How Top Rank plans on making boxing relevant again

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Manny Pacquiao will fight Jeff Horn Saturday night on ESPN. (Getty)

One of the many absurdities in the way boxing does business is the way it presents its stars. Once a fighter reaches a certain level, he’s on pay-per-view and stays there for pretty much the rest of his career, where then by default he’s competing in front of the smallest possible audience.

That has long bothered Top Rank president Todd duBoef, who for years has been looking for a way to move boxing into the mainstream.

DuBoef, though, is taking action to try to increase his sport’s relevancy. He’s taking Manny Pacquiao, the biggest star in his stable, and putting him on ESPN in front of as many people as possible.

And on top of that, he’s not just sending out a news release saying, “Hey, the fight starts on Saturday at 9 and is on ESPN.” He has a much broader view.

Pacquiao will fight Jeff Horn on Saturday before about 60,000 fans at SunCorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia, in a bout that will be televised live on ESPN across the U.S. at 9 p.m. ET. In addition, beginning Wednesday, ESPN will produce all sorts of content related to the fight.

It’s a move that duBoef has long wanted to pursue. The last Pacquiao fight that wasn’t on pay-per-view in the U.S. was his Sept. 9, 2005, bout in Los Angeles against Hector Velasquez. The Filipino senator has fought 22 times since then, and all of them have been offered on pay-per-view in the U.S.

“I think there is a bigger audience out there and we’ve been choking off our content to a broader base,” duBoef said.

ESPN president John Skipper negotiated the deal with duBoef, and agreed to do much programming surrounding the fight.

That is a key for duBoef. He’s long tried to find a platform to tell the back stories of his fighters, and has recently done so on, with a compelling series called “Camp Life.”

But it will resonate more on a bigger platform like ESPN, which will bring not only its 88 million subscribers, but will promote the event on its radio network, on its Spanish language channels and on its website.

“Working with Top Rank on a match normally seen on pay-per-view is a significant moment for ESPN and for boxing fans,” Skipper said. “This fight, along with ESPN’s in-depth programming surrounding the fight, joins Wimbledon, Home Run Derby and the ESPYs in a stellar early July programming lineup.”

The fight sports are alone among the major sports in putting its biggest events on pay-per-view. The Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the World Series are all broadcast on free, over-the-air network television.

There is coverage of those events all over television and all over the internet. Boxing, because promoters were so short-sighted and didn’t attempt to build a sustainable business, didn’t follow suit.

So a bout like this month’s rematch for the light heavyweight title between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev wound up on pay-per-view. The show did a puny 125,000 pay-per-view sales, but there was interest in the event, as evidenced by the audience of 752,000 for the delayed telecast on June 24 on HBO.

But because fans were asked to pay – and Roc Nation promoted it so abysmally – it did horrendous business live.

DuBoef aims to change that and is trying to have boxing viewed similarly to other television sports. The NBA is on Turner and ESPN, but it is not just a game here or there. Not only do games air regularly on both networks, but the best games aren’t taken away and dumped onto pay-per-view. In addition, there is much shoulder programming available that enables the fan to become more informed about the league, the teams and its players.

“There is so much of it that there is more than is possible for any one person to watch,” duBoef said.

So this week, ESPN will attempt to help fans prepare for the fight by presenting a full array of pre-fight coverage. The fight is in Australia because that is where Horn is from and Pacquiao has a large fan base there.

The promoters had to request special permission to sell more tickets after selling the allotted 55,000, and attendance is expected to surpass 60,000. And now, by putting it on ESPN, Top Rank is giving it the best chance for the widest possible distribution.

If it’s successful and leads to more events of this type down the road, it could have a negative impact on premium cable networks HBO and Showtime. Since the mid-’80s, those networks and their checkbooks have controlled boxing.

They’ve done a great job at times and a poor job at others, but because they were spending the most, they regularly got the best fights. The problem was, combined, they don’t reach half of what the broadcast networks or a basic cable network like ESPN reaches.

“When you’re talking about sports platforms, sports audiences, and how they’ve evolved over time, the sports audiences, the mainstream sports guys, are not going to premium channels for content,” duBoef said. “That’s just what we see. They’re not finding the same demographic as on those sports platforms that they would be getting if it were college football on ESPN or Fox or on NBC with Notre Dame.”

DuBoef said he wants to see boxing adopt a 360-degree approach in regard to its content on television. Most promoters see their business as one night events. They get a rights fee from an HBO or a Showtime and they use that money to promote that event.

There is no over-arching goal where the strategy would be to not only show the bouts, but the shoulder programming that supports the bouts and makes the audiences more interested in a specific fight or fighter.

“I believe there is a 360 approach to boxing that makes sense but doesn’t get employed in the strategies [of other promoters] because there is no barrier to entry,” he said. “Just because you’re doing an event doesn’t mean you’re executing a strategy that creates a relevant product.”

So the Pacquiao-Horn fight will serve as a litmus test of duBoef’s over-arching strategy to try to make boxing relevant again. He declined a financial offer from HBO to put the fight, as well as ancillary programming, on ESPN to see if it helps boost the product for the long-term.

He’s abandoning the business-as-usual, one-event-at-a-time approach that has dominated boxing over the last 30 or 40 years.

Only time will tell if he’s right.

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