People love stories. Whether it’s a great book, movie, or TV show, humans love to get caught up in a gripping narrative. That’s why people watch sports: the best contests feature rising action, a climax and satisfying resolution.
This applies to jiujitsu competitions, too. I’ve watched an absurd amount of jiujitsu matches, but there will always be a few that stand out to me, and I understand them the same way I understand any good story.
I want to talk today about one of the two best matches I’ve seen in person, a match featuring a legendary multiple-time world champion facing a newer, up-and-coming competitor.
Time was running short. With the world championship on the line, the six-time black belt world champion was down on points against the young upstart. There was just over a minute to go.
Then, from guard, the champ caught the challenger in a dangerous armlock: this elicited a fierce battle, with both competitors fully aware that the outcome of this submission hold would decide the match — and the Mundial championship. The champ was fighting to finish, with the challenger trying to hold on and win that first black belt Mundial gold.
Then the shoulder went. The challenger’s arm was suddenly at an angle that seemed all wrong.
But there was no tap. Arm hanging loosely in the air, the challenger refused to submit.
This was at the 2014 Mundials. I was a few rows back, watching this match live next to a tough purple belt friend of mine. “Why isn’t she tapping, Mary?” I asked. Mary has way more technical knowledge than I do, so I assumed she had an explanation. “I … I don’t know,” Mary said.
You might have figured this out from the headline or the match description, but the pronoun should give it away: this was Michelle Nicolini against Tammi Musumeci in the 2014 black belt final. Ultimately, an unbelievably tough but one-armed Musumeci gave up the sweep, yielding points — and a seventh world title — for Nicolini.
Speaking as a fan, this match doesn’t just represent why I watch jiujitsu, this is why I watch sports itself.
It has every element you need for a dramatic viewing experience: a great story, top-level skills, athletic prowess and a tremendous act of will. It features rising action, dramatic tension, and a last-minute comeback by a legendary competitor to defend her crown against the next generation.
It’s a great match and a great story. Here, watch it for yourself:
So why doesn’t Metamoris founder Ralek Gracie think matches like this will drive pay-per-view purchases?
A BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE
From the beginning, I want to say that there are many non-economic reasons to ensure some women’s matches make it onto PPV cards. The women I’m most interested in watching — Nicolini, Leticia Ribeiro, Beatriz Mesquita, Ana Laura Cordeiro, Gezary Matuda and Luiza Monteiro to name a few — have simply earned the right to compete in high-profile events. With six matches on every card, surely simple respect dictates that we get more than one match every six events.
But since basically every argument in defense of Metamoris starts with “the women’s matches won’t sell,” that’s the only argument I’m going to be addressing in this post. Simply put, I think that putting at least one women’s match (and ideally more) on each card makes economic sense.
Let’s start with the most prominent source of this fiscal claim, Ralek Gracie:
Gracie admits the bout between Dern and Nicolini was successful enough in terms of box office drawing power and even match complexion, but suggests the dynamic between the two isn’t replicable at scale.
“We had that one match and it was cool, but that was more of, ‘That’s cool and that was interesting and I want to see that again if the girls are cute.’
Leaving aside Ralek Gracie’s offensive ‘if the girls are cute’ comment (and leaving aside what he must therefore think of Jeff Monson’s looks), this is an argument that is on its face absurd. So, the Nicolini-Dern matchup drew well at the box office and everybody liked the match — but that can’t be repeated? Really? We tried it, and it worked, and so we can’t try it again?
It is also an argument we hear with every iteration of women’s sports. Sometimes it winds up looking like a true argument, and sometimes (as with women’s tennis, which is more popular and a better game than men’s tennis) it looks silly. And Ralek’s comments just show the double-bind that this attitude causes: if you try it and it fails, you were right. If you try it and it works, well, clearly, you can’t replicate that success.
My capsule summary: every sporting event must be sold, and every sales pitch starts with a story. Generally speaking, the sports that have succeeded have taken the time to tell the stories of their athletes to give the audience some investment in the final product.
Who wouldn’t buy this card? I would buy this.
This should actually be easier with jiujitsu than with many other sports, because the core audience — grapplers — already has an investment in the product, and they know good jiujitsu when they see it.Every new product faces this challenge, but the barrier to entry here is much smaller.
Explain who people like Michelle Nicolini and Leticia Ribeiro are, for example, and you’ve got a ready-made marketing strategy. Let me explain why this makes economic sense in both the short- and long-term.
WHY IT MAKES SENSE IN THE SHORT TERM
There are three reasons putting at least one women’s match on each Metamoris card makes economic sense: match quality, targeted audience marketing, and opportunity cost. Let’s start with the first because it’s the simplest.
The Metamoris audience is composed of people who want to watch exciting submission grappling, and women’s matches deliver. Plus, many of the best women in the world have expressed interest in competing. Do we really think the average fan would rather see Jeff Monson, Chael Sonnen (who gets two matches) and Babalu than the some of the greatest women ever?
If you see matches with one of these women and don’t like it, you might not actually like jiujitsu.
Even if you buy that, though, consider that there are 6 matches on each card, and people buy cards for different reasons. As I’ll discuss in a moment, Metamoris has UFC fighters on the card to try to draw fans from mixed martial arts.
Having a variety of matches enables you to tell a variety of stories — and women’s matches are particular stories that would appeal to particular demographics. Think of a blue and a purple belt sitting 10 rows up for Nicolini-Musumeci: even if those people aren’t interested in, say, Chael-Babalu, having a match featuring one or both of those women draws them in even if you wouldn’t otherwise get them to buy the event.
Finally, consider return on investment. When the Metamoris Needs Women images started circulating widely, I honestly thought there was a good chance Metamoris would add a women’s match to the card. This would have been a way to signal that they heard fans’ concerns, and given that a lot of the top competitors train in California anyway, would have been a relatively small economic investment.
Now more than ever.
Instead, the Metamoris brass chose not just to forego a women’s match, but to give an interview saying they might get to it eventually if the women were deemed sufficiently attractive.
Which would have been a wiser economic strategy: to invest a few thousand dollars into adding a women’s match to the card, or to alienate a healthy portion of your core audience?
I’ll leave you to decide, but I think you can guess my opinion. After all, I went from “I love Metamoris and have bought every event, but wish they’d do this” to “I am most likely never going to support Metamoris ever again” in the space of a few weeks. And I’m not alone.
Let’s say I’m wrong about this economic calculus, though. Let’s say it would have increased Metamoris’ costs in the short term. It still would have been a wiser economic decision in the long run. Here’s why:
WHY IT MAKES SENSE IN THE LONG TERM
I don’t buy that women’s matches wouldn’t draw, and Metamoris’ lone experience with a women’s match supports my thoughts. But even if they wouldn’t draw now, adding some matches would be a great chance for Metamoris to retain core fans and to expand its audience.
The primary audience for Metamoris is always going to be people who enjoy grappling — and that audience is composed largely of grapplers. It’s smart to both recognize that this is the core audience and to attempt to expand that audience.
This, I believe, is what Metamoris is trying to do by bringing in prominent MMA fighters: people who have seen Brendan Schaub, Joe Lauzon and Chael Sonnen in the UFC may check out a Metamoris PPV even if they aren’t fans of submission grappling per se.
That’s the theory, anyway. If this is the perspective we’re adopting, however, this is just another reason why it makes more economic sense to have women’s matches at Metamoris: fan retention.
Who is more likely to stick around and buy multiple events, the MMA fan who likes Brendan Schaub or the fan of women’s jiujitsu who likes Michelle Nicolini? Chances are that without MMA guys on the card, the fight fan is just going to go back and watch the UFC. Unless every Metamoris card contains the likes of Schaub — a move which risks alienating the core audience — the people who are only fans of mixed martial arts are likely to be one-and-done buyers.
Conversely, if you’re a fan of great jiujitsu, you’re probably going to love watching Nicolini, Mesquita, Ana Laura Cordeiro, etc. Some of the most exciting matches these days are women’s matches, and if you’re reading this post, you probably saw the Brendan Schaub match. Enough said there.
A tournament is a story. A career is a story.
Again, I dispute the notion that putting on women’s matches would cost Metamoris money. If so, though, one match on each card could function as a “loss leader” — to get new fans in the door and create further demand.
Every great new product in the market transforms that market. If you’re a guy grappler who has never seen a women’s match, watching a terrific contest of this nature is likely to leave you wanting more. That’s one reason it’s a long-term winner to have women’s matches at Metamoris.
But there is another, broader reason. Currently, fewer women train jiujitsu than men. This is sometimes used as a reason not to put women’s matches on PPVs. First, that’s based on the faulty assumption that men will not watch women’s sports.
Additionally, though, Metamoris should think about this as an untapped market: the more women who train, the more potential grappling fans there are. And how do we get more women to train and keep training without showcasing the best women athletes?
With more visible women’s matches, more women train and get the benefits of jiujitsu. That means more people training, and more people watching. That makes us all better.
Here’s the sad part: with Ralek’s most recent comments, it might honestly be too late for Metamoris.
There’s a window of opportunity for everything, and the last few days may have slammed that window shut. An opportunity to tell fans “yeah, we heard you” turned into a monumental blunder that sent the message “yeah, we don’t care about you.” It will take considerable effort and will to come back from that.
I’m an optimist by nature, so I’ll finish by noting two things: first, that Metamoris competitor Polaris has pledged to have at least one women’s match on each card; and second, that the fundamental principles I’ve written about above remain in place.
There is still a market out there, ready to be served and expanded. Some company, maybe Polaris, is going to take advantage.
At the end of the day, I want everyone to train. I want everyone who trains to feel like there is a place for them in jiujitsu. And I want to see more matches like Nicolini-Musumeci.
Making sure that more great women get the chance to compete on pay per view cards would serve all three goals. Let’s make this happen.