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Fighting Talk

As pay-television channel BoxNation prepares to expand globally, its competitor Fight Sports Network throws punches at its lack of resources. Elisha Chauhan reports.

With 4.4 billion people, Asia makes up 60 per cent of the global population. Its fast-growing commercial market has attracted major companies from all over the world to invest in the region.

However, BoxNation – the UK’s specialist boxing pay-television channel – is only aiming to raise £10m to bring the sport to the continent, as well as eastern Europe.

The channel – operated by boxing promoter Frank Warren – celebrated its fourth anniversary at the end of September, and currently has 150,000 subscribers in the UK having broadcast over 1,000 professional bouts – more than 200 of which were world championship fights.

The idea is to produce once and exploit often

Although it is still to be decided exactly which countries within Asia and eastern Europe BoxNation will launch in, the deadline to raise money for its first expansion abroad is March next year. The £10m will go towards content and improving the on-screen product, such as BoxNation going fully HD in both the UK and for its new planned channels, which will broadcast the same feed for major live events and offer tailored support programming per region.

The broadcaster is also working with content consultancy 3Vision on international business, but will take control management in-house if the expansion is an overriding success.

Meanwhile – having previously focused on signing British boxers – Warren’s agency, Queensberry Promotions, is targeting talent from eastern Europe and Asia to provide the expansion venture with local and relevant content. It signed Indian Olympic medallist boxer Vijender Singh this summer, who won his debut professional fight by knock-out in the third round on October 10 against Britain’s Sonny Whiting.

“The idea is to produce once and exploit often,” BoxNation managing director Jim McMunn told SportBusiness International. “We’re also in the privileged position of having the majority of our content owned by Frank Warren.

“However, a British bout will not have the same resonance globally, so we’ll have to buy media rights to big fights that can cross over, rather than solely relying on BoxNation-owned content for the new regions. When we sign contracts with various promoters, we’ll also tie in media rights for different countries.”

Outside the Ring

Two fundamental problems lie in the way of BoxNation being a success in Asia. The first is that boxing is not as popular in the region as many other combat sports, and secondly, when major world championship bouts are broadcast there, they tend to be on free-to-air, such as the Fight of the Century between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, which was on free-to-air channels ABS-CBN, GMA-7 and TV5 in the latter’s home nation of the Philippines.

This means any boxing-exclusive broadcasters in Asia are not likely to get much return on investment, due to the alien nature of pay-per-view and subscription-based content in the region, according to Adam Zecha, managing director of Asia Pacific for Fight Sports Network channels, which is owned by media company CSI Sports.

“Boxing is only a slice of that interest, as is the everyday fight event programming in Asia,” Zecha told SportBusiness International. “In terms of pay-per-view sports possibilities, we believe it will be about five to eight years before the markets and consumers begin looking at this viewing method as financially viable.

“Based on our experience in the market for years, the most relevant content has been our Fight Sports-created productions and original series that consists of a wide variety of fight-related sports. It’s been our investment in these unique original series that has seen the most interest in terms of operators and audience.”

Having £10m to launch a channel in Asia would only cover technical costs for a few years

In fact, Zecha believes that the £10m BoxNation plans to raise to kickstart its expansion into Asia will barely get them a foothold in the region, which is even more significant given that McMunn told SportBusiness International that he’d be happy if the channel only raised half that amount.

“In our opinion, and based on my experience in the region for almost 20 years, having £10m to launch a channel in Asia would only cover technical costs for a few years,” Zecha said. “In comparison, the Fight Sports organisation invested in excess of $100m (£65m) in content alone before the launch of the linear channel in December 2012. Since then, we have also made significant investments each year to grow the business.”

“Fight Sports’ model is different from ours,” said McMunn. “They’re free-to-air and they’re not a dedicated boxing channel, but rather combat sports in general. Their initial product wasn’t premium, it was basically a 24/7 basic product and there wasn’t much live content until recently.

“We want to raise at least £5m to speed up our growth – if we don’t get it we’ll continue as we are and grow organically. Regardless of whether we have that investment or not, we will launch internationally in the first quarter of next year.

“A pay-per-view or subscription-based service will be a culture change for audiences in Asia. However, boxing fans are used to having to pay for their boxing content. In major territories, if you don’t see that model there’s a big problem, because if the content is strong enough people will pay for it.

“Saying that, if fee-based doesn’t work in certain territories, we’re not tied to that and could use free-to-air and have an advertising and sponsorship model instead.”

Big Hitters

Despite boxing’s lack of popularity across Asia compared to that of other combat sports, the sport will remain at the heart of the content on BoxNation, with combat sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA) and kickboxing only shown when there is no direct scheduling conflict with boxing, according to McMunn.

“We’ll find out how many boxing fans are in Asia when we launch there. Regardless of the current viewing statistics, the proof will be in the pudding – meaning we’ll only know what the take-up will be when we launch the channel,” he added.

“We’re confident that we will be able to reach big numbers. However, we do not have a set target. At the moment, it’s incremental revenue for us and we really think we can grow that revenue, making this expansion the major part of this business.

“If Fight Sports is concentrating on the combat site, then we’re very confident in the amount of interest in boxing worldwide. If they can do it [break into Asia] with MMA and secondary-level combat sports, then I think we have a very good chance of being successful.”

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