’t give them a shot, and don’t give people a reason to care or watch, that divide will be hard to break. And I don’t just mean mentioning that they won, wins and losses only make up part of the appeal. Sports, like a movie or book, is all about the storyline. We need a reason to care about the action. For matches between countries you have national pride. But to use Lebron as an example again, he was built up by the media as a prodigy since high school and then landed in his home city of Cleveland and promised to bring them their first championship. People had a reason to follow Lebron’s career, and they could become invested in him as a person. That’s what the women’s coverage needs, but it’s what we generally fail to get. So often if a female athlete becomes known, the focus is simply on their looks.

When we get a storyline, people start to pay attention. Cathy Freeman’s historic run at the Sydney Olympics was built up as a story, and people tuned in to watch. Ana Ivanovic became a favourite during an Australian Open because the media showed her personality and gave us a reason to care about her. The problem is we as a society have been trained to think that women’s sport isn’t worth watching, at least not if we have the ‘big boys’ to watch instead. This is where Ronda Rousey can help change this. Her fights, although short, are generally considered a must watch. And the media attention come UFC 193 will be centred on Ronda Rousey.

The aim here should be to use this positive media attention and try to transfer it to other sports. And there’s no reason why it couldn’t. Mere years ago women’s mixed martial arts wasn’t even in the UFC, let alone ever be so much as considered for a main event. That’s now been completely reversed. If people are willing to fill a stadium holding over 65 000 to watch women fight, then why can’t a women’s soccer match draw an audience similar to their male counterparts? And while your first thought might be ‘of course a catfight will draw male eyes’, then it’d be worth actually watching the fights. The women’s fights are presented in the same manner as the men, and importantly they are treated as equal value, which encourages the fans to see it as such. Most sports don’t sell this concept.

There’s no guarantee anything will come from this. It might become an anomaly and detractors of women’s sport won’t necessarily be deterred because of one show. But Ronda Rousey has become a big deal, and she has both the talent and the charisma to help show that men’s sport isn’t the only sport worth watching or investing in. It might come in small victories, but that perception needs to change. Young girls should feel they can chase their dreams and be able to make a living doing so. If that societal frame of mind can be broken, real ground can start to be made. Then maybe the national women’s cricket team wouldn’t have to keep a ‘real’ job to make ends meet between winning matches. Ronda Rousey may be the best chance that there’s been to start breaking down those walls.

Tickets for UFC 193 are on sale now

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