While UFC 190 headlined by Ronda Rousey has received its fair share of criticism for being void of sporting merit, is this any reason to assume that it's not going to do well from a commercial standpoint?
Ronda Rousey is fascinating. Mercurial, driven, approachable, violent, vulnerable and dominant, she is the UFC's biggest crossover star, and in many ways the biggest star the sport has ever seen. She was voted Business Insider's most dominant athlete alive, and won ESPY's combat sports athlete of the year over Floyd Mayweather. She front-pages major social media sites like reddit and imgur. She was once referenced in an Eminem song. Coming into UFC 190 she's been covered by Rolling Stone; her tips for a positive body image are in Cosmo; she's in Esquire talking about how to take a punch; LeBron James was "scared to talk to her."
UFC 190: Watch Rousey's open workout in Brazil
Ronda Rousey is down in Rio de Janeiro Brazil getting ready to fight Bethe Correia, check out the video from her recent open workout in front of fans and media.
However, 190 is not exactly lighting up the message boards or articles with positivity. Rousey is universally predicted to walk through Bethe Correia, to the extent that she's on track to being the biggest favourite in UFC history. The rest of the card isn't loaded with up-and-coming talent, instead splitting its time between the old, the infirm, and TUF Brazil 4 alumni, and some fans are not happy. Beyond this, there are some common expectations that UFC 190 will do relatively poorly at the PPV box office. Most buy-rate predictions that I've heard are coming around the 350 thousand mark or lower, with many expecting something around 250K.
Where this particular assumption is coming from is puzzling. Rousey's last PPV, against Cat Zingano, pulled down 590K... and that wasn't a good card either. Perhaps it's because Zingano was considered to be a more competitive matchup, or because much of the rest of UFC 190 is quite so brutally depressing?
Only nerds care about competitive fights
Let's address the competitive side of things: as a four-digit underdog, does Correira have a shot at the upset? Aside from one of the most astronomically unlikely puncher's chances seen in the sport, or a borderline-impossible leap in technical ability, the answer is no. Her contendership run of Baszler and Duke wasn't impressive at the time, and has aged very badly since. Many don't think she beat Julie Kedzie. Looking back at Rousey's prior challengers for a comparison, McMann, Zingano and Carmouche were at least physical forces, but Correia appears to be an average athlete with limited finishing ability. Aside from the raw numbers of the records, this is a squash match.
However, the insular nature of the MMA bubble can lead to weird perceptions, like how things like "competitive fights" actually add much value, or attract the viewing public in any significant way. The quick rise of the sport alongside the internet and social media boom has created a uniquely strong connection and interplay between hardcore fans and the analysts who were once hardcore fans themselves. While this makes for tightly-knit community, it also makes for something of an echo chamber.
The hardcores look at the sport as a large number of competing stories. The ones they appreciate and look forward to the most are the most compelling narratives and the ones which jump out at them. The mistake here is in assuming that what appeals to the embedded is also what appeals to those who are on the outside, or that there's a genuinely significant correlation between the two. Harcores will buy pretty much anything UFC, and represent the 150-200K baseline which is there for any pay-per-view. From a sales perspective, they're always there, and so they mean essentially nothing.
The casuals who actually make up real buyrates won't be worrying about things like the painful shallowness of the 135 division, or the style matchup, or anything like that. Reasoning will be far more simple:
- That Ronda Rousey sure is awesome
- I hear she's mad at this woman she's fighting
- That woman is undefeated, I bet she's good
- This is going to be awesome
There are, right now, people buying into the Countdown narrative. There will be those convincing themselves that Correia's boxing will make a difference, and those who do not give a solitary damn about the glaring deficiencies in her clinch and grappling game. They'll root for Rousey because they like her, or they'll root against her because they don't, and that's it. More than this, they will tune in simply to watch Rousey do her thing.
I was one of many wrong people who somehow thought that Rousey's popularity wasn't going to translate into PPV sales. Her card with Chris Weidman pulled down a ton of buys, but the conventional wisdom was that it was Weidman, fresh off a 1.1m buyrate against Anderson Silva, who was doing the heavy lifting. Conventional wisdom, as it turned out, was wrong. Rousey's latest PPV blew up, and Weidman's was a comparative dud despite being a far better card on paper.
Looking back on it, this was stupid: the idea that Rousey's popular and all, but the people who like Rousey aren't "like us" so she won't sell; that her appeal is wide-ranging, but somehow transitory and thin. After all, you need to like someone a lot in order to spend $60 watching them fight if you're not a fan of the sport, and how much can people outside the bubble really like Rousey? While Brock Lesnar, for example, was a crossover star, he was from a place in WWE where people are keyed into ideas of paying to watch something which at least looks like combat.
Again, it was foolish and I was dumb, because popularity is popularity. MMA has had waves of new fans arriving at certain points, from TUF to Brock to Kimbo. Each one of them has been a wave which came up and withdrew, but deposited a thin layer of near-permanence behind it. If Rousey somehow appeals to a kind of fan which meshes less with the traditional MMA buying public (many of her fans are -whisper it- women), then it still makes no sense to assume that such a widespread base has no impact on buyrates. You don't need that many people to feel sufficient curiosity to spend enough to start making real, tangible differences.
Beyond this, Rousey fights are becoming events. They're gradually becoming something which you watch to say that you watched it. In a similar manner but on a vastly greater scale, literally millions of people shelled out for Floyd Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao, and were subsequently appalled to find themselves watching a Floyd Mayweather fight. They weren't paying for the experience of watching boxing, they were paying to be part of a cultural milestone and shared experience.
Yet here we are again, looking at a Rousey fight, and a lot of people with a lot of familiarity with the industry are still picking this card to be something like a failure.
It's not the headliner which is attracting the lion's share of the criticism, but the rest of the main card. As mentioned, it's a grab-bag of aging or underperforming fighters, the majority of whom are coming off brutal stoppage losses. For example, in the co-main Shogun Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira are rematching more than ten years after their first fight, and are taking this bout after both of them were slept within seconds by younger fighters on the upswing.
Aside from the fact that cards historically don't have a huge amount of effect on a buyrate aside from the main event, there's little reason to assume that this is the kind of matchmaking which actively turns people away. In fact, taken as a whole it's roughly the same kind of card construction that has been turbocharging Scott Coker's Bellator: a big-name fighter and/or a collection of old people that lapsed American fans have heard of, and some young fighters which may conceivably have some upside. It's cynical and it's ugly, and it will sell.
From a marketing perspective, the UFC's only major misstep is in the sheer length of the event. Admittedly, it's unlikely to affect buyrates, but there's no benefit to attempting to jam seven fights into a main card slot. The argument for it may be people have paid already and that they'll simply want as much MMA as possible for their money, but the last couple of years have been a clear rebuttal of notions of fan insatiability. Short and quick is the way to go: the Hobbit films aren't improved by having a total running time of 29 hours.
However, there's just no reason to assume that just because 190 is unscrupulous and queasily bloated that it won't make money, when everything we've seen tells us otherwise. Rousey will slaughter Correia. The shells of Lil' Nog and Shogun will be thrown against each other until one of them cracks. Some fighters with legitimately worrying health concerns like Bigfoot Silva, Big Nog and Stefan Struve will likely get unpleasantly knocked out. None of these things will stop it selling. Rousey is and continues to be a star who is stepping beyond the notions of "competitive fights" and "divisional depth" which we in the small MMA bubble use to measure up bouts. On the coldest and most commercial level, the only real mark against this event are that it's in Brazil, where PPVs have traditionally underperformed. Regardless, I will be frankly surprised if it does less than half a million buys.