Boxing 2018: Some Thoughts on the Powers That Be

We’re living in an age of vertical integration and corporate consolidation. The path to power in today’s economy lies through the merger of powerful economic interests. Every content provider in boxing (and elsewhere) would like a partnership with Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or Facebook. That has been unattainable for those who make their living from the sweet science. But three other alliances will bear watching in the year ahead.

PBC and SHOWTIME

Not long ago, Al Haymon was going to take over boxing. He was backed by several hundred million dollars in venture capital. He controlled well over one hundred boxers, many of them “name” fighters. Premier Boxing Champions (Haymon’s flagship corporate entity) was providing content for CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN, Showtime, Spike, Bounce, and several other networks. Al Michaels, Marv Albert, and Sugar Ray Leonard were behind the microphone for PBC fights. Gaudy stage sets were transported around the country.

But the advertising dollars didn’t follow.

Haymon’s world has been shrinking lately. PBC fights are far less ubiquitous on television now than they were before. And PBC has been slow to pay some of its bills.

Errol Spence personifies both sides of the PBC coin. Spence has developed as a fighter to the point where he’s a legitimate contender for boxing’s mythical pound-for-pound crown. But mainstream sports fans have no idea who he is. PBC was supposed to dominate boxing to the point where the sanctioning bodies could be ignored. But on June 16, Spence will enter the ring to fight Carlos Ocampo in what’s widely expected to be an uninspiring, non-competitive mandatory defense of his IBF 147-pound title.

PBC is now heavily reliant on license fees from Showtime and is far less powerful than people expected it to be.

If Deontay Wilder were to fight and beat Anthony Joshua, it would give PBC a new lease on life. Barring that or a new corporate alliance, PBC will continue to be what it is now: just another big promoter.

And yes, PBC is a promoter.

Top Rank and ESPN

Al Haymon tried to dominate boxing with hundreds of millions of dollars from a venture capital fund. Top Rank is hoping to accomplish that end through an alliance with ESPN.

Top Rank’s pairing with ESPN will leave a large footprint. The network is a pipeline into the brain of every sports fan in America and offers promoter Bob Arum three platforms: (1) ESPN and related networks such as ESPN2 and ABC, (2) pay-per-view, and (3) ESPN+.

At this point, it’s uncertain which fights will be shown where, how many competitive fights between elite fighters there will be, and how much it will cost boxing fans to watch these fights.

The July 1, 2017, bout between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn marked the start of the Top Rank-ESPN venture and captured a wide viewing audience. But since then, Top Rank’s ratings on ESPN have been dictated in large measure by which program precedes the fights and what’s being shown in the same time slot on competing networks.

To the average sports fan, Oscar Valdez vs Scott Quigg (which ESPN televised on March 10) wasn’t much different than Jose Ramirez vs. Amir Imam (which headlined a tripleheader one week later). But the Valdez-Quigg card (with a strong lead-in) averaged 1,082,000 viewers while Ramirez-Imam (which was opposite the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament) averaged only 488,000.

It’s unclear how traditional pay-per-view will fit into the mix. Top Rank had talked about an April 14 PPV doubleheader pairing Terence Crawford vs. Jeff Horn with Manny Pacquiao vs. Mike Alvarado. But Pacquiao nixed that idea, saying he wasn’t interested in playing second fiddle in Arum’s orchestra that night.

The wild card in all of this is ESPN+

On August 9, 2017, the Walt Disney Company unveiled plans for a direct-to-consumer ESPN streaming subscription video service that will debut on April 12. ESPN+ will be priced at $4.99 a month and offer live sports events, original programming, and on-demand content. From ESPN’s point of view, its ability to exploit the Top Rank film library for programming purposes is a key component of its deal with Top Rank.

On March 15, ESPN announced that it will stream at least twelve Top Rank fight cards (including Crawford-Horn) on ESPN+. This followed a March 14 announcement that Crawford had hurt his right hand while sparring and that Crawford-Horn would have to be rescheduled from its original April 14 date. Crawford-Horn is now slated for June 9. There has been speculation that something other than a hand injury led to rescheduling the fight.

The new media is boxing’s next frontier. In past decades, Top Rank has been in the forefront of advances in closed-circuit television, pay-per-view, and the marriage between boxing and both basic and premium cable. Top Rank was among the first promoters to understand the power of the Internet and treat Internet writers with the same respect as the print media. In recent years, it has embraced social media platforms and developed its own iPhone apps.

The Top Rank-ESPN venture gives Top Rank significant leverage in pursuing fighters because it guarantees that the promoter will have television dates to showcase fighters. But it’s unclear how much revenue these dates will engender for Top Rank and how that will translate into purses for fighters.

Meanwhile, Bob Arum has already signaled his intention to pursue PBC fighters. One of the concessions from PBC that came out of its litigation with Top Rank is that PBC fighters can sign with promoters other than those handpicked by Al Haymon. On March 20, Arum told RingTV, “We would never talk to a fighter who’s under a promotional contract. But Haymon’s fighters, he’s an advisor, he’s not even a manager, and we’re allowed to talk to the fighters. Now he can go to them and say, ‘Don’t go with Top Rank because I’m going to offer you a better deal.’ But he can’t say, ‘Don’t go with Top Rank because I don’t want you to go with Top Rank.’ He’s not allowed to say that. He doesn’t have any legal right to prevent them from being with any promoter.”

Also while Top Rank has worked with rival promoters in making recent ESPN fight cards, in some instances it has voiced the view that shared future promotional rights to a given fighter might be in order.

In the end, whether Top Rank’s deal with ESPN is good for boxing will depend on the level of fights that fans get and how much they have to pay for them. PBC failed in part because, armed with a war chest of several hundred million dollars, it gave fans more mediocre fights than good ones.

Historically, when Top Rank has enjoyed an output deal with a network, the quality of fights it has offered has diminished over time.

Right now, Top Rank’s two flagship fighters are Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford.

Odds-makers cut through hype. Unlike a publicist (whose job is to sell a fight as competitive), bettors put their money where their mouth is. Lomachenko vs. Jorge Linares (scheduled for May 12 on ESPN) is on the boards as a 6-to-1 fight. Crawford is a better-than 10-to-1 favorite over Jeff Horn.

If Lomachenko-Linares were to lead to a fight like Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia, it would be worth the wait. Then again, Lomachenko-Garcia, if it happens, will probably be on pay-per-view.

Anthony Joshua and ???

Anthony Joshua’s stock dropped a bit after his desultory performance against Joseph Parker on March 31. But In the United Kingdom, he’s a star on the order of Mike Tyson and a power center unto himself.

In three fights over the past eleven months, “A.J.” has put 240,000 fans in seats and engendered more than 2.5 million pay-per-view buys in the UK alone.

It’s generally believed that Joshua is obligated for one more fight under his promotional contract with Matchroom Boxing and that Showtime’s U.S. rights to Joshua’s fights have now expired. Matchroom’s contract with Sky-TV in the United Kingdom has several more years to run.

Joshua has made a fortune with Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn guiding his career to date. But countless suitors are whispering in his ear that Anthony could make so much more money if he signs with them.

Sign with UFC and the resources of Endeavor (William Morris and IMG) will be at your disposal . . . Sign with Al Haymon, and Al will do for you what he did for Floyd Mayweather . . . We can deliver Google. We can deliver Apple.

Of course, one punch in the wrong place at the wrong time could change the narrative.

Joshua understands this. During a March 21 media conference call in advance of Joshua-Parker, he acknowledged, “I know about the history of the sport. I know how easy it is to be forgotten. This is my time, and I have to capitalize and maximize and do what’s right for me. This isn’t about being the fan favorite. I’m not here to be pat on the back. I’m here to handle my business in the best way possible and, when it’s all said and done, be content with the decisions I’ve made.”

When asked during the same conference call about reports that UFC was making a bid to sign him, Joshua answered, “I’m riding with Eddie. I’ve been riding with Eddie. He got me from the get-go. I’m not into the UFC, so I don’t know what their plans are. If it’s good business, it makes sense. We’ll listen.”

Meanwhile, HBO is pursuing U.S. television rights to Joshua.

Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder is unlikely to happen in the near future.

And to repeat: one punch in the wrong place at the wrong time could change the Anthony Joshua narrative.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

To comment on this article at The Fight Forum, CLICK HERE.