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How Boxing Can Save Itself (With a Little Help from Reality Television)

Posted May 03 2010 4:00am

mayweather moseley

Companies fail all the time.  Poorly run, slow to change, ill-concieved. It happens.  However, for an industry to collapse universally (in spite of powerful demand), something apocalyptic is normally to blame.  Buggy whips stopped being made when cars replaced carriages.  Airplanes carry people to their destinations faster than trains.  However, for an industry to fail due entirely to mismanagement is almost unheard of.  As long as the industry is viable, the Darwinian nature of business suggests that someone will succeed in the face of popular demand.  But not if that industry is a monopoly.  And that monopoly is the sport of boxing.

Once perceived as the truest and most American of sports, in the past 30 years (with a handful of exceptions), boxing has become marginalized to the point that even the greatest American boxers have all the relevancy in our nation as most South American soccer stars.  Which is to say, none.  Americans seem to develop an affinity for the boxers that are the pride of other nations, or domestic fighters, in the case of a Floyd Mayweather-type, but only once they achieved dominant status in the sports.  We have become, in essence, the last ones to hop on to the bandwagon, spoon fed our favorites by promoters, unable to enjoy the ride to the top with the fighters themselves.

It’s not as if the sport itself has changed a lot during this period.  The elegance of boxing is in its simplicity.  While many sports can take hours to fully explain and beg a bevy of exceptions, boxing is rooted in 13 rules that have barely changed in the past 200 years.  What has changed is the management of both the sport and the talent.  Boxing is a sport run by officials and promoters.  It is the job of the promoter to produce to the public the best fights possible.  Ostensibly, everyone is working towards the same goal, as the best possible match-up in the best possible venue at the best possible time benefits the fighters in giving them the most deserving contenders to fight for the title.  The fans benefit from seeing the best of the sport put on display, and the sport benefits by through the entertainment and equitable treatment of both the fighters and fans.

That hasn’t happened in a long time.  What has happened is American promoters have gone a self-serving route, insulating their own fighters from the true contenders in an effort to maintain their stars’ perfect win-loss records.  The top talent then stagnates, fighting middling opponents in front of small audiences.  Their careers plateau, then descend without ever having been given the opportunities the fighters and fans truly deserve.

Ideally, this practice would be thwarted by boxing officials who are concerned with ensuring that promoters actively “push” their fighters up the food chain.  A tune-up fight here and there is allowed, but for the most part, the trend should be that successful boxers fight the best available opponents until they lose or retire.  It was this philosophy that gave us virtually every boxer of note in the 20th century.  However, in the past few decades, boxing federations and oversight committees have become so fractious that promoters have taken to practices tantamount to forum shopping in the legal world, searching for the officials and system that enable the promoter to do what he wants.  Nevada won’t sanction your cakewalk of a fight?  Maybe New Jersey will.  Your boxer is a felon in New Jersey?  Move the fight to Jamaica and instill the rules that you feel best suit your fight.

If the geographic venue changes seem like too big a hassle, you can always just change the body sanctioning the fight.  WBA doesn’t like what you’re doing?  I bet the struggling IBC will accept your terms for a cut of the fight.  There is no shortage of avenues to pursue to get done exactly what one what like in the world of boxing.

This fractious nature is most profound to the casual fan in its inability to produce a clear champion and chain of contention with so many different groups, some not even acknowledging each other.  In order to figure out the best fighters in each weight class, one must decode the different sanctioning committees, fight histories, age, vital stats and a million other aspects that a viable governing body should be doing for us.  A far cry from looking at the standings of the NL Central and NL East in the newspaper.   Boxing has alienated the casual fan to the point that there are only experts and outsiders.  Not exactly a deep well from a marketing perspective.

So that’s what’s wrong.  It’s bad, and it’s been that way for some time.  The good news is that it’s not hard to fix.  Damage has been done, but it’s hardly insurmountable.  The Ultimate Fighting Championships have managed to thrive during this period, demonstrating that public demand for contact sports still exists.  Based on the violence of the UFC, it may be at an all-time high.  And when boxing does get consensus quality fights, the public has been purchasing these fights on Pay-Per-View in record numbers.  Further, the diversity of fights embraced by the public shows an appetite for good boxing at any level, not just heavyweight bouts.  Over the past 15 years, the public has adopted only a handful of fighters, but those fighters have run from Oscar de la Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Shane Moseley, Roy Jones Jr, Manny Pacquiao, Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather.

As an aside, I don’t feel that success of the UFC or MMA has done much or anything to cannibalize interest in professional boxing, much the same way I don’t believe the success of college football has the least bit to do with interest levels in the NFL, beyond the fact that they are both sports.  Contrarily, I think the success of UFC and MMA demonstrate the demand for such contact sports that, in hindsight, had been tragically unmet before the rise of mixed martial arts.  In short, here is the encapsulation of my stance on the matter: if you have a vested interest in a boxing resurgence, would you rather know that there exists a deep market for contact sports or not?

With all these pieces in place, boxing seems ripe for resurgence.  Unfortunately, these pieces have always been in place, so these circumstances demonstrate a cycle of inaction on the part of the powers that be more than they do a “perfect storm” of interest and fever pitch of excitement.  Boxing management has demonstrated little to no agility despite the increased success of the complementary/similar UFC.   Boxing must look elsewhere for salvation.

Boxing should look to network television.

Boxing has always been a sport that thrived on television.  There are no home teams, few allegiances, other than to the personalities on parade in the ring.  While live prizefights carry an unequaled air of electricity, they are expensive, distant, and often anti-climactic.  Most of my memories of boxing involve sitting forward on a couch on a Saturday night, screaming at the television with a group of guys and lots of empty beer cans.  Something tells me my experience is not unique.

Let’s use a station like ABC for discussion’s sake.  What is ABC showing on Saturday nights from 9-11?  I don’t know.  And neither do you.  No one does, because no one is watching.  Using this timeslot, every “season” (8-11 months), ABC highlights a weight class and its top 8 boxers.  What weight class?  What federation?  What nation?  Who cares.  Let boxing experts at ESPN or ABC pick the top 8 in any recognized, active weight class in 2011, essentially creating their own “premiere league” of fighters.  During this season, everyone fights 4 matches to create standings, a champion, and a chain of contention for this weight class.  Some matches will be broadcast, others will not, but every fighter fights at least every two months.

There is plenty to be critical about in this proposal.  It manufactures demand.  It deals with only a small universe of fighters every year, in only one weight class.  It treats 12 months the way most fighters should treat a career.  All true.  It does all this to provide a national audience and high profile to a sport that has been mistreated and mismarketed for years.

In addition to the monthly fights, I would propose a “24/7”-type show on the network during off weeks which follows the boxers in their preparation and allows us to know their backstories.  The lineage of showmen through out boxing’s history (Ali, Frazier, Ray Leonard, Mayweather) begs a stage beyond the ring.  Critics will say it is an absolute marriage of reality television and athletics for the sake of marketing.  And it absolutely has worked for HBO during their recent record-setting run of PPV bouts.

The fights and coverage, by virtue of being on national television, will again make boxing accessible and relevant.  People will watch boxing once a month on a Saturday night and they will the follow and study the fighters when they’re not fighting.  Just as in its golden days, boxing will be driven by the personalities and talent of the fighters.  There is just as much room for corruption and bad-decision making (perhaps more) in having a television network essentially run an entire weight class for a year at a time.  However, history has proven that boxing requires a new management team.

The golden ring that is PPV revenues dictates that you shouldn’t be giving something away if it can be sold at $69.95.  I don’t believe that the above proposal will dilute PPV sales, but rather, will raise interest in a sport that ought to garner even further interest in the “big event” matches and increase those revenues as well.  Right now, PPV revenues are astronomical given the discrepancy between the experts and those who would consider themselves casual boxing fans, of whom there are few.  The accessibility of this proposal bridges the gap and creates a much broader fan base for the sport, regardless of what weight class happens to be spotlighted during a given season.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for this proposal is the risk versus reward factor.  The investment of the network is the cost of one more reality television show, and a feed into boxing matches that are already being broadcast in HD anyway on other stations such as ESPN, VS, and Fox Sports.  The networks are also donating perhaps their least desirable timeslot all week to an event that gears itself towards social spectatorship.

The sacrifice of the fighters is virtually nil.  Get grouped with the best in your class and compete on a nationwide stage in front of ten times as many viewers as you have been.  Increase your brand through exposure and reality television.  Make a name for yourself.

I also feel that promoters would gladly hand over the reigns for one of their more obscure weight classes in order to sow the seeds of a boxing dynasty in years to come.  They are still free to mismanage and exploit all the other fighters in all their other weight classes.  As for the specifics of the compensations, I must plead ignorance, so I’m not entirely sure what deals must be struck to compel a promoter to hand over a boxer to a network for them to do as they wish.  But logic dictates that a deal should be struck.  However, this sport has evaded the compelling nature of logic for so long that this caveat shouldn’t be taken for granted.

*                      *                      *

Boxing has slipped a great deal from its glory days, but it is clear that interest and hope for the sport is far from dead.  In beginning to pry the sport away from promoters and managing the sport by an agency with which its goals are more closely aligned, we hope that it can re-enter the public consciousness in a manner that America has not seen for years.  The proposal above hardly answers the questions indefinitely.  If the experiment works and network television is able to remind the sports-watching public that boxing exists, and at its best, there is nothing more compelling in all of sports, there are logistical hurdles in the way of transforming this microcosm of success to something more general.  I have not begun to address that leap.  Many questions and issues will be raised should the above proposal succeed, and they must be addressed in order to make order out of this organizations and management of this sport.  However, once that happens, the sport will do fine on its own.  Two people beating the crap out of each other for a bunch of money they probably don’t deserve.  What could be more American than that?

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