Pro boxing can learn lessons from Tyson and Triller’s opportunism

  • Tyson v Jones Jr. likely to be one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year
  • Event, backed by video-sharing app Triller, fills the void left by pro boxing
  • Rigid models, exclusive deals and empty arenas are crippling the sport

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, it turns out that worsening diplomatic relations between the United States and China have been a catalyst for one of the boxing pay-per-view events of the year: Mike Tyson v Roy Jones Jr. in an eight-round exhibition bout, with YouTuber Jake Paul facing retired NBA point guard Nate Robinson on the undercard.

It may sound like something out of an episode of Futurama, but behind its freakish exterior lies a tremendous amount of business sense.

The event – entitled ‘Frontline Battle’ – is largely being financed by US-based video-sharing platform Triller, which has acquired title sponsorship rights, exclusive global streaming rights to the event, and the ability to sell linear pay-per-view rights in the United States. The rights were acquired from the event’s promoter, Legends Only League, which is co-owned by Tyson and private equity firm Eros Investments.

The company is using the event to drive app downloads and active users prior to a major funding round scheduled for later this year, but it has to move quickly in response to the controversy surrounding TikTok, its primary rival and the undisputed champion in the viral video space.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has been accused of harvesting data on behalf of the Chinese government and has been banned in India, by far TikTok’s biggest market outside China. The app also faces a ban in its second-biggest market, the United States.

As software giant Microsoft has announced it is exploring a purchase of TikTok in the United States – and that it wants to complete any acquisition by September 15 – Triller is in a race against time to attract new users before its rival can get up from the canvas. Frontline Battle, scheduled for September 12, will help Triller’s transformation from ‘TikTok rival’ to a media property in its own right.

Sources close to the event refuted widespread media reports that Triller has acquired its rights for ‘north of $50m’, with one source describing this figure as “a publicity number” and that the real amount will be much lower. But whether Triller paid $20m, $30m or even $40m for its rights, the publicity generated by the event has sent the company’s key metrics skyrocketing.

Triller claims that its app has now been downloaded over 250m times, marking an increase of almost 2,000 per cent since Frontline Battle was announced. If those numbers released by Triller are even close to accurate, the event is well on the way to paying for itself at the company’s next funding round.

In addition, Triller’s licensing deals with heavyweight record labels will also be activated further via live performances from artists yet to be announced.

Everything about Frontline Battle has been calculated to generate publicity. Viral videos of Tyson looking fighting fit have been circulating on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for months, generating excitement about whether he could return to boxing in some capacity.

Now that Tyson’s return has been announced, Triller will hold exclusive global streaming rights to a ten-part documentary series leading up to the fight. Two parts will be released in each week leading up to the event.

The inclusion of Jake Paul is designed to generate buzz among fans aged 10-21. Paul is a highly popular YouTuber with over 20m subscribers and the brother of Logan Paul, who recently fought two high-profile bouts against fellow YouTuber KSI.

Paul’s inclusion has also added significant value to Triller’s pay-per-view rights as he provides a hook to gain interest from younger fans more likely to use an app to access paid-for content. Older fans of Tyson and Jones Jr. will likely prefer to watch the fight via more traditional pay-per-view outlets such as cable and satellite operators – rights that Triller can sell separately.

The event is shaping up to be a success for Legends Only League and Triller, but for all the above-ground work put into publicising the event, the most crucial element of the plan has largely gone unnoticed: Frontline Battle has the sport of boxing all to itself.

Mike Tyson celebrates winning a fight against Carl Williams in 1989. (The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)

Asleep at the wheel

September 12 falls on Mexican Independence Day weekend, a national holiday in Mexico and usually the date of a high-profile boxing event featuring a prominent Mexican fighter. This year’s date was set to be filled by Canelo Alvarez, the Mexican middleweight star that signed an exclusive 10-fight contract with streaming platform DAZN back in 2018.

Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on the sports industry, but the slow-moving, divided nature of top-level professional boxing has left the sport’s highest echelons more vulnerable to an extended shutdown. This is particularly true for boxing’s biggest stars – Canelo included – who are unwilling to take the pay cuts offered by their promoters (or in Canelo’s case, his broadcast partner) and perform in an empty arena.

A crucial portion of a big boxing event’s revenue comes from ticketing, which in the case of Deontay Wilder v Tyson Fury II amounted to just under $17m. The record live gate for a boxing event was for Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao in 2015, when ticketing revenue reached over $72m.

Without this revenue, promotions and broadcasters are offering reduced pay to both their stars and their potential opponents, leading to stalemates across the industry.

In the words of one major boxing promoter: “Unless you’re a big American name, the going rate to be Canelo’s opponent is about $5m-$6m. Now, DAZN don’t want to pay that much. They’re offering $4m or less. A lot of people aren’t willing to take the pay cut as they feel crowds will come back sooner rather than later.”

Canelo’s contract is understood to stipulate that the middleweight earns an average flat fee of about $27m per fight from DAZN, which can rise to $35m based on factors such as the opponent and the fight’s performance in terms of new subscribers and churn. Sources say Canelo declined DAZN’s offer of a pay reduction in order to fight behind closed doors on September 12 and will wait until his earnings return to normal.

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez played in the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament on July 10 (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A wake-up call

The fact that fighters, broadcasters and promotions are unable to come together and stage the huge events with greater regularity hasn’t been caused by Covid-19. The problem has existed for as long as there have been divisions between boxing’s biggest promotions and broadcasters – a problem that has worsened since Golden Boy Promotions, Top Rank and Premier Boxing Champions signed exclusive deals with separate US broadcasters back in 2018.

A prime example is the long-awaited trilogy fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, which seemed certain to happen when both fighters signed exclusive deals with DAZN. Instead, the fact they can earn healthy money from the fixed-fee contracts they signed with the broadcaster – no matter who they fight – has disincentivised a third fight.

Both fighters believe they should be paid far more than their current contracts stipulate for a rematch that, if done on pay-per-view, would generate over $100m at the box office. Neither Canelo or Golovkin have a reason to risk their legacy against one another when they can earn the same fighting a lesser opponent.

DAZN’s rigid philosophy is that it will never put a fight on pay-per-view. This means Canelo v Golovkin III looks further away than it did before the two signed with the streaming platform.

Stalemates such as these have proven the need for flexibility in the boxing industry and this has been underlined by the speed at which Frontline Battle has been arranged.

Neither Tyson nor Jones Jr. is tied to an exclusive deal with a promotion or a broadcaster. Both wanted to make money and found a company, Triller, that was happy to fund the event for its own purposes. Thus, an event can be arranged relatively quickly.

Back in November 2019, YouTubers Logan Paul and KSI used boxing as a vehicle to entertain and engage their fans like never before, with each gaining hundreds of thousands of new subscribers and a huge increase in viewers on their channel in the weeks leading up to their second fight in November last year. Again, neither were tied to any promotion or broadcaster and the mutual benefits were clear to both.

That events such as these have the space and time to attract casual fans is a major issue for the industry of professional boxing which, one way or another, is allowing outsiders to take a share of its pie.

While stars such as Canelo, Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder remain on the sidelines, an eight-round exhibition between two men in their fifties – sponsored by a viral video-sharing app –  has taken over one of the biggest pay-per-view dates of the year.

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