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NOTES FROM THE BOXING UNDERGROUND: PAY CUTS FOR PRIZEFIGHTERS

By Paul Magno | May 25, 2020
NOTES FROM THE BOXING UNDERGROUND: PAY CUTS FOR PRIZEFIGHTERS

Never let it be said that I shy away from the rough and tough issues because, what I'm about to say now is probably going to alienate me from every active fighter in the boxing business.

Boxing needs to scale back on fighter paydays. 

This has become somewhat of a hot topic recently, due to the economic realities stemming from the Covid-19 shutdown of sports. But this pay scale reform has been much needed in this business for years. It's just that to SAY this-- as a writer, promoter, fan, etc.-- has been tantamount to putting a bullet in your own head. 

"These guys risk their lives to entertain you! They need to get all they can, while they can because ain't nobody looking out for them after they retire!"

Yes...and...Yes.

But at some point there'll be no paydays for anyone if organizers and the business people behind the boxing can't turn a profit on their investments. 

With live gate tallies flat-lining in the US (for the most part) and the "new normal" in TV ratings stuck at the very low seven-figure mark (in best case scenarios), there's just no money to be had if the fighters are making crazy guaranteed money. Frequently, fighters' pay eclipses incoming revenue. How can you run a sound boxing promotion when you only get a live gate of $150K, drew only about a million TV viewers, but are expected to pay $5 million in fighters purses?

In what reasonable boxing world does DAZN's Jessie Vargas, for example, make a $1.2 million purse for a co-feature on a smallish card and $3 million to face Mikey Garcia (who was making $7 million) months later? Vargas is a solid fighter and, on a human level, it's nice to see him take home some nest egg money for his family, but what kind of business is this? 

This should've been an issue a while ago, but the sport has been floating atop a bubble for years as new companies came into the game, willing to operate in the red while getting their feet in the door. 

Premier Boxing Champions first came along and was lambasted for jacking up pay expectations, then streaming service DAZN showed up to hyper-inflate purses to an even greater extent. But, to be fair, this too-much-pay- for-too-little-return dynamic was in place before PBC and DAZN (and ESPN). It was wedged into boxing common practice by premium cable companies HBO and Showtime who could also operate at a loss because the sport was just a showcase piece of their wider programming. 

But this bubble can't last forever and, when it bursts, the boxing business will be in serious trouble-- and, consequently, the state of fighter compensation will be in trouble.  It's Business 101 that you can't spend more than you make and expect to be around for very long.

The deep-pocketed newcomers won't operate in the red forever. Soon, they'll want to turn a profit from their investment. And with growth stunted by the sport's paywall business model, how, exactly, does one bring more money to the table-- without asking for the increasingly battered, beleaguered loyal fans to pay even more for the privilege of watching?

The pandemic shutdown has brought out the bravery in boxing business insiders, who are now using this opportunity to broach this issue. 

Matchroom Boxing bossman Eddie Hearn, who is lead promoter for DAZN, acknowledged that he is at least part of the problem.

"I have to say," Hearn said during an interview on the Sports Illustrated Boxing Podcast with Chris Mannix, " purses...they’ve got completely out of control. And listen, part of it’s my fault and DAZN’s fault. They’ve had to come in, they’ve had to make some noise. Bob [Arum] blamed me [recently]...The other day I was on the phone to him, and he said, ‘Well, it’s all your fault anyway. And before you, it was Al [Haymon].’ 

“But it’s like, we don’t wanna stop paying fighters great money. They deserve it. But we just need to make sure it’s delivering value, not value for us, but value for our customers. And our customers are our broadcasters."

Bob Arum has also acknowledged the need to scale back purses, offering that fighters should consider taking smaller guarantees and a greater cut of final sales to help keep the business intact, at least for the time being, during the health crisis. 

Fighters are right to be suspicious that a "temporary" thing could turn into a forever thing. Some, like Terence Crawford, have said that they'd actually demand a greater guarantee if asked to fight in an empty arena during boxing's tentative first steps forward.

Again, it's understandable that fighters, who take all the physical risks and whose names sit atop the marquees, would balk at any reassessment of their payouts. Nobody wants to take a pay cut, regardless of the circumstances. 

But this insanity can't continue. Artificially inflated purses are only helping the 1% of the sport, who would be just as wealthy-- if not more so-- if their cut came off the success of the event rather than via guaranteed base pay. As it stands now, event organizers are struggling because profit is hard to come by, undercard fighters are struggling because the main-eventers suck up all the revenue, and fans are lamenting about the poor product brought to them-- partly because of the "we're gonna make a ton of loot no matter who we fight" mentality currently in place. 

Boxing is going to need to deal with this issue, anyway. We might as well deal with it now, as the sport takes a temporary breather. 

We need to pull back on guaranteed pay for lesser fights and make the size of the payouts contingent upon the quality of the fight. This is in everyone's best interest.

Got something for Magno? Send it here: paulmagno@theboxingtribune.com

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