SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/Media

Will a women’s sports breakthrough emerge from The Octagon?

John Ourand
Mixed martial arts is poised to become one of the most popular women’s sports in the United States.

I’m not sure I really believe that sentence, but a panel of sports editors recently identified the UFC in particular as a group that already has cultivated female stars and is set up to develop more.
“I do think there’s a really interesting increase in MMA,” said Patrick Stiegman, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, speaking at SportsBusiness Journal’s Game Changers Conference last month.

On an earlier panel at the conference, T-Mobile’s director of sponsorships and events, Meredith Starkey, said the emergence of popular women like Ronda Rousey could make the sport more appealing to advertisers. When sponsors like T-Mobile start to take notice of a sport that still can’t get sanctioned in New York, it suggests that MMA is closer to being mainstream than many previously thought.

“It’s interesting to see what they’re doing, bringing in the female fighters now and how that will grow the brand,” Starkey said.

Numbers back up those claims. Earlier this year, Magna Global identified one-third of the UFC’s 18- to 49-year-old audience as female. That’s a figure consistent with the percentage of young women who view NFL games and a surprising stat to people who still complain MMA is too violent. ESPN.com traffic tells a similar story. Overall, MMA content generates 3 million unique visitors and 75 million page views a month.

“Those numbers were all near zero years ago,” Stiegman said. “Women are certainly part of that increase. They are riding that train, as well.”

In fact, Stiegman predicted that the Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate fight this December will bring in as much traffic as any other MMA match this year.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in coverage on our site, specifically with women competing in The Octagon,” Stiegman said in an interview last week. “It’s quickly gone beyond curiosity to legitimate interest among fans.”

Stiegman admitted that he was skeptical about the growth of female stars in MMA as recently as three years ago, when Gina Carano was making headlines in the UFC as a breakout star. Now, he’s seen the UFC push women competitors through shows like “The Ultimate Fighter” and place women in main events on fight cards. And he sees the traffic female stars are bringing to ESPN.com.

ESPN.com’s Patrick Stiegman and Roopstigo’s Selena Roberts
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
ESPN.com’s MMA traffic mirrors the numbers for other sports, where users are 75 percent to 80 percent male.

“It’s similar to women’s college basketball and the WNBA in that it’s a majority male audience,” Stiegman said. “But the female audience is growing.”

The trend of more women watching events is occurring across all sports. Former Sports Illustrated columnist Selena Roberts, founder of the Roopstigo sports network, noted that women aren’t necessarily watching women’s sports; rather, they are watching the same sports men watch.

“We’ll reach a new milestone when women start watching women play sports,” she said. “Right now, a lot of men watch women play sports. … It hasn’t reached the point where that conversation includes the WNBA on a regular basis. I hope that some day it gets to that point.”

The UFC’s push to develop female stars matches the effort by some sports outlets to cater more to a female audience. ESPN, for example, launched espnW three years ago as a place for women sports fans.

“In general, we take a different tact in our storytelling with W,” Stiegman said on last month’s panel. “It’s not quite as much about statistics, analytics and advanced metrics as it is about a more emotional connection, a more behind-the-scenes connection, or a first-person connection. … There’s a different type of storytelling we can offer through the W space that we know is resonating with women sports fans as well.”

Roberts complained that a specific destination like espnW feels like “marginalizing women’s sports to a page.” She said she would rather see espnW stories promoted more frequently on ESPN.com’s homepage.

Roberts drew applause from the audience when she said, “Have a section that is devoted to these great stories that you have on W that is occupied very often by Rick Reilly having the same column for the entire week. Then you’re saying to the world, ‘Everybody’s equal.’”

Stiegman responded that ESPN promotes espnW stories on its homepage “daily” — but the back-and-forth showed that sports outlets are serious about catering more toward women. And surprisingly, to me at least, mixed martial arts is helping to lead that change.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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