Early this year, when the real people who run professional boxing — the various head honchos of the television networks that purchase and promote the pay-per-view fights — took a look at the past couple of years, their optimism for 2005 was tepid at best. Think stagnant marriage.
The cash cow of PPV, Oscar De La Hoya, was talking about fighting once in 2005, but he won’t fight again until 2006. Former heavyweight champs Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield were done. And ex-champ Mike Tyson — though he would fight again this year — was overdone.
Yet midway through the year, boxing and PPV are in the midst of a dramatic run of high-profile fights and better-than-average buy-rates. Think anniversary cruise with all the trimmings: the couple happily in love again and the kids nowhere in sight.
So what happened?
“It’s because great matchups are being delivered month after month,” says Mark Taffet, senior vice president of sports operations at Home Box Office Sports. “It’s that simple. It’s now in vogue for the great fighters to fight great fighters. When the best fight is the best, there is no loser.”
PPV BOXING’S HEYDAY
Such was the case in PPV boxing’s heyday of the late 1990s, when it seemed every major boxing match drew close to 1 million buys and $50 million to $100 million in revenue.
But with the decline of Tyson, arguably the biggest PPV draw ever, De La Hoya and Holyfield, boxing has failed to again achieve the buy and PPV heights of last decade. With the exception of the Lewis-Tyson fight in 2002 — the most lucrative fight in PPV history — no fight in the millennium ranks among the top 10 highest-grossing PPV boxing matches of all time. In fact, very few bouts have even registered more than 300,000 buys over the last four years.
Industry observers note that the problem was compounded when MSO marketing and promotional dollars shifted from PPV to other services such as video-on-demand, broadband and HDTV content.
Yet network executives say the category has picked itself off the canvas this year with a series of competitive boxing matches that have generated unexpected results. In March, HBO PPV featured one of the year’s best fights, between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao, and registered 350,000 buys. A month later, it usurped that performance with an even bigger return for its Felix Trinidad-Winky Wright fight (510,000 buys).
Even HBO’s June 25 Arturo Gatti-Floyd Mayweather Jr. junior-welterweight title fight generated 350,000 buys, even though neither fighter had ever appeared on PPV before.
HBO isn’t the only company enjoying PPV boxing’s renaissance. Last April saw ESPN join the PPV fray with 150,000 buys, featuring a tripleheader with heavyweights Calvin Brock vs. Jameel McCline, welterweights Sugar Shane Mosley vs. David Estrada and a junior-welterweight title bout between Antonio Margarito and Kermit Cintron. And even Mike Tyson’s career-ending loss to Kevin McBride in June did 250,000 buys for Showtime’s PPV arm.
Even though a number of the strong-performing PPV fights didn’t feature a major marquee draw, In Demand director of event programming Marshall Zelaznik says the matchups made the shows appealing.
“If you have no marquee name for a PPV show, then you better bring the good matchups.”
Industry executives say a better lineup of competitive matches has helped.
“It’s been the matchups and the willingness of fighters to take on the tough fights, and we’ve have some fortunate breaks with the right people winning,” says Ken Hershman, senior vice president and general manager of sports and event programming at Showtime.
“Overall, the quality of boxing generally has gotten better,” says DirecTV Inc. senior vice president of programming and acquisitions Michael Thornton. “More and more competitive matches bring more people back to the sport with more credibility.
“The consumer has gotten pretty smart; you can’t throw [a fight] out there and fool someone because it’s on PPV or by charging 40 bucks.”
Adds New York Daily News boxing writer Tim Smith: “What happened is the industry has finally adjusted itself. The public has wised up and has rejected the [bad] fights.”
That may account for a new attitude among at least some of the networks themselves. Hershman notes that he wants all networks, even his rivals, to push the PPV envelope.
“We also want HBO to do better; and we have to do better, and I wasn’t afraid of ESPN getting into the PPV business,” he says. After all, more competition leads to more PPV buys.
FUTURE LOOKS STRONG
The second half of 2005 also has competitive bouts on the horizon. On July 16, HBO presented middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins against rising star Jermain Taylor. And it will feature a Sept. 17 fight between Barrera and contender Robbie Peden.
Showtime will return to the squared circle this fall with a rematch of a junior-lightweight bout between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo. The two fought a grueling bout last March in what most boxing observers believe is the fight of the year.
The intriguing part about the PPV resurgence is that the fights generating the most buys aren’t in the prestigious heavyweight division. But with no marquee heavyweight champion or contender, industry executives are mining the lower-weight classes for the new PPV stars.
“People want to see action,” states In Demand’s Zelaznik. “There is no oxygen in the heavyweight division. The lower weights have more action.”
Without the heavyweights, boxing and PPV have a gathering of potential matchups that the fans — hard-core or casual — are likely to purchase. The list includes Barrera, Corrales, De La Hoya, junior-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, Hopkins, welterweight champ Zab Judah, Margarito, Mayweather Jr., Morales, Mosley, Pacquiao and Wright, to name a few.
“The smaller weight classes are not doing million-dollar buys,” says Dan Rafael, boxing writer for ESPN.com, “but they are still doing good business.”
This “good business” keeps the boxing marriage alive and vibrant. “We are cautiously optimistic about boxing,” adds In Demand’s Zelaznik. “I think it’s out of intensive care.”
Left hook anyone?