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From Divas to superstars: The evolution of the WWE's women's division

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Stephanie McMahon opens up about career and women in wrestling (2:19)

WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon discusses her career, role models and the future of women in wrestling. (2:19)

There was nothing memorable about the match that inspired what would become known as the "Divas Revolution" in the WWE. In fact, if you blinked you probably missed it.

Of course, that was the problem.

During the course of a three-hour episode of "Monday Night Raw" show on Feb. 23, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee, the lone women's match of the night saw Nikki and Brie Bella face Paige and Emma. It was a tag-team match featuring four of the most popular Divas on the roster. It was also a match that lasted all of 29 seconds.

That's right, 29 seconds.

It provoked loud jeers from the crowd at Bridgestone Arena and a trending topic on Twitter: #GiveDivasAChance

The WWE pushes hashtags during their live televised shows in the hopes they will become trending topics but this wasn't a company creation; it was a groundswell movement from a disgruntled fan base tired of seeing their favorite female performers shortchanged and it didn't stop in the immediate aftermath of a match that was shorter than a commercial. It lasted for three straight days.

It was a plea that did not go unnoticed by the company and, most importantly, by their chairman and CEO Vince McMahon.

"I noticed it the second it started trending," Stephanie McMahon, the chief brand officer of the WWE, told ESPN.com. "We talked about it Tuesday night and Wednesday and it was brought to everyone's attention that this is still trending. It really was an 'aha moment' for some of us in the office and it was definitely the impetus for a much bigger movement. Our fans spoke out. It was a global trend that was so loud and so powerful. It was a cry for our female performers to be given longer match time and to be given more meaningful story lines and to have deeper character development. Our fans said with their voices very loud and clear that we want more from our female performers."

The WWE knew they had to do something but there wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to what the fans were asking for. Sure, they gave their female performers more air time the following week. After all, 30 seconds wasn't a difficult hurdle to cross. But they knew there was going to be a significant shift for females in the company in the not-too-distant future thanks to four women who were establishing themselves as superstars in NXT, the WWE's developmental division based in Winter Park, Florida.

"We started slowly but surely featuring our female [talent] a little bit more prominently," Stephanie McMahon said. "All you had to do was look at what was happening in NXT with the 'Four Horsewomen' of Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Bayley and Sasha Banks and what they were doing and how they were elevating women's wrestling. It was to the point that the fans were chanting, 'This is wrestling!' and 'Women's wresting!' Our fans were saying so loudly and so clearly that this is what we want. This is amazing and we want more."

NXT was founded in 2012 by Stephanie McMahon's husband, Paul Levesque, who is better known to WWE fans as Triple H. It was a way for the company to recruit and develop new talent during a time when WWE doesn't have any real competitors in the market space. Many current WWE superstars got their start in NXT, such as Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, but perhaps the biggest impact NXT has made was in redefining the role of female performers and giving them a chance to show what they could do in the ring.

In October at "NXT TakeOver: Respect," which was the biggest NXT show at the time, the main event was a 30-minute "Iron Man Match" for the NXT Women's Championship between Sasha Banks and Bayley. It was the first time in WWE history that women participated in such a match and headlined such a significant card.

"NXT is truly Paul's baby and his vision and he treats the men and women performers exactly the same," Stephanie McMahon said. "The female performers are given the same amount of time and the same opportunity as the male performers and I think it's that opportunity that has allowed these women to really hone their craft. Professional wresting is like performance art. It truly is. You're taking the crowd on a ride, on an emotional roller coaster. It is a craft that takes time to perfect and I think the advantage of NXT is they are given that time to do just that."

"I feel such a shift in the way our women are portrayed, the opportunity they are given and when given that opportunity, these women are tearing the house down and stealing the show with every chance they get."

Stephanie McMahon

After honing and perfecting that craft, Charlotte, the daughter of two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair, joined Becky Lynch, who hails from Ireland and is the self-proclaimed "Irish Lass Kicker," and Sasha Banks, who is a first cousin of Snoop Dogg, to make their Raw debuts on July 13, 2015, in Atlanta when McMahon signaled in the "Divas Revolution."

The timing of their debut was no accident -- July 2015 was arguably the most notable month in the history of women in sports.

The U.S. women's national soccer team not only won the World Cup, but did so in front of an average TV audience of 25.4 million viewers in the final. It was the largest viewership ever for a soccer game in the United States, men's or women's, and it was also a larger number than any NBA Finals game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors drew that year. Ronda Rousey became the first woman and MMA athlete to win the ESPY for best fighter during a run in which she was headlining UFC pay-per-views that were garnering almost double the buys of shows she wasn't on. Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon and 21st career Grand Slam singles trophy. Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history, became the first female head coach in the NBA Summer League and went on to win the summer league title with the San Antonio Spurs in Las Vegas. And the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason, making her the first female coach of any kind in the NFL.

"I had an opportunity to go to the ring and bring to light on 'Monday Night Raw' the 'Divas Revolution,' which was based on the fan response," Stephanie McMahon said. "I talked about what was happening in the world with the evolution of women in sports from Ronda Rousey in the UFC to Serena Williams winning Wimbledon to the U.S. women's soccer team. There was this revolution happening and I said I want this revolution to happen here in WWE. So I introduced Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks to the main roster and everyone in the arena knew exactly who they were. They stood on their feet and the ovation was deafening. It was pretty obvious to anybody watching that these women were game-changers and that's exactly what they've been."

The trio not only breathed new life into the show and completely changed the way women were utilized but they broke through a barrier that didn't seem possible during the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. At WrestleMania 32, in front of an announced crowd of 101,763 in Arlington, Texas, the largest in WWE history, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks were featured in a triple threat match most considered to be the best match on the card. Their images were plastered outside of the football stadium and on the cover of oversized programs along with main event performers Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, The Undertaker, Shane McMahon, Triple H and Roman Reigns.

"They absolutely deserved to be there and there wasn't that much of a conversation at all because they had earned their place there," Stephanie McMahon said. "They had one of the greatest matches that I've seen in a long time at WrestleMania. It was really an emotional and compelling story."

Before the match, the WWE announced they would be retiring the term "Divas" in reference to their women's performers and would be retiring the pink and bedazzled "Divas" championship in favor of a WWE women's championship that looked similar to the WWE world heavyweight championship held by the men. The introduction elicited a standing ovation from the crowd at AT&T Stadium and chants of "women's wrestling!"

"We were evolving our female performers into superstars," Stephanie McMahon said. "No longer were they being branded separately from the men. Both men and women would now simply be branded as superstars."

McMahon, who turns 40 in September, actually held the women's championship in 2000 but laughed at the prospects of getting back in the ring with today's current performers.

"Anything can happen in the WWE and if the WWE Universe wants it I'm sure we can make it happen," she said.

Even if she doesn't, it might not be long before we see another McMahon female in the ring trying to run the family business. McMahon and Levesque have three daughters, Aurora (10), Murphy (8) and Vaughn (5), and her oldest already knows what she wants to be when she grows up.

"Aurora absolutely wants to be the women's champion," Stephanie McMahon said. "She has been trained by Natalya. She has got her heart set on it, but we'll see what happens there.

"I just want them to see unlimited opportunity and potential in themselves. I grew up with a very strong role model in my mom, [Linda McMahon], who was the CEO of WWE and I never thought women couldn't do anything. I never thought gender was a barrier but that wasn't reality at that time. Now there are so many more opportunities for women and it's absolutely imperative to me as a mother for my three daughters to know they can be anything in this world that they want to be as long as they believe in themselves and they're willing to work hard for it."

The women's movement in the WWE was born from the hard work put in by female performers who tried to make the best of whatever small opportunities they had and grew from the noise made by fans who recognized that hard work and wanted to see more of it. It was a revolution that is now simply a part of the WWE with men and women recognized equally for what they are to their fans -- superstars.

"I feel such a shift in the way our women are portrayed, the opportunity they are given, and when given that opportunity, these women are tearing the house down and stealing the show with every chance they get," Stephanie McMahon said. "Sasha said, 'I'm going to prove that I belong by being so good they can't ignore me.' That just about sums up Sasha Banks and what she has been able to do. The greatest part is these women are only just getting started."