Ronda Rousey is getting ready to fight Holly Holm at UFC 193 in Melbourne. As usual, the former Olympic Judoka is a massive, jaw-dropping favorite, over a fighter who is considered to have virtually no path to victory. Why did Holm get the call?
The last time I wrote about Ronda Rousey was before the Correia fight. The impetus to write was caused by being out in the twitters and seeing a collection of MMA folk giving their predictions of what they thought the Correia fight would pull down in terms of buys from about 2 weeks out. This tended to be in the 350-450K range, and went as low as 250K.
It seemed odd and insular, and so I tried to write why I thought that. Before I'd seen those kind of predictions, I honestly would have predicted the Correia fight at around 800K buys. As a relatively inexperienced blogger, seeing the industry being so out of line with my thoughts made me paranoid that I was being dumb. Thus, for my piece I stuck with what I could see as the absolute basement buy-rate.
Obviously the card was a smash, pulling down around 900 thousand, and I kind of regret not calling the shot more. However, as some pointed out... who really cares how many PPVs someone sells? It's not technical analysis, or an interesting personal story, so why bother? In part it's interesting to me because these kind of things determine the direction of the sport; and also because it is reliant on a lot of things which MMA media tends to ignore (with the exception of, for example, Pat Wyman's fantastic recent piece).
Looking at the ways in which a fighter's popularity is affected (or not affected) by things like match-ups can offer a bit of insight towards why one fighter gets picked over another for a title shot, and hell, maybe some reasons why people watch in the first place.
Holly Holm has not been terribly impressive thus far, and yet she's gotten the call to fight Rousey. This despite how lukewarm Holm had already been about fighting the champ this early in her MMA career. Why Holm, and not the higher-ranked and more deserving Miesha Tate? And if everyone is such a huge underdog to Rousey, what does it matter who steps in there?
I've heard it put about that because Rousey could sell a Correia fight, she can sell any fight just as well; that people will buy literally anything Rousey and that the opponent doesn't matter. Here the tendency is to assume that because the casual fans (that is, those those which largely comprise significant buyrates) work with relatively incomplete information, that they're stupid. Pigs at a trough, so to speak, waiting with open jaws for whatever Zuffa narrative might be glopped down to them.
This isn't true. Even if those outside of the bubble of MMA freaks have comparatively limited information on the sport, they're still people who qualify their levels of interest. A hypothetical for you to attempt, with respect to a Tate fight: try imagining you're not a Bloody Elbow reader or any other type of fight dork. Instead, you're a regular person who just happens to really like Ronda Rousey, to the extent that you might even want to buy one of her events.
You'll want to find out about her opponent, so the first thing you do is go to Wikipedia, or the fight finder... where you'll see that Miesha Tate has two stoppage losses to Rousey. Checking this out is no big thing, a kind of due diligence for anyone who might be putting down sixty-five bucks for an entertainment event, but it can cause a big decline in interest. Why watch Rousey beat up someone she's taken out twice before?
Popularity vs reach
Miesha Tate is much more popular than Holly Holm - she has, for example, literally over ten times more twitter followers. However, it's also notable that Tate doesn't really have something which she brings to the table which Rousey doesn't. Tate is popular, but almost everyone who is invested in seeing Tate fights is also invested in potential Rousey fights. If you looked at people who care about the two fighters as a Venn diagram, it might look a bit like this:
Bear in mind, this isn't about fans, but about investment. Being a Miesha Tate fan does not in any way make you a Rousey fan, but it does in almost every case mean that you care about Rousey. Essentially, Tate can't reach anyone who Rousey can't reach anyway.
What about Holm? Compared to Tate, she's much less popular, but what she has is reach, due to her boxing background. Again, this isn't concerning boxing fans - they mostly don't care about the women's side of the game- but concerns people who are invested in the idea of boxing. It still has a lot of cultural cachet.
Outside of the bubble, people really like the idea of fighters from "separate" combat disciplines going at it. As evinced by the godawful, ever-popular idea of Rousey fighting Mayweather, people really dig the thought of MMA vs boxing. If this seems inane to those in the MMA bubble, remember this is a world where a lot of people think that the Ip Man films and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story are basically documentaries.
Correia was a huge underdog to Rousey, and so is Holm. Tate is monstrously tough and has made improvements since her last bout with Rousey, and would produce much closer lines. However, and pointedly, both Correia and Holm are/were undefeated in MMA.
This is important. The bigger fights get or can get, the bigger and more blunt the reasons for their appeal need to be. It's like viewing a band at a stadium show, where the smaller details are irrelevant to the vast mass of people. For example, the Correia fight might not have particularly lauded beforehand by you, me, or anyone else in the MMA bubble, but it had a collection of easy-to-comprehend narratives attached:
CORREIA IS UNDEFEATED
SHE WAS RUDE TO ROUSEY
Thus the Holm fight's narrative, too, can roll onward under big, dumb auspices, like MMA vs Boxing and an undefeated record. To outline the case for a Tate fight conversely involves explaining about how she had some tough losses but battled her way back, and top 10 opponents, and blah blah and it all gets dull pretty quick. If you can't explain the appeal of a fight in about 5 seconds, you've probably lost your audience.
Engagement, or why sports are boring
Why get Holm in there now, and not give a potential showdown with Rousey time to percolate? A couple of potential reasons. One is that Holm has not been impressing in her UFC fights thus far, and that there's a chance that she might actually lose that all-important undefeated record. Conversely, at the other end of the spectrum, she has been getting better while simultaneously not doing anything more salable, and it might be in Zuffa's best interest to get her in there to minimize the slim chance of Holm actually beating Rousey. It might not be the perfect time, but why risk it either way?
So how does a Holm fight work out? As some have pointed out, it may be boring, with Holm firmly on her bike and relentlessly beating up the air in front of Rousey as the champion chases her around the cage until, presumably, Rousey catches and submits her.
There is a good chance this is true. However, on the whole I think entertainment value is hugely overrated as a metric for sporting popularity. Floyd Mayweather is the most profitable star in boxing history and GSP is the most profitable star in MMA history, and they are/were pretty dull.
In general, people think they watch sports to be entertained, but they are, of course, wrong, at least at the level of mass popularity. Fun is a driver, but one which is subservient to things like culture and narrative and psychology and a bunch of stuff which comes under the umbrella of "engagement." Fundamentally, sports are boring. Soccer is running back and forth, constantly flopping, and never scoring; basketball is running back and forth and scoring every single time. Combat sports are all confusing, sweaty hugging. Cricket and baseball are excuses to drink. The crown jewel of any argument against sports as entertainment is in season right now- an uneventful, long-winded and overcomplicated LARP game, one invented by a rich and lonely country over-compensating for its lack of medieval history by dressing kids up in armor. If sports were about something as simple as entertainment value, American Football wouldn't exist.
The British writer Nick Hornby once said "the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score", but you could substitute soccer for any other sport and still be perfectly correct.
The value of annoyance
So, sports popularity is not driven by entertainment but rather by engagement - something which is simultaneously harder to build, more subtle, and more broad-ranging. Fans have short attention spans, and it's very hard to build engagement with them before they get bored. MMA fighters, like boxers, lack much of the inbuilt regionally-focused engagement of team sports, and so must often rely on the next best / fastest / most reliable way of building it up: pissing people off.
A huge driving force behind Conor McGregor and Rousey's base-level popularity (before they got to the viral and mainstream stage) was bitter folk ranting on social media, comment boards, and presumably in real life about how Rousey and/or McGregor were hype or can-crushers and getting into arguments with everyone else, forcing other people to get involved. Correia both contributed to the engagement in the Rousey fight and built a bit of her own, once again by being annoying. Articles about Correia still tend to garner commenters (with zero sense of self-awareness) taking time to write about how they don't care about her. Good job, Bethe.
It's a bit like a crowd-psychology equivalent of the tactic of "negging" used by Pick-up Artists. These are the skeezes who use scripts and flowcharts to pick up sexual partners, and they too want to build engagement in a very limited time-frame, with the people they want to bang. A quick and reliable way of doing this is by annoying them and forcing a response.
A fighter might be exciting, but if they can't inspire rage or impassioned defense one way or another, they're probably not going to be terribly popular. This partially explains why any number of amazing fights have been comparative buy-rate duds, while the ever-controversial lube-shamer Rousey obliterates her opponents and knocks PPV numbers out of the park.
Hurting entertainment vs hurting engagement
So, does a boring Holm fight hurt Rousey's popularity? I'm not sure that it would. Entertainment value is secondary to engagement, and a boring fight (particularly one where it's obviously not Rousey's fault that it's boring) may only serve to fire people up more. People were, to put it lightly, very engaged after Condit/Diaz.
To illustrate this, I decided to get a bit more scientific. Through exhaustive research, I constructed a diagram detailing the progression from sentiment to capital, through something I refer to as the E.I.M. Paradigm(TM) of Engagement, Investment, Monetization. It details progression over the three mentioned stages, utilizing a potential Rousey/Holm aftermath dialectic as a case study. Here we can see two debaters building their external engagement through disagreement with one another, which translates to increased investment as they increase their aggression and commitment, and thus future sales in the aggregate.
Technical. Anyway, as pretty much anyone can tell you, it's fairly hard to break engagement- hence the long and normally tragic careers of most famous pros where people just won't stop watching. You can wear engagement down a bit, normally by getting to a point where there's nothing to be enraged about. For example, Floyd Mayweather took a hit after the Pacquiao fight because there were no questions to be answered about what was going to happen next.
Not the best, but still good
With respect to the combination of reach, narrative and engagement, Holm isn't the best opponent for Rousey: that is obviously Cris Cyborg, someone who has less "reach" than Holm but who brings narrative and engagement abilities relative to the bantamweight champ which would make a Zuffa marketing exec shiver with delight. A Cyborg fight would effortlessly smoke the MMA PPV record set by Lesnar and GSP.
However, and unfortunately for the more deserving Tate, Holm is still a "good" fight, perhaps the best fight available right now, from a cynical marketing perspective anyway.