By Paul Magno | February 20, 2023

Us boxing fans and media live in a bubble. We assure ourselves that all is well, that boxing is as healthy as ever. Anyone who says otherwise is a hater, a crotchety old critic who just wants to shit on the sport we love. 

And to support our case, we’ll point to the study by analytics firm Two Circles and a subsequent Harris Poll survey that showed boxing to be the fourth most popular sport in America with Generation Z youth. 

Let’s just forget the part of the studies that found that very few of those who “liked” boxing knew anything about the actual goings on of the sport. The Harris poll found that most of those who called themselves fans of boxing couldn’t name one active fighter. Highest on the list of recognizable names among active fighters were Tyson Fury (at 37%), Saul Alvarez and Ryan Garcia (at 26%), and Deontay Wilder (at 24%). Only 29% of respondents who identified as boxing fans could name any upcoming boxing match. 

But, OK, we tell one another in our echo chamber that 2023 is the start of a boxing renaissance. Just this past Saturday, we saw Mauricio Lara-Leigh Wood and Luis Nery-Azat Hovhannisyan in hellacious battles that had us on the edges of our seats. We got Plant-Benavidez coming up. Then, Inoue-Fulton. And what about Tank Davis-Ryan Garcia? It looks like we’re getting that, too. 

But, guess what? Take live viewership numbers for Lara-Wood, Nery-Hovhannisyan, Plant-Benavidez, Inoue-Fulton, and Davis-Garcia, then throw in viewer tallies for Josh Taylor-Teofimo Lopez and Eimantas Stanionis-Vergil Ortiz Jr. for good measure...add them all up...and the viewership numbers would still be less than those for David Reid vs. Laurent Boudouani on HBO in 1999. 

If good fights happen, and only the same 100K, 200K, 300K, 400K fans are there to see them, what good does it do boxing? If a tree falls in the forest…

Boxing, at least in America, has a major problem on its hand when it comes to bringing new fans into the fold. With everything stuck behind paywalls-- a self-limiting strategy that began with the emergence of the HBO/Showtime premium cable business model some 40+ years ago-- the sport’s businessmen have completely abandoned the idea of reaching out to make new fans. Instead, the business strategy seems to be centered around squeezing more and more money from loyal fans still clutching at their fandom. 

I don’t entirely blame the businessmen for passing the hat to the fans. They’re facing the reality of being washed away into oblivion if they don’t find a way to meet the purse demands of the fighters and get these guys to the ring. 

More and more, second-tier matchups are being sold as premium events, often because the money just won’t be there for fights the boxers are being told would be blockbusters. For event organizers, it’s better to get their guys into the ring against a “next best” someone, than to try and battle over the economics involved in a true “top” fight. 

Boxing has done this to itself. It was clear from the very beginning, when the sport was first being walled off as exclusive, for-pay content, that the short-term payoff was going to come at the expense of long-term growth. And now we’re starting to see the results of all those years of short-sighted business policy. 

“Most people don't know what the hell's going on,” promoter Lou DiBella told Fighthype’s The Mandatory in a recent interview. “In the old days they’d walk up [to me and say] ‘Fuck, Naseem Hamed, man, that show with Kevin Kelly, that was crazy who’s Hamed gonna fight next? I can't wait for the next big HBO show.’ [Now] No one knows what the fuck is going on…

“Right now, we are not permeating pop culture like we did...We don't have a transcendent superstar in boxing in America. We don't. We have nobody that's a pop culture icon. There is no Ali, there is no Tyson, there's not even a Holyfield, there's not even a De La Hoya. Canelo is Mexican. Gervonta Davis is one of our bigger attractions...[But] he's not doing a million buys or a half-million buys. He's doing more buys than most people. He's on TMZ a lot. He's more transferable to pop culture than a lot of our other fighters...but he's not a superstar.”

If pointing this out makes me (and Lou DiBella) a hater, then so be it.

As a fan, I’m really excited about some of the matchups on the schedule. But I’m already a fan, as are those reading this column. Making us happy, as fans, is nice. We should be rewarded for our loyalty. But these good fights don’t mean a damn thing to anyone other than those relatively few already sold on the product and they don’t mean a damn thing when it comes to growing the sport, making it healthier. What about building a new base? What about adding more fans to the mix, so that advertising, alone, can pay for the fights and fans don’t have to pay for everything, all of the time? What about working to find some way to get boxing-- a sport that’s so prominent in our culture and one which consumers actually do want to find a reason to support-- back into the mainstream again?

The boxing business model has been artificially propped up by newcomers in the streaming age, willing to overpay and operate deep in the red for the right to scoop up some of the last contractually available exclusive sports content. They’ve all witnessed boxing underachieve and fail to turn any sort of substantial profit.

Again, if pointing this out makes me a hater, then so be it. 

In DiBella’s interview with The Mandatory, he talked about the silly notion of Spence-Crawford doing a million buys on pay-per-view. He doubted whether there were a million sports fans in America who even knew “what the fight means or who both guys are.” 

He speaks the sad truth. Viewership numbers pretty much back him up on this. 

A few years back, I was pegged to be a consultant for some businessmen who wanted to test the waters and gauge the possibility of creating a true boxing network. I was tasked with dreaming up a self-sustaining business model and programming strategy for the network. I wrote about it previously, so I’ll just paste what I wrote:

“The goal was to create an ESPN-level network, dedicated fully to boxing, with each major promoter holding a piece of the business. 

So, while Top Rank, for example, would be able to broadcast their own fights (and profit from those fights), they’d also, as part network owners, have a stake in seeing Golden Boy or DiBella succeed (and vice versa, of course). 

I liked this project for many reasons, but the true genius of this boxing network idea was that it forced cooperation towards a common good. In other words, it would’ve been to everyone’s benefit that things ran smoothly and that fights got made. It would flat-out kill, at least to a great degree, the handcuffing business of boxing that keeps some of the biggest fights from getting made. No more promoter vs. promoter wars or network complications due to exclusive deals with specific fighters. Big-time boxing would all be in one place, under one umbrella, maintained by business interests that would need to work together for their mutual benefit.”

It was pie in the sky shit, I admit. I knew better than to believe the idea would go anywhere or that it could be implemented any time soon. But I was paid for ideas, not nuts-and-bolts implementation. It would’ve succeeded if given a real chance, though. And it would’ve come along at just the right time, as more and more loyal fans are being asked to pay more for less and are simply walking away in disgust (or just pirating everything).

But this failed concept does bring up a larger question.

What will it take for boxing businessmen to get to the point where they DO realize that working together is the only way to advance the sport (and make more money for themselves in the long run)? What will it take for them to invest in growth and outreach to rebuild the fan base? 

Maybe a full economic collapse is the only answer. Sometimes you have to destroy the village to save it. 

As a fan, I’m selfish as fuck. I’ll take Inoue-Fulton, Plant-Benavidez, and Tank-Garcia. But I want more. I want good fights every week and I want them free (or as free as possible). The only way to get that is if the sport is at least as healthy as it was 25-30 years ago. 

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