When you run in the kind of circles I do, you realize that a good deal of the serious “grapevine” talk has shifted to the uncertainty of the sport’s future, and what to do about many of those ills that are plaguing the industry, whether it be declining ratings, declining image, or declining financial opportunity.

Until just recently, I lived in Indiana – far from midtown Manhattan and all the people in this business who consider themselves to be sharper than anyone else. Who knows? They might be. Nonetheless, there is still a lot to be learned by listening to plain old Middle Americans.

For example, I’m sitting in a bar one night and I just happen to be overhearing two guys talking about a fight they had seen a couple of nights before. One guy’s talking about the stocky “Eye-talian” kid who looked good early, then went down, and the black guy who didn’t do enough to follow up and wound up losing the fight, and I realize they were talking about Joe Mesi in his bout with Monte Barrett.

Then, in the same conversation, I hear mention of the “big Russian guy” who “looked like a robot” when he knocked out the “black guy who was way out of shape,” and it wasn’t hard to ascertain that they were talking about the Vitali Klitschko-Kirk Johnson fight, which appeared on the same HBO show.

The point is, there was no particular mention of any fighter’s name; all these guys remembered was the spectacle of what they saw, and all they cared about was the degree to which they were amused or entertained.

I can guarantee you they’re not unique.

Something hit me when I heard that conversation – something I’m sure I was well aware of, but wasn’t able to completely put my finger on or articulate quite so clearly. Essentially, it’s this: It’s not about WHO’S fighting, because one guy’s pretty much like another, to most people anyway. What it’s really about is producing enough action, enough competition, to keep people interested, at a time when there are seemingly hundreds of other choices on a TV dial, and plenty of other things to do, including staying home, in an average American city on an average weekend night.

Sure, when I say people don’t care about who’s fighting, there are some exceptions – but those are the competitors who are truly special. People take delight in the idea of “discovering” something or someone who is indeed out of the ordinary. Fans undoubtedly showed a great deal of interest in watching the career ascensions of a Sugar Ray Leonard or an Oscar De la Hoya, fighters who were pre-sold to them through participation in the Olympics, who were aggressively marketed to the public very early in their careers and, most importantly, turned out to be the “real thing.” There are other cases like them, to varying degrees, but they are few and far between. As far as the not-so-special guys are concerned (a group which encompasses just about everyone else), the general public is rather indifferent. For the most part, people don’t give a damn about the mechanism a promoter uses in building a fighter’s career, with possible exceptions residing in the effect fighters like Mesi, Todd Foster, Virgil Hill or Paul Spadafora have had in their local markets.

What it comes down to is that rabid boxing fans will probably watch anything a promoter puts out there. You don’t have to do a massive sales job to get their business. But if you were a boxing promoter and you were counting on rabid fans to constitute the lion’s share of your audience you are quickly going to starve. To keep the rank-and-file fan – the one who works all week long, doesn’t follow the twists and turns of the boxing soap opera, doesn’t scour the internet looking at boxing websites, but who just wants to sit on the couch with the beverage of his choice on a Friday or Saturday night and watch some guys pounding on each other – you have to ENTERTAIN. You have to enthrall. You have to understand that the viewer has a remote control device in his hand that puts a lot of television channels at his disposal, and that if the viewer is like most people, he’s liable to use it at any time.

You’d have to have a sensitivity to that.

I hear people point to all the boxing on TV as evidence that the sport is healthy. But one of the reasons is that in terms of fresh programming, boxing is relatively cheap to produce when compared to other live events. Besides, with the advent of digital cable and satellite services, there’s much more of everything on television, so making those kinds of quantitative comparisons is largely irrelevant.

Let me tell you what the REAL acid test is. It’s when fights of at least some significance can be held, on a regular basis, in every region of the country, WITHOUT the benefit of television money, and still manage to operate in the black.

That’s when you know you’ve got a healthy industry.

I know a lot of promoters. Some of them are good people. Some of them are not. Most of them are clever. Some are not as clever as they think. But the vast majority of them have one thing in common: they are self-absorbed about the way they look at their business, and the industry in general. Since there are few superstars, most of the “house” fighters they control are not going to truly grab the public’s imagination under any circumstances, no matter what the promoter does or what he thinks. And so, the windfall does not involve putting on any particular event, or satisfying any particular demand, but in making a payday with a fighter when his record gets to a particular point, and many times that payday is going to occur on someone else’s card, on someone else’s dime.

Talk about a vicious cycle. In response to what they recognize as a declining market in the sport of boxing, which constitutes more risk in what they do, promoters have, over the past couple of decades, taken more and more control over the fighter’s career, leaving the manager out in the cold or in effect commandeering that role de facto by virtue of the installation of a “beard” in that position. They also act as glorified booking agents in extracting fees that are often disproportionate when their fighter appears on a card they are not promoting. All of this, of course, is carried out in the name of “protecting their position.” The funny thing is, this kind of role shift has, directly or residually, contributed to the prolongation of the sport’s rather torpid status in the overall landscape.

Because the promoter has now assumed a certain vested interest in a fighter, and a degree of control over that fighter’s career path — control he has pro-actively sought and covets – the ideal of the promoter’s objective and the reality of that objective come into sharp contrast with each other. The concern becomes not to entertain fans, not to make matches with the fighter to accomplish that end, but in implementing a methodical approach to padding the fighter’s record, which in many cases not only does NOT entertain, but rather, evolves into an exercise in self-indulgence.

The major misconception on the part of promoters, in the process of what they perceive to be enhancing the value of their own “assets” (the fighters), is that the public is just as interested in following that fighter’s “climb to the middle” as they are, and will be patient enough to sit around and wait until that happens.

The fact is the promoter cares about that kind of thing a heck of a lot more than the public does. And this sport has not experienced its greatest success with “force-feeding.”

The public wants to see a good fight; the pattern most promoters have fallen into is one which is not designed around “utility”, i.e., satisfaction of a consumer demand, but instead around a particular agenda, which means something only to them.

Without naming names, look at those cases where a fighter, who may have nothing in the way of a style the public has demonstrated they want to see, loses a title bout, in rather unceremonious fashion, then comes right back for ANOTHER championship fight, without having scored a meaningful win to earn himself that shot, where it could be argued that neither merit nor public demand necessarily mandated that he receive another title opportunity. I would suggest that in terms of public demand, it may be quite the contrary. So, in effect, his reappearance was forced upon the public, as if to say, “Here he is again, whether you like it or not.” Obviously, he was there because he had the right connections and the sanctioning body was willing. The promoter had the most use for him because he had the fighter solidly under contract and completely within his control. Of course, these motivations produce something that is not a reaction to demand but instead a REPUDIATION of demand. And cases similar to that are only going to alienate the very fans this industry should be trying to embrace.

Is anyone in this business concerned about that?

How many promoters out there would actually acknowledge it?

Sometimes there is a miscalculation between what a live audience may want and what the TV audience cares about. You have certain fighters who may be able to sell tickets in a particular area, but who otherwise offer nothing extraordinary to a wider audience. There is a clearly defined place for a fighter like that, and it’s LOCAL. Yet, on television, the fighter is continually matched in main events or semi-finals with opponents who are mediocre and/or “shot,” for the sole purpose of building him, albeit artificially, into a legitimate entity. But while that might work in Dover, it doesn’t necessarily work in Denver, Duluth, Des Moines, Detroit, Denton or Daytona Beach. And to assume that solely because a fighter is white the public at large will continue to roll over for substandard matches is an affront to that viewership.

Boxing has made a habit of insulting its audience that way; of taking its wants and needs for granted, and that’s a problem.

How does it happen? Well, in this day and age, boxing has evolved into a sport that is supported, on its most substantial levels, by two institutions – the television industry and the casino industry. What develops as a result is that instead of having a business model in which it must satisfy thousands of customers, and tailor its product accordingly, promoters have only two customers – the television programming executive and the casino marketing executive.

Those promoters – who in terms of function could correctly be characterized as “packagers” –  have become insulated from having to deal directly with the public. You really can’t disparage them for wanting to go into a venture risk-free, but along the way a natural disconnect develops. And because many promoters are in effect acting more in the role of “manager,” their goal in dealing with a TV network may be to put on the LEAST competitive fight they can get away with, rather than aspiring to put on the BEST possible matchup for the audience.

Then, at a point where the television outlets dry up a little bit (as what happened with ESPN and Fox cutting back on rights fees and/or eliminating shows), or the casino market softens, a promoter, who is used to conducting business under a specific formula, gets lost. And a sense of panic sets in.

That panic may get even worse because one potential conundrum for promoter-packagers is that casinos are generally interested in TV, and absent an abundance of available television dates, the casinos get less interested. Alternative revenue sources certainly have to be developed.

In order to survive, and for the sport to move ahead, promoters are probably going to need to learn, or re-learn, the art of selling tickets. There is a serious lack of people in this business with appreciable experience in actually getting people to march up to the ticket window and pull cash out of pocket again and again to watch boxing shows.

Honestly, how many “major” promoters do you know of who can demonstrate a consistent, and recent, track record in terms of doing that? Clearly, as cable television is no longer going to be a reliable cash cow, any so-called “promoters summit,” as Lou DiBella once called for, would have to include people who can come in and impart some of their wisdom in that area.

Granted, from time to time we see “superfights” that meet with wide response from the public at live venues and on pay-per-view. But those aren’t the fights that are happening every day, every week, every month. Those are not the events that can, in and of themselves, sustain this business. We are losing the “middle” fast, and at some point the promotional “community” needs to wake up and realize that it had better cultivate another source of income – live gate money – or else promoters are going to be faced with a serious crisis, if they haven’t encountered it already.

The future of this industry does not necessarily involve getting ESPN, or Fox, or Showtime, or any other network to subsidize more shows, but in being able to change the business model in order to accommodate the creation of new opportunities. That means the cultivation of sponsors. It means making the product more fan-friendly. It means putting together a TV production on your own and making it pay for itself. The mindset has to edge away – at least to an extent – from a major emphasis on promotional contracts, and has to shift more toward an attitude that is more responsive to the actual audience.

I was on a guest panel at the IBF convention last year as we were discussing the future of boxing. The tunnel vision was evident; there was a lot of blame directed toward television entities for not getting involved to a greater degree with the sport. A promoter, who to my knowledge has never sold a ticket in his life, stepped up to the microphone and even went so far as to accuse the networks of being racist because they were “depriving young men of the opportunity to get off the streets and straighten out their lives.” Nobody was looking inward to examine how they were marketing – or NOT marketing, as it were – their product to the general populace. One matchmaker from a major promotional organization offered the suggestion that the lack of participation from broadcast networks has hindered “what we need to succeed in this business, which is to develop stars.”

I agreed with him about 5%. As for the other 95%, I thought he was barking up the wrong tree.

Much more important than developing stars, who have a relatively short career span, is to develop fans, who endure, as long as you put a respectable product in front of them.

When my friend Scott Wagner tells me over and over again, “The commodity in this business is not the fighter, it’s the fan,” he knows what of he speaks.

Fighters come and go, but if you’re a promoter and your FANS are going more than coming, you’ve got trouble. If you do the right thing, you’re going to keep fans interested. If not, you’re going to lose them. It’s that simple.

Wagner, who operates Ballroom Boxing out of Glen Burnie, MD, has a keen sense of what his audience wants, which is something I became aware of before I even knew him. His is a different attitude toward the promotion of boxing than most people I have met. In terms of where I feel this game is headed, at least for the “mid-level” promoter, I think he’s already there.

The promoter who will succeed on that level in this day and age has a hands-on attitude toward his shows, values his live, paying customers first, knows how to integrate his revenue streams, and has, step by step, put together his own television distribution network, to make him less reliant – in fact, independent – of fee-paying network deals that could disappear overnight. As far as live events are concerned, this is the model that promoters would be well advised to duplicate everywhere, because nothing would make the foundation of boxing more solid than to have a strong ongoing club show program in every major city in America.

Relative to the dynamic under which the industry currently operates, Wagner’s group truly exercises some “outside the box” thinking, so to speak, but at the same time finds itself going back to some values from a time long passed in boxing, values we may want to embrace again –that is, to think about the fans first, and not have a financial interest in fighters that can get in the way of the quality of the show.

It’s an approach that, for some, is well-worth considering.

(Much of the substance of this story has appeared previously on the website BoxingInsider.com. Author’s note: Little has changed since then.)