How the UFC Made Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor Stars

Patrick WymanMMA Senior AnalystNovember 12, 2015

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06:  Ronda Rousey Visits 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on October 6, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon')
Graphic by Jeremy Botter

Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor are stars.

At this point, there's no disputing that fact. Rousey has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter; McGregor, 744,000. More than 6 million people follow Rousey on Instagram, and 1.3 million follow the Irishman.

The former Olympic judoka is becoming a fixture in the entertainment industry. She will star in a remake of Road House, the film that made Patrick Swayze a star, after appearing in Entourage and Furious 7 in 2014. Her biography is being adapted into a feature film in which she's set to star. 

Vin Diesel sat cageside at UFC 184, cheering for his Furious 7 co-star. The biggest moment at this year's WrestleMania event involved Rousey and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in a viral angle that cemented Rousey as a pop culture phenomenon. Appearances on the late-night and daytime talk show circuit demonstrate her appeal outside the normal bounds of MMA or even sports in general.

Rousey's last two pay-per-views sold 600,000 and 900,000 units, even without anything resembling a strong supporting cast. Not only is she a star who generates tremendous casual interest; she's bankable and a box-office draw.

While McGregor's media profile is nowhere close to Rousey's, with just one appearance on Conan, he's a viral star in his own right: A video of him sparring with the strongman who plays the Mountain on Game of Thrones has more than 8 million views on YouTube. More importantly, he's a moneymaking machine.

Despite featherweight champion Jose Aldo pulling out mere weeks before the fight, the strength of McGregor's promotional muscle sold 825,000 units at UFC 189, easily setting a record for a featherweight fight. More than 3 million people watched McGregor's last fight on Fox Sports 1, easily setting a record for the UFC's broadcasts on the network. There is little doubt that his bout with Aldo will do massive numbers.

Rousey's transformation into a mainstream attraction and McGregor's rise to pay-per-view bankability and potentially much more didn't happen by accident.

Coherent strategies and talented people working behind the scenes make stars, not random chance and luck. Rousey and McGregor are tremendously charismatic and gifted people, to be sure, but having the right gifts to appeal to broad audiences isn't enough. Repeated exposure to those audiences is what builds a blossoming talent into a marketable and recognizable figure.

The rise of McGregor and especially of Rousey is the story of how the UFC got smarter and more savvy in order to expand its reach into the mainstream. It hired smart, qualified people in entertainment and sports media, worked with outside partners and developed coherent strategies for putting its favored stars in front of as many eyes as humanly possible.

Whether the acquisition of its two potential stars was the impetus for that process, which began late in 2013, or whether they made the UFC's powers that be realize the possibilities of high-level publicity, the company committed heavily to a new direction.

An aging St-Pierre in his last fight against Johny Hendricks.
An aging St-Pierre in his last fight against Johny Hendricks.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

After a big 2013 built on the backs of aging stars Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, who accounted for a combined 3.155 million of the year's 6 million buys, 2014 was a down year for the promotion without its longtime staples. The downturn laid the groundwork, however, for a bounce-back 2015 that has relied heavily on Rousey and McGregor.

Promotional muscle and slick marketing campaigns are part of that, but even more important was turning Rousey into a pop culture phenomenon. She appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Profiles on her ran in Rolling Stone and Esquire, while McGregor received an in-depth profile in Esquire and appeared on Conan.

It's impossible to overstate how much these appearances matter. They've placed McGregor and especially Rousey at the center of the pop culture conversation and put her in front of literally millions of eyes, far more than the MMA media or even the broader sports media could accomplish. 

Why try so hard to place your clients in these outlets? "There are industry stories you want to tell, which speak to an already engaged fanbase," said one PR professional. "But as you look to take your brand mainstream, the conversations change. Mainstream media will tell a different story. It'll make your brand and your topic more relatable to a larger audience and generate new fans."

And that's the crux of the issue, especially with Rousey. The idea here isn't to sell her to MMA fans, but to audiences that otherwise would not be engaged with the sport.

Ellen, for example, is consistently among the highest-rated daytime talk shows. The UFC launched its glossy promo for Rousey-Holm during her appearance on the show on a week that averaged more than 3 million viewers per episode; even more importantly, it was the leading talk show among women aged 18-49, precisely the demographic to whom the UFC would like to sell Rousey.

It wasn't a coincidence that the UFC debuted this promo from Ellen Degeneres' Twitter account:

As with the process of creating stars in general, placing people in those mainstream media outlets doesn't happen by accident. Sometimes the outlets come to the person in question, but more often publicists acting on behalf of the client—in this case, the UFC acting on Rousey's behalf—convince the show's talent bookers to bring the person on.

To be booked on Ellen or Fallon requires a certain level of stardom already, but it also requires a publicist with the right connections and contacts to make that happen. In late 2013, the UFC went out and found one—Lenee Breckenridge—with deep experience in entertainment media who could make these kinds of appearances happen. 

While the UFC has made obvious strides in its relationship with entertainment media, it's also drastically improved its positioning within the sports media sphere. With all due respect to Fox Sports 1, the UFC's contractual partner, ESPN is the king.

The UFC has made every effort to place itself on ESPN in the last year, using SportsCenter as a venue for breaking stories and even bringing on Rousey as a guest host, the first female athlete to do so. 

In fact, practically every major breaking news story regarding the UFC over the last year has come through ESPN, from the announcement of the Anderson Silva-Nick Diaz matchup in July 2014 to Jose Aldo's withdrawal from UFC 189 in June of this year. The news of Rousey-Holm at UFC 193 likewise came through SportsCenter.

"We have a great relationship with the talent bookers and coordinating producers over at ESPN," said Dave Sholler, the UFC's vice president of public relations. He attributes the promotion's greater presence on the network to rejuvenated interest in the sport and the UFC's athletes.

These are mutually reinforcing processes. Fighters such as Rousey and McGregor already have a media profile and narratives that are compelling to more mainstream outlets with broader audiences than industry media. These mainstream outlets then further increase the exposure for these fighters, which makes them yet more compelling: It's stardom as a snowball rolling downhill, gathering momentum as it goes.

"When I started [several years ago], we were doing very, very proactive pitching," said Sholler. "We still do, but it's nice nowadays too to have a little reactive effort with the general interest that this department has created and that Ronda and Conor and so many of our top stars have created as well." In other words, major media outlets are coming to the UFC now, not just the other way around.

Between mainstream entertainment media and sports media, the UFC has reached a drastically larger audience since its explicit shift in strategy. Getting the clients booked through these outlets, whether they're print, online media or TV, is only part of what the UFC has gotten better at doing. 

At its heart, public relations is about telling stories. In Rousey and McGregor, the UFC has found two very different but equally compelling figures who go about communicating their narratives in very different ways. The UFC has tailored its approach with each fighter to different outlets that minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths.

"McGregor can answer 'hello' with a 15-minute monologue," said Paul Heyman, the legendary former owner of the ECW professional wrestling promotion, longtime advocate for former UFC heavyweight champion and current WWE superstar Brock Lesnar, general manager of the WWE's SmackDown brand and keen observer of the promotional, marketing and publicity spaces.

Heyman at this year's WrestleMania.
Heyman at this year's WrestleMania.Don Feria/Associated Press

Heyman has followed the rises of Rousey and McGregor with close interest. "Rousey's very focused and Rousey's very intense and Rousey can get herself in trouble and create controversy, and I don't mean the type that McGregor likes to cause. The last thing they want is for Rousey to shoot herself in the foot, so you have to be very careful with her. She's the goose that's laying the golden eggs."

McGregor is a born talker who can function in any media environment and might have higher upside over the long term, while Rousey is more limited but a more compelling product right now. Why? Because, given that publicity is about pushing narratives, there are multiple avenues through which to work with the women's bantamweight champion.

"The promotion of Rousey is multi-tiered," said Heyman. "She's a gorgeous female who kicks the s--t out of anybody in her path or taps them out with armbars that she learned from her mother, who was a champion, that she does in the name of her father, who tragically took his own life. This is a great story, and she's untouchable in the cage.

"So she's gorgeous, she can fight, she has a great life story, she can speak; it's only the beginning, it's a female empowerment story, it's a cultural phenomenon story, it's a box-office attraction story. It hits on every level."

As Heyman breaks Rousey down into her component parts, we can see no fewer than six different and equally compelling narratives, each of which speaks to different audiences and which the UFC and Rousey can push through different media outlets.

SportsCenter might focus on Rousey's sheer dominance as an athlete, what Heyman describes as "The UFC's version of Mike Tyson." The promotion has made that comparison explicit on multiple occasions. For Ellen, the discussion focused on Rousey as a symbol of female empowerment. For Kimmel or Fallon, the narrative might be Rousey as a multifaceted entertainer.

All of those are options, and each is deep enough on its own to sustain an interview. Rousey is polished, well trained and focused, and these kinds of appearances give her minimal room to go off-script and commit the kind of faux pas—her recent comments on lube certainly qualify—to which Heyman referred.

McGregor, however, falls into a well-worn groove in combat sports, that of the loquacious talker. The archetype was made famous by Muhammad Ali, and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta made that comparison himself in January. His personality and ability to give exceptional interviews in the vein of Ali or a multitude of pro wrestlers is what makes him special.

Unlike Rousey, McGregor isn't selling his life story or his meaning in discrete, pre-set narratives, chopped up into particular bits for particular audiences via particular media locales. He's selling himself, a charming, charismatic and entertaining figure.

McGregor doesn't so much give interviews as hold court.
McGregor doesn't so much give interviews as hold court.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The Irishman doesn't need to sell pre-set narratives, as Rousey does, because his ability to talk allows him to generate new ones at any time. His fight with Jose Aldo is one narrative, to be sure, but just in case, he has also spun the foundations of potential storylines with Urijah Faber, Donald Cerrone and even bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. That's a rare gift.

"I think McGregor is so extraordinarily talented that he can adapt to any media environment you put him in, because he's not just a loudmouth, he's not just a whole bunch of amplified hype; he's a very articulate, intelligent man," said Heyman.

"As he continues to grow as a star, there will be more outlets for him that demonstrate his versatility. It's a lot like Dwayne Johnson was in the WWE. At first he was just a wrestler, and after a while people realized that he can sing, he can dance, he can act, he can move, he can tell jokes, he can play serious, he can do it all."

That's high praise from someone who has been around the art of verbal promotion for as long as Heyman, and it speaks to McGregor's stardom now and the fact that he has yet to fully exploit his considerable abilities.

As hard as the UFC has worked to place Rousey and McGregor with mainstream outlets, it's a two-way street. "I have yet to experience athletes who have worked harder than Ronda and Conor and better understood the value of the media game," Sholler said.

At its athlete summits, the most recent of which took place the first week of November, the UFC plays a video of McGregor talking about the media and how he approaches it. In this video, per Sholler, McGregor states that he treats his media obligations just like his training sessions. They're scheduled into his day so that they're not a nuisance, but simply a part of his daily life.

This is merely the nature of being a draw in the 21st-century landscape of combat sports. "It's one thing to be a really, really good fighter, and that will carry many athletes to great success," said Sholler, but it's media savvy that carries true stars "to the point where people can't miss you. That's a real recipe for success."

Brock Lesnar, the biggest draw in UFC history, is the only real exception to this rule. "Lesnar would have to be talked into doing a cover story for Time magazine," said Heyman, who has been associated with Lesnar in one form or another since 2000.

Lesnar and Heyman at this year's WrestleMania.
Lesnar and Heyman at this year's WrestleMania.Don Feria/Associated Press

"He just doesn't give a damn about publicity. He understands that he has an aura around him and about him, and every word that he says takes away from that aura and mystique. So he's antisocial and reclusive and strategic in the sense that the more he shuts up, the more people want of him." 

Sholler agreed. They had to work hard to get Lesnar to do any sort of press, he said, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

The difference in potential placement between Lesnar and now Rousey and McGregor highlights the difficulty of the process of publicity and promotion. This isn't a "one size fits all" kind of game, where a fighter can be slotted into a machine and immediately turned into a star; each athlete requires a personal touch and savvy identification of his or her appeal.

It takes work and time to identify the potential narratives that can make a fighter a star. Sholler is optimistic and upbeat about the potential of each and every fighter on the UFC's roster to make the most of its publicity machine but emphasizes that it's a two-way street between the promotion and the fighters. 

"It's a shared responsibility. We work very hard and diligently as an organization to promote all the fighters on our roster, but the ones who have gone out and sought their positioning in the press and tried to create stories" have had more success, he said.

Sholler and his colleagues help those who help themselves, offering media coaching to those who ask for it. Rousey and McGregor are the most obvious cases, but he also mentioned Donald Cerrone as an example.

"His [Cerrone's] whole focus was to train and be prepared for the fight, but over time, working together and putting him in position to succeed in front of media and teaching him about some of the keys to good media presence—tone, pitch, awareness—not only has he become really good at doing press, but it's helped him in the attraction and generation of big sponsors like Budweiser."

Cerrone has a personal and professional relationship with Budweiser.
Cerrone has a personal and professional relationship with Budweiser.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

It would take a PR staff of dozens, however, to fully service a roster with over 500 fighters, especially given the individual nature of the process. Not everybody is going to get the full treatment, not only due to lack of interest on his or her part but simply due to the limited resources available.

As talented as Sholler, Breckenridge and the rest of their team might be, they can't handle every fighter the UFC signs on that level.

Heyman was more blunt about this. "Of course a high-powered publicist will say, 'Yeah, I'll promote Ronda Rousey to the No. 1 daytime talk shows and the No. 1 late-night talk shows, I'll get CNN and HBO Real Sports to cover her, we'll make sure she's front page of every major newspaper sports section when she fights.

"We'll get her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine. We'll plaster the global news multiverse and make sure she's the No. 1 topic across the globe,' because on every level her story is interesting. 

"The same cannot be said for others in the UFC. No matter how great they may be, they don't carry the same mainstream appeal as Ronda, her looks and her story."

Even other UFC champions don't carry the same kind of inherent appeal, and no matter how talented or dedicated the publicists are, the same heights aren't within reach for everyone. It's not possible to plug a fighter into the machine, press a button and turn out a star through the assembly line.

The UFC has high hopes for Paige VanZant.
The UFC has high hopes for Paige VanZant.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

With that said, the process does build on itself. The contacts that the UFC's PR staff has developed and honed through the promotion of McGregor and Rousey will be useful as they attempt to position younger fighters such as Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt. Elias Theodorou, Thomas Almeida and Aljamain Sterling were others Sholler mentioned as fighters who were exceptionally invested in and dedicated to the process.

Sage Northcutt made his UFC debut at 19 years old.
Sage Northcutt made his UFC debut at 19 years old.Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Sholler believes, more explicitly, in a trickle-down effect from the stars to the rest of the roster. More publicity at the top, he says, means more exposure for the fighters on the undercard.

Whether this holds true or not remains to be seen. Will the people tuning in to UFC 193 really care more about Jake Matthews and Robert Whittaker, or even Joanna Jedrzejczyk, simply because Rousey is the headliner? Or does their interest begin and end with the champion?

Either way, however, the UFC has made serious efforts to improve its publicity operation. The promotion hired veterans of the Tampa Bay Rays' and Pittsburgh Steelers' PR operations to work on their sports media relations and brought in Breckenridge and others to work the mainstream entertainment angle.

Sholler wasn't shy about admitting that the promotion can't handle everything in-house either. The UFC has made enormous efforts in expanding its profile into the Hispanic market and brought in a specialist agency—Pinta, operating out of Miami—to help with that process.

"They've been a great partner that started working with us at the beginning of this year in helping elevate the profile of folks like Yair Rodriguez, Tecia Torres, the Pettis brothers, Kelvin Gastelum and Henry Cejudo," Sholler said. The results have been excellent, and Rodriguez, Gastelum and Cejudo look poised to break through in the very near future.

It's a sign of the UFC's growth and maturity as a sports and entertainment entity that it identified a potential growth area, poured resources into it and came out ahead. The company got smarter, and explicitly so. UFC President Dana White and the Fertittas were open to Sholler's pitch about expanding its PR operation, and the benefits are clear.

The UFC has broken through at least two people into mainstream media outlets accessible to millions of viewers, many of whom have no exposure to the sport. Major announcements appear on ESPN alongside news of the biggest sports in America. This is the result of a coherent, specific strategy executed by talented professionals.

The promotion has succeeded in making Rousey and McGregor stars. That wouldn't have happened if they weren't charismatic and compelling, but charisma and talent don't matter nearly as much if nobody's watching.

 

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report. He can be found on Twitter.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.