50 is the new 40. Brown is the new black. And if Ronda Rousey has her way, strong will be the new beautiful. And if that spurs more women to become involved, a new ad campaign featuring Rousey just might be a game-changer for planners of MMA events.
In one of the commercials, launched this month for Procter & Gamble’s line of Pantene hair products, Rousey states, “Strong is beautiful” and “Don’t hate me because I’m strong.”
The effort comes just before Rousey’s scheduled fight against UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes in UFC 207 on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas.
If the campaign resonates with enough women, event planners may see a corresponding rise in MMA’s female viewers (presently, only about 27 percent of those who watch UFC/MMA on TV are female.) And that could translate to more women making their way into MMA programs and competitions (where there are similarly lopsided numbers.)
Combative sports have long attracted a disproportionate number of men to women – and particularly in the youth arena, where in many cases, programs for girls do not exist (which leads to a chicken/egg scenario as children age and become less inclined to start a new sport.) In fact, the National Federation of State High School Associations’ sports participation report for 2015-2016 showed an enrollment of more than 250,000 boys nationwide in high school wrestling programs, and only about 13,500 participants on the girls’ side. (Proponents of women’s wrestling are hoping the gold medal win by Team USA’s Helen Maroulis in the Rio Olympics could also help spur more participation in years to come.)
MMA programs, however, if marketed correctly, have an audience ready and waiting in the United States – and it’s a strong one. According to statistics compiled by Nielsen Local, female UFC/MMA Viewers are racially diverse with 41 percent considered a minority; compared to the average female U.S. resident, Female UFC/MMA Viewers are 18 percent more likely to be Hispanic and 40 percent more likely to be Black/African American. Forty percent are single (compared to only 25 percent of female adults in the U.S.) and over half (53 percent) are ages 18-34. Still, 28 percent have a household income of $75,000+ and they are 17 percent more likely than the average female adult to be employed full-time. Female UFC/MMA Viewers are 51 percent more likely to have a child in their household and 32 percent of this group specifically has a child under the age of five.
So the question seems to be how sports planners can reach those people – in which case, Rousey has already started doing at least some of the work. And if one of the problems is overcoming the stereotype of MMA not being a traditional women’s sport, well, that is something the campaign is confronting head-on. In fact, Rousey says, “Strong is beautiful,” as she goes through an intense workout. “I’m not one without the other.”
As she rattles off some of the less-than-flattering nicknames given to her by the public — Miss Man, Savage — she transforms via Pantene from a sweaty gym rat to a long-haired brunette cover model, finishing with, “I’m about to show you what a strong woman can do.”
If Rousey can manage to convince young women to take up MMA – or even boxing, wrestling or other martial arts such as judo (where Rousey got her start), then planners of MMA events should be ready to up their game, adding more divisions for women to compete (it should be noted that in 2014, UFC added a women’s strawweight division), advertising where women are likely to see it (it’s not just a social media game these days) and using as a key promotional tool the strength of fighters.
Still, there’s a long way to go. An article in Bleacher Report noted, “Despite the popularity of women’s MMA, it is easy to forget that women only make up a fraction of the UFC's roster of fighters. There remains substantial room for growth.”