A booming, divided boxing business in 2019

Boxing


With an increasing number of networks and online platforms investing millions in boxing, the business of the sport has never been so robust and vibrant. It’s also never been as divided as it is at this very moment.

There are more ways to watch fights and view boxing content than ever before, but it’s easy to wonder how long this boxing boom can last given that the majority of the fights the public yearns for simply aren’t realistic with the various alliances that exist within the industry.

There’s Premier Boxing Champions, which has output deals with Fox/FS1 and Showtime. Top Rank signed an exclusive deal in 2017 to air their cards on ESPN, which runs through 2025. And DAZN, a nascent streaming network, has partnerships with Matchroom Sports and Golden Boy Promotions.

Because of this division of talent, very few of the transcendent fights that could be made at this moment, including Anthony Joshua-Deontay Wilder and Terence Crawford-Errol Spence, can actually be consummated. Blue-chip boxers seem to exist in their own parallel universes, bogged down by the politics and machinations that have long hampered the industry.

The difference these days is that nobody is truly reaching across the aisle, and there is very little collaboration among the leaders who govern boxing.

“Back in the day when I started, in the beginning it was common that fights were being made with two promoters,” recalled Richard Schaefer, the current head of Ringstar Sports, who for more than a decade was the CEO of Golden Boy Promotions. “I remember the days standing up there at the podium with Bob Arum, sometimes with Don King, sometimes with Gary Shaw and even Kathy Duva, when we did the [Fernando] Vargas fight [against Oscar De La Hoya].

“So each promoter represented one fighter, and it’s like you put it all on the line, often there were no options. You just rolled the dice and hoped your guy wins, and that’s the way the business was.”

For example, back when De La Hoya tangled with Vargas in their notable grudge match in 2002, they both had their own promoter. De La Hoya had just started Golden Boy Promotions and Vargas was represented by Main Events, but they were also both under the HBO umbrella. When a matchup was ripe enough and financially viable for both sides to make the leap, they came together to consummate the deal.

Everybody made money; everybody went away richer for it. In retrospect, it was a much simpler time. Back then, HBO was the 800-pound gorilla, with rival Showtime more or less playing a much smaller second fiddle. There really was no other portal for world-class boxing other than these two premium cable networks in America.

“And today, I think you have much more of a two-league system, some might say three-league system, but we’ll see if that third league — and I’m talking about DAZN — is going to go. But right now, you really do have the PBC league and you have the ESPN league, and in a way it’s good because what ESPN is doing for the sport has elevated the sport. They’re not just dipping their toes in the water, they’ve really jumped in headfirst, and I think that has elevated the sport,” said Schaefer, whose company is one of the outfits that serves as one of the official promoters for bouts under the PBC banner, which was created by Al Haymon.

Back in 2015, as the PBC was launched, it negotiated a series of time-buys with various networks with varying degrees of success, while still having cards that were broadcast on Showtime. They were finally able to secure a multiyear rights deal with Fox that began on Dec. 22, which featured Jermell and Jermall Charlo co-headlining from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The fight attracted more than 2 million viewers.

“[Haymon] has really been the trailblazer. Love him or hate him, he really helped to elevate the sport, bringing [an] ESPN in, bringing a Fox in,” Schaefer told ESPN.com in late December. “Lets face it, with Fox being a totally free over-the-air network, showing the kind of commitment that they’re showing to the sport, we saw that with the Charlo fights. It’s amazing the kind of assets Fox put behind it.”

There was a time when boxing was thought to be persona non-grata with the major networks. That no longer seems to be the case. In addition to the actual fight cards, Fox is also producing shoulder programming that focuses in on the fight game.

“So I think it’s good. Is it perfect? No,” admitted Schafer, who then added, “But boxing is getting more credibility and more exposure than it ever has in the last 20 years.”

Every major broadcast entity that is now involved in boxing is currently aligned with a promoter. They are now, in essence, tied together at the hip. By signing with a Top Rank, for instance, you are basically signing on with ESPN. Currently there is an arms race of sorts as rival factions look to strengthen their own stables and their programming lineup.

But Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sports believes that while boxing is ”definitely booming,” he also has his concerns.

“I just think it’s spiraling a little bit out of control in the U.S., whereby fighters have been overpaid, in my opinion. … Actually, forget my opinion — the numbers tell you that they’ve been overpaid, and I don’t know where it ends.”

Hearn isn’t averse to pointing fingers at himself.

“Everyone’s trying to keep up; we’re overpaying,” he said. “ESPN’s overpaying fighters, Haymon’s overpaying fighters and some of the fighters just aren’t worth what the numbers say they are. So it’s a war of attrition right now. We saw this a few years ago with the PBC. I remember because I was on the other end of it. We felt the shockwaves in the U.K., with the PBC coming in and offering large amounts of money to fighters, world-class fighters, of which there were many, and we had to step up our game.”

That was in 2015. In 2018, explained Hearn, “it’s kind of like the reverse now, where DAZN is coming in and spending a lot of money and PBC has had to up their game and go back to paying at the levels [they were at] before.”

As DAZN was introduced several months ago and loudly stated their intentions to step into the American market and woo well-known boxers, they made numerous offers to fighters who were advised by Haymon — but at that point, they didn’t have a full-time promoter attached to them. None of them bit at that time, but they were likely able to leverage those offers into better deals with the PBC in the meantime.

It truly is a great time to be a boxer, but as you look at the current fight schedule for the first quarter of 2019, you see that there is virtually no cross-pollination among the four major promoters who are tied into these exclusive deals. You could argue that outside of a few match-ups, it more quantity than quality.

A fight between junior lightweights Gervonta Davis and Alberto Machado (who both ironically hold versions of the WBA title) would be an eagerly anticipated matchup. Instead, they are both scheduled to go on Feb. 9 on cards that will be broadcast on Showtime and DAZN, with Davis fighting Abner Mares, who is really a featherweight, and Machado facing relative unknown Andrew Cancio. The boxers will make good money, but the fans are getting two bouts they never particularly cared to see.

Short of the sanctioning body actually mandating this pairing (which isn’t a guarantee), you wonder how this fight will ever come to fruition.

“There is more money in the sport than ever, more broadcasters in the sport than ever, more shows than ever, more big shows than ever,” Hearn pointed out. He then added, “But I do worry a little bit, particularly with the U.S. side of the sport, because there seems to be a lot of people acting with their balls rather than their brains. Listen, maybe we’re one of them.”

The bottom line is that the best way to seek out a superfight at this moment is to go where the opponents are. Anyone that wants to fight Canelo Alvarez, for example, will have to do so on DAZN, as he inked an 11-fight, $365 million deal that kicked in on Dec. 8 at Madison Square Garden. In that fight, Alvarez bludgeoned the overmatched Rocky Fielding in three rounds.

Every network has the services of at least one marquee boxer, and with the investment they’ve made in that boxer, they will obviously frown upon them performing on any other stage but their own. Exclusive deals that have tied down boxers to a specific network have been around for years, and this isn’t a new dynamic. What’s new is that there are now more players involved, jockeying for their place in the pecking order.

“We’ve been around long enough to know the politics will always stop certain fights from happening when there’s cross-network politics. So when you’re talking about in the past, it was no different with HBO and Showtime. Now it might be DAZN, ESPN or ESPN+ or Fox,” said Hearn, who in the past has been willing to do co-promotions, though that was before his association with DAZN.

“I do like to think that we have a reputation for making more fights with other promoters than anybody else,” he continued. “But of course, everybody’s strategy is the same: Deliver the biggest names and the biggest fights to your platform, your broadcaster. It’s not just that one’s nasty or vindictive, that’s just the name of the game. If I’ve got Oleksandr Usyk or Anthony Joshua and I’m putting him on ESPN, well, what’s the point in DAZN being with us and giving us a budget if we can’t deliver our big names to their platform?”

Bob Arum, the founder of Top Rank, believes that this is a special time for boxing, in which coverage and access to fights will be unprecedented. Part of their deal with ESPN has seen them purchase the rights from other promoters, such as Frank Warren and Teiken Promotions, to stream their fight cards on ESPN+.

But there is a constant battle to find live opposition for their two best boxers — WBA/WBO lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and Terence Crawford, who holds the WBO welterweight belt.

Lomachenko’s biggest threat at welterweight is Mikey Garcia, while Crawford’s main foil at 147 is Errol Spence.

Boxing being boxing, Garcia, who is a lightweight, is facing Spence, a welterweight, on a pay-per-view card on March 16. And yes, you guessed it, both Garcia and Spence are aligned with the PBC. This might be a physical mismatch, but it is convenient for everyone involved.

In a perfect world, we’d be getting Lomachenko-Garcia and Crawford-Spence. It’s unlikely either of these bouts will happen in the upcoming year.

The 87-year-old Arum, though, remains the eternal optimist, and his belief is that like other fights of the past — namely Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao — pay-per-view has the ability to bridge the gap between those with competing agendas who still have the same goal in mind — making the most amount of money possible.

“If the fights are really big fights and they’re really important fights, then those fights will definitely be pay-per-view fights,” stated Arum.

Despite what Oscar De La Hoya has tweeted out, pay-per-view is not going the way of the dodo bird. On Jan. 19, Pacquiao faces Adrien Broner, there’s Garcia-Spence in March and Crawford is rumored to be facing Amir Khan on April 20. All three of these matchups are on pay-per-view, and if there’s a rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, it will join that list. All of this will happen in the first half of 2019.

“Pay-per-view is not only alive and well, it’s going to get bigger moving forward,” noted Schaefer, who believes that Golden Boy being attached to DAZN (which has sworn off pay-per-view) has caused De La Hoya to parrot a corporate message.

A successful pay-per-view can provide far bigger financial gains for the boxers who participate in those promotions versus a set license fee doled out by a network.

“For those fighters, you’re not capped [monetarily], you can basically make as much as the market allows you to make,” explained Schaefer, who used Floyd Mayweather as an example. While he had guarantees in his landmark deal with Showtime that began in 2013, which called for six fights for a minimum of $200 million, Mayweather far exceeded that amount over the course of that deal as he faced the likes of Alvarez and Pacquiao.

Arum says he is more than willing to start negotiating a Crawford-Spence bout with the potential of a big-money figure in play.

“Absolutely, there’s no problem at all,” he said. “No problem at all, and we have a template of how to do it, which goes back to the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight.”

But is the other side as willing?

“I don’t know who the other side is anymore, really,” said a frustrated Arum, taking a not-so-veiled shot at the reclusive Haymon. “I think [Stephen] Espinoza [the head of Showtime Sports] would be willing. I think the people at Fox would be willing, they share other sports, football and so forth. But again, Haymon, marches to his own tune to God knows what.”

Schaefer counters that when it comes to that particular fight, Crawford will have to wait in line.

“The fact is, these fighters have options within their own universes, within their own league,” he points out, bringing up the names of Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter as viable welterweight options for Spence in the near future. “And as long as these options exist, I think these options are going to be exhausted.”

While Schaefer may sound like an enabler to some, he does admit that if Crawford-Spence and Joshua-Wilder never occur, ”It’s not good, to be honest.”

Going back to DAZN, part of their deal with Alvarez calls for 10 dates a year for Golden Boy. Their first show of 2019 is scheduled for Jan. 26 in Houston, headlined by WBO 154-pound champion Jaime Munguia. Last year, the company was involved in fights that were on Showtime (Gary Russell Jr.-Joseph Diaz), ESPN (Lomachenko-Jorge Linares), ESPN+ (Pacquiao-Lucas Matthysse) and pay-per-view (Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin). All of these bouts had competing factions on the other side of the table.

To their credit, they were willing to take their fighters off HBO, where they did the bulk of their business the past few years, to create opportunities for their clients.

They are now locked into DAZN, but GBP president Eric Gomez says, “I think that if everybody has an open mind, everybody can be successful and fights can be made. But everybody has to have an open mind, and everybody has to work together. Look, we’ve been promoting and working together for the longest time. This year was rough for us, but we were able to get the big matchups done for our fighters.

“And I think that if everybody has an open mindset, you can make things happen. There’s no need for the animosity or infighting — right now, boxing is on an upswing. There’s a lot of money being spent on boxing. If we can get together and have an open mind, we can make these big fights happen. We’re open to it. Golden Boy is always open to making fights.”

But Gomez is not naïve. The issue of which boxers are aligned with specific networks is a significant hurdle in making anticipated bouts.

“It comes up,” he admitted, “and it’s a little bit of a give-and-take. And if we’re going to allow some of our fighters to be on different platforms, then vice-versa, we expect the same. If we’re going to do something with any other promoter, we’re going to want the same.”

Ultimately, there is a stark reality to the current marketplace. Promoters aren’t just worried about protecting their boxers, but also protecting their broadcast partners.

“This is just the business, it will mean that certain fights are difficult to make,” explained Hearn, who is under pressure himself to make a Joshua-Wilder fight sooner rather than later.

“If Golovkin comes to DAZN, I’m sure we’ll get Canelo against Golovkin III,” Hearn continued. “If he doesn’t, then we’ll probably never see that fight. So that would be a shame. Will you ever see Lomachenko against Mikey Garcia? I very much doubt it. It’s a fight I’d love to see. Will you see Errol Spence against Terence Crawford? I very much doubt it. That’s another fight I’d love to see.”

That sound you hear? It’s the collective groaning of boxing fans across the world.

“It’s not that anyone’s really trying to scuff up the sport or be difficult, it’s just their jobs,” Hearn went on to say. “Haymon’s got to deliver for Showtime and Fox, I’ve got to deliver for DAZN, Bob’s got to deliver for ESPN.

“So they won’t move their talent, nor will we.”



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