The world of professional and amateur sports has always been dominated by men. The majority of the athletes showcased on television are male, as are the majority of the fans who watch them. The country’s four most significant professional sports federations (the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) have between them zero female athletes on any of their teams’ rosters. In fact, it was only in 1996 with the founding of the WNBA that a major professional sports league for women even came to be.

With the lack of attention paid to women’s sports on the whole, female athletes have often struggled to attract fans to their contests, no matter how talented the athletes or competitive the match-up. In 2012, the Los Angeles Sparks were the most popular team in the WNBA from a fan-attendance standpoint, averaging 10,089 spectators per game. This is certainly no small figure, but it’s just about half of the 22,161 per-game average for the Chicago Bulls (the NBA’s most well-attended franchise) during the 2011-2012 season. In my home-base of Madison, Wis., the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team averaged 11,454 fans per game. While that team has its past and current on-ice achievements to credit for its continued popularity, the UW women’s hockey team has been even more successful in recent years, winning four national championships and emerging twice more as the national runner-up just since the 2005-06 season. Despite their tremendous accomplishments, the UW women’s hockey team plays in an arena with a capacity of just 2,262.

These are not unusual disparities, and it’s been a long-held fact that women’s sports are simply not as popular as men’s. Sure, gymnastics, figure skating and beach volleyball get a small spike in attention every four years during the Olympics, but never has there been a female sport that has seen the sort of significant and sustained popularity as its male counterparts.

And then came MMA.

First, Gina Carano became one of the faces of the sport after debuting with EliteXC. Her success was so rapid that she was a featured attraction on the first MMA event ever to be broadcast on CBS, and it wasn’t because her presence suddenly meant a significant uptick in female viewers. Male sports fans, many of whom have steadfastly refused to tune in to women’s sports in the past, were making Carano’s fights appointment television. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino forcibly removed Carano from atop the women’s MMA throne, and then proceeded to wreck her way through two additional opponents, both of which were featured in the co-main-event slots of the Strikeforce events where they were held. Again, Cyborg was placed in such a high-visibility position after her dominance earned her a legion of male fans.

The foundation laid by Carano and Cyborg helped another female fighter armbar her way to the top of the women’s 135-pound heap and helped the UFC usher in, at long last, its first female division. Ronda Rousey has taken the MMA world by storm, going undefeated in her first seven fights and finishing all of her opponents by submission. She first emerged as a contender with two wins in Strikeforce’s Challengers series, the second of which earned her a bantamweight title opportunity against Miesha Tate. Their fight, which headlined a Strikeforce card on Showtime, turned Rousey into a true MMA star. Her stomach-turning armbar dislocated Tate’s elbow and showed that there was a brutal side to Rousey as well.

Around this time, UFC President Dana White began talking more and more about the Olympic medalist who was laying waste to the other women at 135, and it wasn’t long before “Ronda Rousey” and “UFC debut” began appearing in the same sentence. Finally, in November 2012, White announced that the UFC had signed Rousey to a contract and that she would defend her UFC women’s bantamweight title against Liz Carmouche in the headlining fight of UFC 157.

Initially, there were more than a few skeptics who questioned whether a female fight should, in fact, be the main attraction on a pay-per-view card. The UFC certainly did its part to promote Rousey and her title fight, and the results were good. “Rowdy” Ronda defeated Carmouche by submission (her seventh first-round armbar in as many fights), and the UFC experienced an unprecedented level of attention from the mainstream sports media. UFC 157 ended up doing 450,000 pay-per-view buys, according to the Blue Book, easily outperforming the majority of the (male-exclusive) UFC pay-per-view cards from the previous year. This is even more impressive when one considers that a card headlined by Rousey attracted more viewers than one headlined by pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva (UFC 153, with 410,000 buys) and another which featured a superfight between featherweight champion Jose Aldo and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar (UFC 156, with 330,000 buys).

The evidence is pretty convincing. Pretty much out of nowhere, women’s MMA has not only emerged as a viable sport, but it has quickly become the most popular women’s sport on a national basis. When was the last time a female athlete got the sort of national attention Rousey got before UFC 157? In the last few years, the only female athletes that have really made a critical mass of male sports fans stop for a minute have been ones like Annika Sorenstam and Danica Patrick—competitors whose attention was derived primarily from the fact that they were competing against men. Sure, there are some incredible women’s college basketball teams like those from Baylor or the University of Connecticut who constantly put their talents on display, but one would be hard-pressed to find a time when 450,000 people watched one of their games on free television, let alone spent $45 apiece to do it.

So why has women’s MMA become so popular with male fans so quickly? Simple: the sport is exactly the same whether men are fighting men or women are fighting women. There are no special rules for female fights (though initially they were forced to fight three-minute rounds for some reason) and a fan would be just as likely to see an explosive knockout or slick submission from a female mixed martial artist as they would a male. This is not the case for other female sports. In women’s hockey, for example, the players aren’t allowed to check each other. Why? No one has been able to provide a decent explanation, but the powers that be in women’s hockey have removed a critical part of the game, and one that does a lot to add to the excitement of the sport. One could even argue that certain elements of MMA are actually more conducive to female success. Painting with a fairly broad brush, the average female is probably more flexible than the average male, so when you have elite submission specialists who also have a little extra flexibility to work with, it adds an extra element of danger to women’s fights that might not necessarily exist for men.

Whether women’s MMA will sustain its current level of popularity moving forward remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem like there are many opportunities for it to lose its footing. The UFC, anticipating the success of Rousey/Carmouche, has already booked two additional women’s fights for upcoming cards and will certainly be on the lookout for the next group of female fighters to bring into the organization. The promotion will have a good opportunity to do that on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, which will not only feature Rousey as one of the season’s coaches, but will also be the first to incorporate female fighters into the house.

The rise of MMA to quasi-mainstream popularity has been a strange and unlikely journey, so it’s appropriate that women’s MMA should make the equally strange and unlikely trip to the top of the female sports pantheon. The numbers from the first UFC pay-per-view event to feature a female fight were, frankly, pretty staggering, especially when one considers the comparative unpopularity of other women’s sports, and the promotion’s roster of females is only going to continue to grow.

The American sporting community has shown an overall lack of interest in watching women play basketball, softball or many of the other sports in which female athletes are afforded the opportunity to compete. Given the evidence, however, it would seem that same American sporting community really likes watching them fight.

Photo: Ronda Rousey (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.