Last night, with a win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Team extended its already epic win streak to 100 wins. That 100th win encompasses more than two straight years of victories, the vast majority of which were earned by beating opponents by 40 or more points. It surpasses the team’s old streak of 90 games by a nice round number of 10 and beats the longest win streak by a men’s college basketball team by twelve. The Huskies have weathered injuries, close calls and changes in talent to reach this unprecedented mark. It’s truly awe-striking.
Last week, in the midst of talks about equal pay and how good women’s basketball is getting, there was also talk about basketball rims. Yup, basketball rims; you know, the usually orange, shiny things that basketballs are shot through. Chicago Sky star, Elena Delle Donne, reignited a conversation that originally began in 2012 with University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma. Auriemma’s and Delle Donne’s solution to improving and drawing more attention to women’s basketball is to lower the rim. Their theory goes that if women can dunk (play “above the rim”), more people will watch women’s basketball. In support of this theory, Delle Donne points to the different sex-based standards in tennis (where women play fewer sets in grand slams) and golf (where women’s tees are set closer to the hole). While both Delle Donne’s and Auriemma’s track records confirm that they both are coming from places of genuine concern for growing women’s basketball, their solution is completely misguided. It’s misguided not for their lack of experience or goodwill, but because it’s based on at least one false premise, that if women play more like men, more people will watch.
By now I’m sure you’ve seen it; the kick heard round the
world. In less than two rounds Holly
Holm executed the roundhouse kick that shattered Ronda Rousey’s jaw and her
unblemished record. It was shocking and unbelievable
to watch how Holm’s speed, precision and power took out the face of women’s MMA
and the UFC. Early on in the bout you
could tell that the normally confident and in control Rousey was frazzled and
unable to assert her usual dominance, but no one (except maybe Holm and her
support team) thought that Rousey losing the first round would be indicative of
the entire fight. Most expected Rousey
to bounce back and end the fight like she had so many times before,
victoriously. But Ms. Holm had another
ending in mind, one that had her hand being raised at the end of the fight. Holm was relentless in her pursuit of that
ending and it paid off, she got the upset.
She handed Rousey her first loss and claimed the UFC bantamweight
title. While Holm’s upset victory might
not have paid off for Rousey or the many who bet in Rousey’s favor, it certainly
paid off for Holm and women’s MMA as a whole.
Every athlete, professional or otherwise, strives for excellence. No one gives their blood, sweat and tears to
lose or to be mediocre. Athletes train
to be unbeatable. Unfortunately, few can
say that their careers survive without experiencing the agony of defeat. That so many are destined to experience
losses does not stop anyone from striving for perfection however. Practice after practice and game after game
athletes try to outwork and play their opponents, hoping for victory. It’s a beautiful thing to witness how the will
to win drives competitions.
Unsurprisingly, fans usually want the same level of
performance from their favorite athletes and teams. They want their girl(s) to win every time,
preferably in dominating manner. That’s
why so many people love Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut Women’s
Basketball Team, they are proven winners.
And that’s the same reason that so many love Ronda Rousey. Until this weekend, she was an undefeated
champion who got unquestionable wins.
She owned the UFC and her fans loved her for it. Many tuned in fight after fight to see, not
if, but how Rousey would win, and the UFC made plenty of money off it.
But just like there are fans of proven winners, there are
also fans of underdogs and rivalries. For
many fans, what makes sports so attractive is that on any given day any player
or team has the potential to win. Yes,
undefeated careers and seasons are great, but many people watch and attend
sporting events because they want genuine competition. They want to see the last second
buzzer-beater from the team that wasn’t supposed to win. They want to see two rivals battle it out
year after year for bragging rights.
Fans want to know that they don’t exactly know who’s going to come out
on top. That’s why the NCAA Men’s
Basketball Tournament is so successful.
That possibility (and strong likelihood) of seeing a Cinderella story keeps
arenas packed year after year.
So that’s why Holm’s victory was so important for the women’s
MMA market. It will help draw in the
fans who like and believe in parity in sports.
For all the Rousey and UConn fans there are many others who want to see
a new champion. Until Holm’s victory,
parity seemed to be some far off ideal in women’s MMA and the UFC. There was Rousey and then there was everyone
else. For many that dynamic was a bit
boring and kept them disinterested. Holm
and her astonishing victory give hope to fans of legitimate competition. Seeing the queen fall will draw in many who
want to see a genuine rivalry develop between two well-trained, talented
athletes. Sports fans love Rousey but
now they will have someone else to root for, Holly Holm. Beyond the fans, Holm’s victory makes the
belt seem attainable. Her upset will
inspire more fighters to chase after it and will bring more viewers in to watch
new athletes in their pursuit for greatness.
All of this is better for women’s MMA.
Sure the UFC may have to come up with some new marketing strategies and
may need to invest more money into talent other than Rousey’s, but that’s all
great for the sport. The upset will draw in more fans willing to spend time and money to see a good fight. While Rousey’s jaw, pride and record might be sore
right now, that’s a beating the women’s MMA and the UFC needed to take in order to attract a larger fan base and encourage new talent. So congratulations and thank you Holly Holm,
lots of fans can’t wait to see what’s next for you and women’s MMA.