When Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President Dana White first announced back in Oct. 2012 that his company had plans to add a women's division, there where a number of skeptics who doubted whether it would work.
The consensus among these naysayers seemed to be that the casual mixed martial arts (MMA) fans who make up the majority of the UFCs audience weren't ready to accept women as fighters. According to this line of reasoning, your Average Joe TapOut shirt wanted to see women serve as bikini-clad window dressing on UFC shows, not competing in the Octagon and having their faces disfigured with elbows and knees.
Then Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey went out and drew 450,000 pay-per-view (PPV) buys in her first defense of her title against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 last February, blowing that theory out of the water.
To put that number in better perspective, 450,000 is the highest number of buys for a UFC PPV not headlined by either Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos since 2011.
Still, there were those who felt one impressive PPV buyrate alone wasn't sufficient evidence to reach any definitive conclusions. For these skeptics, until women other than Rousey -- who received a huge media push in the weeks before the fight -- could prove their drawing power, the jury was still out on the future of women in the UFC.
Well, over the past seven weeks of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 18: Team Rousey vs. Team Tate, it appears the jury has returned their verdict. Week in and week out, women's fights have drawn more viewers than their male counterparts, proving that UFC fans are more than willing to accept women inside the Octagon.
The bellow graph shows the ratings for each week of TUF so far this season, and it provides a stark illustration of just how well women are performing in the ratings (Ratings provided via MMAPayout and The Wrestling Observer)
Ratings for week two, which was built around Julianna Pena vs. Shayna Baszler, were up 14 percent from week one. This was a slight anomaly for TUF, since the premiere is traditionally one of the highest rated shows of the season, with ratings usually tapering off to varying degrees from there.
Over the course of the ensuing four weeks, the gender-based up and down pattern has steadily continued. The season average for episodes built around female fighters is 791,000 for women, whereas shows featuring male fighters have pulled in an average of just 650,000 viewers. That's 21 percent more viewers on average for the ladies.
There are a couple of different possible explanations for this. It may be that women, who according to a recent report from the Sports Business Journal identify themselves as MMA fans in surprisingly high numbers, are responding in a big way to seeing their gender portrayed as legitimate ass-kickers inside the Octagon.
Another possibility could be that, after seventeen seasons of seeing just about every conceivable scenario that could possibly play out between men cooped up in a house who are also fighting each other in a tournament, the UFC faithful see female fighters competing on TUF as a fresh update to a show that has grown rather long in the tooth.
Whatever the case may be, TUF fans are sending a message this season that the UFC President is hearing loud and clear.
"People like the girls fighting." White said at today's UFC 166 pre-fight media scrum.
Which means that, despite some early doubts, it appears the future of women in the UFC is safe for some time to come.
For more on TUF 18 click here.