The Gina Carano-Cris "Cyborg" Santos match in San Jose on Saturday night was obviously going to be the biggest women’s mixed martial arts match ever in the U.S. And by every indication, those who were critical of putting women in the main event have to eat crow.
After a weekend when Carano and Cyborg were the No. 1 most searched subjects on Yahoo!, No. 2 on Google, and the most discussed topic on Twitter on Saturday night, the key number, the television ratings, was record breaking.
The Showtime broadcast of Santos' first-round victory over Carano did a 2.2 rating with an average of 576,000 viewers, between 10:30 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. ET. The abbreviated show included three first-round stoppages in four televised matches. Both numbers broke the Showtime records set on Feb. 16, 2008, a 1.9 rating and 522,000 viewers for an Elite XC card headlined by Tank Abbott vs. Kimbo Slice. It also more than doubled the 275,000 viewers drawn on Strikeforce’s last major show on June 6.
Saturday's bout was sloppy at times. It did not have the all-around skill level of top-level men’s matches, but when it came to excitement and crowd appeal, it was a huge success.
The crowd of 13,976, one of the largest non-UFC crowds in MMA history, reacted with every bit of passion as they did for Frank Shamrock’s fights with Cung Le and Phil Baroni in the same arena, which finished high in most MMA match of the year awards the past two years.
The event was promoted as a historical event. It was the first woman’s main event on a major MMA show, the first woman’s main event for any fighting event on Showtime, and the crowning of the first major promotion women’s champion.
The crowd was slightly different from the usual group that attends Strikeforce events in San Jose. There were more couples and more women in general than for most MMA events.
The Carano vs. Santos main event itself did a 2.9 rating and 856,000 viewers, adding 17 percent over the audience from the preceding Gegard Mousasi vs. Renato Sobral light heavyweight title match. Those numbers were far ahead of any MMA match ever on the network.
Also impressive is that the card did these numbers on a short show, as MMA events on television generally will draw better when they are longer, because the pattern is people will find out about the show and stick with it, and a longer show has a higher ratings advantage.
From a ratings standpoint, which throws out the obvious advantage a show on Spike or CBS would have because they are seen in more homes than Showtime, the match was not close to a ratings record-setting event for the sport. But it was the highest rating for an MMA match or event in the U.S. this year, even though as far as total audience, any first-run UFC television show on Spike will have more actual viewers.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship countered Strikeforce by putting the biggest show in its history, a replay of UFC 100 from July 11, on Spike TV. Being available in far more homes than Showtime, the UFC event did a 1.5 rating and 2 million viewers for the Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir fight. The numbers were significantly lower than UFC 91 drew for its replay with Lesnar vs. Randy Couture when it went up against an Affliction show in January. The decision to air the show wasn’t made until a few days prior, and there was significantly less advertising for this show as compared to Lesnar vs. Couture. The taped UFC event drew more males in the 18-34 age demographic than any live sporting event on Saturday.
The question is whether this unique match was a one-time phenomenon for women in the sport, or, like UFC when it hit big four years ago, something that will springboard the women’s side to greater popularity.
There is little question it was the personalities, or maybe more accurately, one of the personalities, Carano's, which drove the event.
UFC has shown with every major star, like Randy Couture, Georges St. Pierre, Forrest Griffin, Brock Lesnar and Chuck Liddell, that fighters who become stars, don’t seem to lose marketing appeal with a loss. In fact, even with a series of losses like Liddell has suffered in recent fights, he pulled much higher numbers on pay-per-view for his most recent fight in April than he did his prior fight in September.
The idea that because the sport was built on Carano, that with one loss, it’s over, is ridiculous, even though those comments have been echoed in the past few days. You can make an argument that just being part of such a major event made her a bigger star, even in losing.
Santos, on the other hand, is a much bigger star. She has a crowd-pleasing all-out style reminiscent of a prime Wanderlei Silva, with whom she is often compared. Both came from the same gym, the Chute Boxe Academy in Curatiba, Brazil.
Will Santos draw similar numbers without Carano as her opponent? That’s unlikely. She probably won’t be able to singularly main event and carry a show on her back, but only a handful of people in the sport can, and it’s an unfair standard to expect from her. But a more fair comparison is will she, against Marloes Coenen, her next likely opponent, be able to garner the level of interest a man like Jake Shields, Robbie Lawler or Nick Diaz in a similar spot on the card can do? The jury is out, but based on her exposure, the odds are strongly in her favor.