Anyone who has turned on a sporting event in the last two weeks has seen the preview of the new Steven Soderbergh movie “Haywire,” which stars among others Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Ewan MacGregor. However one of the biggest crossover stars in the film may just be Gina Carano. The daughter of former Cowboys QB Glenn Carano, the Texas native has been the poster girl for the female side of Mixed Martial Arts for some time, combining a championship style (just one loss in the cage) with the looks and acting ability to be a box office draw.
Her emergence as the star of “Haywire” comes at a very interesting time for women’s athletics. Going into an Olympic year and with Danica Patrick crossing over to NASCAR fulltime, it seems like the opportunity for healthy role models who can engage both male and female audiences may be higher than it has been in some time. The economy is bouncing back, the ability for any athlete to carve his or her niche in the digital space is an added plus, and there is an ever-growing need for positive stories about responsible, healthy and well rounded athletes no matter what their gender. So why could Carano be the biggest of the big? Few reasons.
Her athletic ability is amazing: The appeal Carano had in competing was that she wasn’t just a great female MMA fighter, her technique made her a great MMA competitor regardless of her gender. She fought with flair and speed, and that athletic ability apparently has carried over into her action film career.
She has understood the business side: She was always a serious competitor, but her brand appeal in the cage went far beyond her competitive spirit. Carano understood how to work sponsors and television and mix the appeal of a woman in what is very much a man’s game, while being taken seriously by all who watched. Brands interested in testing the MMA space gravitated to her and as a result she helped grow the sport with her mix of mainstream appeal and athletic ability. She made believers out of many who thought that a woman competing would be more of a freak show and less an athletic competition, and even made the hardline male UFC consider a women’s fight at some point.
She competed in a fast growing training sport: While it is true that she has yet (and may never) compete in a UFC/Zuffa event, her success in the cage and in other MMA disciplines has made Gina Carano the role model for others, both men and women, to point to in terms of using MMA for training and success. MMA as a training sport continues to grow globally, in many ways outside of the success of the professional events of the UFC.
She can act: The limited but solid success of the movie Warrior this past fall was a solid next step in mainstream appeal for MMA. Carano’s work in mainstream action films while she can still compete at a professional level will give MMA another needed pop with the casual sport fan, and with the younger demo who loves both action films and action sports. It is a great opportunity for crossover appeal.
Now does this mean that Carano can gain more mainstream success than an athlete like Serena Williams, Nastia Lukin or Patrick? No, well not yet. She hasn’t competed in a while and there is still some question as to whether she will compete again. Even less than boxing, female MMA is nowhere near as deep in talent, and there have been some questions lately with some other elite female fighters and use of banned substances, so that will limit some of the competitive draw. An athlete like Lukin or Hope Solo is returning to one of the world’s biggest stages, the Olympic Games, this summer, while Patrick, even with a less than successful racing career to date, still has a huge competitive platform to see and be seen every week. Still for a young active sport that still needs more mainstream and casual appeal, Gina Carano has a huge upside, one that marketers may glean to in the coming months even more, especially if Haywire does well…and if she returns successfully to professional competition. Definitely a name and a brand on the upswing.