Formerly undefeated UFC fighter Ronda Rousey has been knocked out—and knocked off her pedestal. But the real question is: Will her brand take a beating, too?
Fans everywhere were stunned on Saturday night when Rousey, the bantamweight champion, lost to Holly Holm, a former U.S. boxing champion and the clear underdog in the fight (Rousey was favored 12-1 in Las Vegas sports books). The fight was the most-watched in UFC history, thanks in no small part to Rousey herself.
Since then, commentators have been up in arms, some urging a re-match, others claiming that Rousey never deserved to be called the best in the first place, and that her popularity was due more to marketing than actual talent. One popular sports blog went so far as to call Rousey the “most overrated athlete of all time.”
While these comments don’t say anything conclusive about Rousey’s abilities, they do demonstrate her loss has opened her up to criticism that has been largely ignored when she had a perfect record.
“Her appeal was, ‘I am the toughest women in the world, I am the toughest in my sport.’ When you lose you lose that, you lose marketability,” says David Schwab, managing director of Octagon First Call, a sports and entertainment marketing agency.
Schwab, who says he frequently advises brands and marketing agencies on which celebrities to work with, says he would not recommend his clients invest in Rousey unless they have a specific interest in UFC fans. “The loss affects her ability to get sponsorship right now for brands that don’t already spend money in the UFC,” he says. Currently, Rousey’s sponsors include Reebok, energy drink company Monster Energy, burger chain Carl’s Junior, and denim brand Buffalo David Bitton.
However, Schwab doesn’t believe that Rousey’s popularity will necessarily wane as a result of her loss. As Fortune‘s Dan Roberts notes, her appeal already stems as much on her activities outside the ring as it does from her performance inside it: “Rousey made Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list this year, not because she was undefeated but because she has turned herself into one of America’s most marketable female athletes, inspired female athletes, and advocated against body-shaming,” he writes. Additionally, the fighter has graced the covers of magazines such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN and SELF and has been announced as the first female athlete to be on the global cover of an EA Sports video game.
Ben Sturner, founder and CEO of sports and entertainment marketing firm Leverage Agency, says that Rousey’s mainstream appeal shows just how powerful her brand is. “Ronda’s got a very unique where she crosses over from her sport to pop culture. Just because she loses a match, doesn’t mean people will turn against her.”
Rousey’s loss to Holm has been likened to Serena Williams’ loss at this year’s U.S. Open to Italy’s Roberta Vinci, and Mike Tyson’s loss to Buster Douglas in 1990. Neither athlete’s personal brand has been noticeably damaged by these “Ls”—though it should be noted that both have a much longer record of wins than Rousey does.
What’s more, Rousey’s marketability has actually increased in the short run, as her promised re-match with Holm is sure to be even more talked-about that the original fight. Losing that match, however, could be a serious blow.
Schwab believes that Rousey’s most promising path to celebrity is Hollywood. She has already had acting appearances in blockbusters Expendables 3, Furious Seven and Entourage, but the real opportunity is the upcoming action flick Road House, a re-make of a 1980s film in which Rousey will have the lead role, which was originally played by Patrick Swayze. “Depending on the budget that’s put behind Road House, there will be more people that see her and watch her than in any UFC fight,” says Schwab.
So far, Rousey’s defeat has not spurred any action on the behalf of production company MGM to replace her in the lead role, reports TMZ Sports.
Could her sport-to-Hollywood transition mirror that of former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson (also known as “The Rock”)? There are important differences, says Schwab. Although Johnson has managed to carve out a successful acting career for himself—including ongoing appearances in the Fast and Furious franchise—he had already had previous acting experience through wrestling, which itself is a form of acting. If Rousey hopes to successfully switch over from athlete to actress, she will likely need a lot of training, Schwab says.
A better role model for Rousey might be basketball star LeBron James, who recently had a very well-reviewed appearance alongside Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. Casting director Jen Rudin says that the transition from sports to acting is quite common. Some of the more notable athletes-turned-actors include bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and martial arts master Chuck Norris.
“Producers are always interested in celebrity casting,” Rudin says. If Rousey’s record continues to decline, it is true that she may not longer be considered for “tough girl” roles, but that doesn’t mean other opportunities won’t be open to her. “People are always interested in the epic highs and lows [of athlete’s lives],” says Rudin. “If she wants to act, she should.”
Violence outside the ring
The potentially bigger issue in terms of Rousey’s reputation and future acting career are the revelations that she has been physically violent with her ex, and that her current boyfriend, fellow MMA fighter Travis Browne, has been accused of domestic violence by his estranged wife. Neither the incident with her ex, which she wrote about herself in her autobiography, My Fight, Your Fight (published in May), nor her current relationship status are news. However, Rousey’s loss seems to have brought these facts to greater prominence in the media.
The real test of Rousey’s brand—as a fighter, a pitch woman and an actress—is yet to come. Her performance in the re-match with Holm will likely give us a clue about her future as an athlete, but her record in the ring is not necessarily correlated to the place she holds in the public imagination. Will Rousey attain icon status? We’ll have to wait and see.
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