Let’s call it for now the Steve Ballmer effect on pro sports, but there are reasons to believe that the fight game is a hot iron for the right hammer in the aftermath of Ballmer’s $2 billion bid to purchase the NBA’s LA Clippers. With the offer, chump change for a guy with a net worth 10 times greater than the bid, the ranks of businesspeople in sports ownership has become ever more exclusive and may lead to some serious speculation and investment in a sport that is currently as organized as the Iraqi armed forces.
Becoming literate in the business side of the fight game can be about as much fun as dissecting a worm, but in a world that like a worm has no head, it offers constant spectacle and drama. The sordid back rooms of boxing’s past which enforced Jim Crow, allowed Mafiosi to fix fights, controlled who fought whom, allowed convicted murderers to promote fights, wrapped fighters hands in plaster and injected them with performance-enhancing drugs have imbued the sweet science a kind of seedy allure that has not been translated well into the HD age of sports.
The time might be finally right for a deep-pocketed investor with savvy and vision to come along and lead the ship into the mainstream.
Just consider some tidbits from boxing’s very recent past:
--- Richard Schaefer jumped ship on Golden Boy to dive down into Al Haymon’s mysterious submarine armed to the teeth with undermatched but marketable fighters and with torpedoes set to fire volleys of lawyers back to the surface at a moment’s notice.
--- Officials from alphabet sanctioning bodies WBC, WBA and IBF “had a very productive meeting” in Cancun in which they took a first step towards working together. Also, it was reported that they ate some food in the hotel and some of them took lonely short walks on the beach.
--- Carl Froch unraveled George Groves in their London rematch in front of 80,000 fans in a soccer, er, football stadium, prompting casual observers to conclude much to the bored chagrin of boxing fans everywhere that the sport was, after all, not dead.
--- Eddie Hearn, the 34-year old Brit who promoted the Froch-Groves show, counted his money and looked across the pond, surmising: “Without being disrespectful, a lot of the promoters are quite old and it’s a great opportunity for a young promoter and a young company to come in. There is a big opportunity for us out here [in the USA]. Over the next couple of months we’re going to try and put that in place, talk to broadcasters and get our head around the market, looking at potential fighters as well.”
--- The sports’ two biggest draws traditionally, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, posted PPV numbers about 20% lower than expected for their most recent, highly entertaining fights. Chalk that one up to: 1) the antiquated and expensive PPV distribution problem/existence of Russian internet bootleggers 2) public resentment that the two aren’t fighting each other, and 3) the fact that they’re both past their prime.
--- Not a newsy tidbit, but food for thought: Bob Arum, the biggest promoter in boxing , is reputed to have a net worth of $200 million. For those counting at home, that’s one tenth of what the Clippers will be sold for and one hundredth of Ballmer’s net worth.
--- Similarly, Floyd Mayweather continues to be the world’s highest earning athlete.
The last two are meant as point-counterpoint arguments. Arum’s wealth, while formidable, is nothing compared to the coffers of others (including Mayweather). If you had a billion dollars kicking around you could make some serious waves. And having a billion dollars kicking around isn’t exactly rare these days, to get onto Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans in 1995, you needed $418m. By 2011, it took $1 billion.
ESPN’s Boxcino tournament played out on the network’s Friday Night Fights with mostly unknown fighter competing for a reputed grand prize of around $50,000. Tournaments are an ideal format for recruiting new fans. The fights are all pre-contracted so that winners have to face other winners and the global venues can change to increase visibility.
It would take some maneuvering to navigate the usual obstacles of contracts and networks but what, besides money, is to stop an investor from setting up such a tournament on a larger scale? Ruslan Provodnikov just pocketed $750,000 to Chris Algieri’s $100,000 for a fight in a premium arena televised by a premium network. The combined purse money for the whole card was roughly equal to a fourth line NHL right winger, or the salary of a replacement-level utility infielder.
If such an investor were smart enough to recruit the right boxers to perform in the right venues with the right promotion, the sport could erupt in visibility and popularity, and the financial risk weighed against the potential reward gets more favorable by the day as global wealth expands for the ultra-rich. For less than $20 million dollars, for example, you could pick eight top middleweights to fight in a tournament that paid the eventual victor $5 million (a career purse for every middleweight excluding the new champ Cotto). Who wouldn't love to see how things could unfold in a months-long tournament throwing in names like Martin Murray, Gennady Golovkin, Peter Quillin, Felix Sturm, etc.
With the right organization and financial backing and given the premium commercial status that live sporting events are afforded these days, a major television network would eventually be chomping at the bit to give the thing a shot in the arm.
The mentality of boxing promotion still feels very much stuck in the corrupt political mire of the 20th century, unable to pick itself back off the mat. Don’t expect it take the full eight seconds of rest before it leaps back into the attack.