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US boxing deals promised a revolution, but it’s business-as-usual for the sweet science

Last year, broadcasters and promoters announced a series of big-money deals that promised much and have so far delivered very little. Callum McCarthy examines why boxing’s stakeholders aren’t yet on the same page.

  • US media rights deals struck in 2018 came with promises to make fan-friendly fights
  • Instead, boxing is more divided than ever, with six promotions spread across four platforms
  • Platforms looking beyond pay-per-view, but fighters and promoters don’t seem ready

There is no order in boxing. There are forces that attract and repel – money, pride, ego, hatred – but ultimately, it’s chaos. There are five international governing bodies with very little power between them. There are over 60 world champions but just one of them is undisputed. The best do not have to beat the best in order to be the best. None of it makes any sense.

After a brief burst of optimism last year – generated by a series of high-profile, big-money deals between fighters, promotions and broadcasters – boxing is moving as slowly as it ever has. In every weight class, there are obvious fights to be made that would make huge amounts of money. In almost any other sport, these matches would be inevitable. In boxing, they’re a privilege.

The era’s best middleweights, Saul ‘Canelo’ Álvarez and Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin, have already faced each other twice in evenly-matched, high-earning bouts. They now have exclusive deals with the same US platform, DAZN, which aims to use a third fight between the two to push its subscription numbers over a million. Despite this, neither fighter seems in any rush to complete the trilogy.

The era’s best heavyweights – Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury – are affiliated with different broadcasters and appear a long way from agreeing to fight each other in 2019.

Wilder and Fury fought in 2018 and looked almost certain to agree a rematch in 2019. Then, Fury signed an exclusive deal with ESPN via his US promotion, Top Rank, which immediately claimed the fight couldn’t happen because of broadcast conflicts. Top Rank now says the bout will happen in 2020 “at the earliest”. Joshua’s promoter, Matchroom, has also said that broadcast conflicts will prevent him from fighting his rivals in the near future.

Three of the world’s top four welterweights – Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn Porter – compete under the Premier Boxing Champions banner and share a manager in PBC owner Al Haymon. They all fight on the same US broadcasters, Fox and Showtime, but only Thurman and Porter have faced one another, back in 2016.

Terence Crawford, the other top welterweight, competes exclusively on ESPN. Crawford has never faced any of his closest rivals at welterweight and it seems unlikely he will do so any time soon.

Last year’s agreements between promotions and broadcasters were accompanied by plenty of claims that they would bring boxing back to its 1970s and 80s glory days, when the best fought the best and pay-per-view was a rarity. Instead, they have left boxing more divided than ever, with few blockbuster bouts to look forward to.

DAZN trigger a landslide

For a while, things looked rosy. Money seemed to be pouring into the sport and streaming platform DAZN led the charge. Its ‘billion-dollar’, eight-year joint venture with Matchroom Boxing, agreed in May 2018, was advertised as the deal that would finally bring the world’s best fighters under one banner to compete against one another, all for $9.99 (€8.90) per month.

By joining forces with Matchroom – a UK promotion with no roots in the murky world of US boxing politics – DAZN hoped to take the US scene by storm. It promised to eliminate pay-per-view – boxing’s standard distribution model for the biggest fights – by locking in fighters with large guaranteed sums and building a critical mass of subscribers.

“If you don’t have a promotional contract and you’re a world class fighter, you need to call me as soon as possible. I’ve got exactly what you need,” Eddie Hearn, group managing director of Matchroom Sport, said when it launched in May 2018. “Within 12 months, we will have by far the strongest stable ever seen in world boxing.”

Hearn added: “All the promoters in the US want us to fail. Everyone will say it’s a new platform and it might not work. And I could see the argument, but not with the amount of money I have to spend.”

Unfortunately for Hearn, he was right – all the promoters in the US wanted it to fail. And they all had money, too.

Sensing that DAZN and Hearn were targeting fighters that competed in Premier Boxing Champions, US pay-television broadcasters Showtime and Fox – which had aired the series from 2015 to 2018 – convinced PBC owner Haymon to agree a co-exclusive three-year deal to continue the series. The broadcasters were reported to have promised Haymon a combined $130m per year to stave off Hearn’s advances on his fighters.

ESPN was next to move, locking down its exclusive relationship with the Top Rank promotion – which is in turn affiliated with Queensberry, Matchroom’s rival in the UK – until August 2025. ESPN says the deal is worth $90m per year.

With these paths to success blocked off, DAZN switched to Plan B. Outside its joint venture with Matchroom, it struck direct deals with Golden Boy Promotions and GGG Promotions, acquiring the rights to Álvarez and Golovkin respectively. It now charges $19.99 per month.

In the words of Joe Markowski, DAZN’s executive vice-president, North America: “Sometimes, as a broadcaster, you’re dealing with global superstars and they prefer to be handled that way. It’s not as clean as buying a set of rights from a rights-holder.”

Little bang for the broadcast buck

After all was said and done, six different promotions were spread across four different platforms. Collectively, the platforms were promising 134 boxing events per year at an annual spend of about $450m.

As is often the case in boxing, the figures were grossly exaggerated. Each purported rights fee – the ‘$1bn’ DAZN was to pay Matchroom; the ‘$130m’ PBC was set to earn; the ‘$90m’ per year ESPN was to pay Top Rank – was in reality an approximated ‘maximum spend’. In most of these deals, the conditions required to fulfil that maximum spend were either improbable or entirely impossible. The number of events relating to each deal also represented projected numbers rather than concrete commitments.

As a source close to more than one of these deals told SportBusiness Media in November: “There’s a lot of money being promised but not a lot being spent. All these deals are predicated on commitments, not actual spends. These numbers related to contingency funds.”

Another source close to multiple deals said: “There has been a PR race for presentation of these deals, exaggerating the value, volume and length of deals. I’m not convinced there are 120 quality fights out there next year.

“A little bit of this is about setting a target to reach for, but the pace of licensing and programming is different to the totals announced. All the structures have some flexibility because that number of events is not going to be reached.”

Despite the inflated headline figures, last year’s flurry of deals saw DAZN, ESPN, Fox and Showtime provide huge budgets to their respective partners in the hope they would feel comfortable to take risks with their fighters and make the most lucrative bouts possible.

Instead, with the knowledge that these budgets would be guaranteed for years to come, the promotions have dug their trenches deeper. With few exceptions, the promotions are protecting their best fighters’ reputations and preventing them from fighting their closest rivals, even when they share the same platform. In boxing, one loss can be the end of a fighter’s earning power.

The exclusive deals between promoters and broadcasters have contributed to the slowdown, but Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, believes exclusivity clauses are being used as a convenient excuse for why we aren’t seeing the biggest fights get made.

“I believe that much of the criticism and angst in these situations is misplaced, simply because there is so much misdirection in the parties’ [promoters and fighters] public statements,” Espinoza says. “Network conflicts are an easy scapegoat for a promoter to explain why a fight isn’t happening. It’s an easy scapegoat for a fighter, too.”

“There’s no question in my mind that the biggest fights can happen,” Espinoza says. “It’s all a question of desire and intention.”

Pay-per-view still preferred

Espinoza’s frustrations are also relatable to the unfolding situation between Álvarez and Golovkin. The two have already fought twice, in 2017 and 2018. Now they both have exclusive deals with DAZN, a third fight should be an inevitability.

DAZN is paying Álvarez a minimum of about $27m per fight over the course of a 10-fight deal, which could increase to $35m per fight should subscription growth and churn targets be met. Golovkin is set to be paid a minimum of about $80m over the course of his six-fight deal and potentially more than $100m if certain conditions are met.

But the two fighters are not contractually obliged to face one another, and it is up to DAZN to incentivise them to make the fight. Despite the guarantees and escalators, it appears that both fighters believe a third fight between them is worth more than DAZN is currently paying.

In each of their two previous bouts, Golovkin and Álvarez generated over $100m in pay-per-view revenue. Even if both fighters earned the maximum for a single fight under their deals with DAZN, this would likely be less than what they earned in each of their previous two bouts.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, DAZN Group executive chairman John Skipper described the platform’s relationship with Álvarez as “one of trust”. “We both have some leverage, but if we each don’t want to do something, the outcome is stalemate,” Skipper said. “We have to figure out how to do something that is beneficial to all…it’s mutually-assured destruction if we don’t make it work.”

“Both Gennady and Canelo are above needing a title at this point in their career,” Golovkin’s promotional partner Tom Loeffler said in a press conference. “I think the third fight will come down to economics.”

Platform bouts

Even between the platforms, there is division. Showtime, Fox and ESPN are happy to continue distributing fights on pay-per-view, as this is the tried and tested way of incentivising top fighters to compete against one another. It almost always ensures the fighters receive the maximum possible earnings for their bout, and helps to bridge gaps between broadcasters, promotions and fighters. If all parties have an equal (or near-equal) share in an event, it provides them with a shared process that leads to a common goal: earning as much money as possible.

DAZN, on the other hand, has vowed never to put boxing on pay-per-view. A 30-second ad promoting Álvarez’s first fight on the platform saw the world’s most famous ring announcer, Michael Buffer, say that as a result of DAZN’s new subscription model, pay-per-view was “screwed”.

DAZN’s commitment to a subscription model makes it much harder for it to work with other broadcasters and promotions. Without the indisputable metric of pay-per-view buys, third parties would have to put faith in DAZN’s accurate reporting of metrics such as subscription growth related to the fight, total number of watched hours and subscriber retention.

Speaking about how DAZN might work with other platforms to make big fights happen, Markowski said: “The devil will be in the detail. If a two-fight deal is being discussed between two fighters [where two platforms each receive exclusive rights to one fight each of a two-fight series] we’re very open to those conversations. We’ll happily work across the aisle, even if we don’t have formal relationships right now. We have a window at the back of the year to make a major heavyweight fight, and there are ongoing conversations around that. I think that would make my year end on a positive note.”

The “ongoing conversations” Markowski mentioned relate to a potential heavyweight title unification bout between Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. DAZN holds a first-option and a matching-rights clause over Joshua’s US media rights, while Wilder recently signed a one-fight deal with Showtime to compete on May 18. After that, Wilder is a free agent, and could feasibly sign a deal with DAZN to fight Joshua later this year.

Espinoza, who signed Wilder to that one-fight deal in the face of competition from DAZN and ESPN, has trouble believing that fight will be made any time soon.

“The offer for Deontay that came from Matchroom and DAZN wasn’t a two-fight deal. It was a multi-fight deal for up to four or five fights. A close examination reveals that the actions don’t match the stated intentions. It doesn’t seem anyone was offering Wilder a big fight. They were leveraging their assets in order to get him to sign a long-term deal for their network.”

Money makes it work

Historically, even the biggest divides in boxing have eventually been bridged. The late Jay Larkin, former executive producer at Showtime, famously said in 2000 that “pork chops would grow on the trees in Tel Aviv before Mike Tyson fights on HBO”.

Two years later, HBO and Showtime shared pay-per-view rights to Tyson v Lennox Lewis, an event that amassed over $100m in pay-per-view revenue.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao found themselves in a similar situation earlier this decade. The era’s two best welterweights had exclusive deals with Showtime and HBO respectively, and their fight took six years to put together. Again, hundreds of millions of pay-per-view dollars shared between the fighters, promoters and broadcasters greased the wheels.

In 2017, Mayweather’s pay-per-view blockbuster against UFC fighter Conor McGregor was also facilitated by Showtime, generating another nine-figure sum.

Money is, and has always been, the most powerful force in boxing. Despite the well-publicised ‘war-chests’ available to them, the fighters and promoters believe that, at the present moment, there is more money to be made from the waiting game than the fighting game.

History tells us this is probably true. Public consensus is that both Tyson v Lewis and Mayweather v Pacquiao happened too late. None of the fighters were in their prime and both fights were deemed disappointing from a sporting perspective. But those delays did nothing but make the public even more excited, and this was reflected at the box office.

For fighters like Joshua, Fury and Wilder – 29, 30, and 33 years of age respectively – time is on their side. From a promotional standpoint, as long as they keep competing and winning against other opponents, the appetite for them to compete against one another can only grow. Whether they are still in their prime years when those fights do eventually happen is of no concern. The numbers at the box office are ultimately all that matters.

Despite the public pleas of willingness from platforms, promoters and fighters, it could be a long time before anyone crosses the aisle to work together. And only money will heal the divisions created by boxing’s latest landgrab.

Lots and lots of money.

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