When pound for pound pay-per-view boxing champion Manny Pacquiao stepped out of the ring and into retirement after his April 9 unanimous decision win over Timothy Bradley Jr., so went the second-biggest revenue generator in pay-per-view event history.
Pay-per-view boxing’s all-time revenue generator, Floyd Mayweather, had already hung up his gloves last year. The retirements of PPV boxing’s two top draws leaves the category with huge shoes to fill as it comes off its most-successful year ever — success due largely to the record-setting “Fight of the Century” between Mayweather and Pacquiao on May 2, 2015.
It could be years before another PPV-boxing match rises to match the performance of Mayweather-Pacquiao, which raked in 4.5 million buys and more than $400 million in revenue. But it might take just a few rounds for the sweet science to crown some new champions capable of consistently surpassing the industry’s benchmark of 1 million PPV buys, boxing observers said.
Up-and-coming champions aren’t just getting greater television exposure from traditional boxing outlets like HBO and Showtime. New distribution hubs such as the Premier Boxing Champions series — which airs on NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and Spike TV, among other outlets — are affording exposure to young fighters. And digital media, with its reach and immediacy, can help a fighter quickly build a brand beyond boxing circles.
“There’s always going to be the question of who’s next,” In Demand senior vice president of programming and business development Mark Boccardi said. “It’s a cyclical business and since the late 1990s, there’s always been someone to be that guy or those guys, and within the industry everyone is confident there will be a fighter or fighters who can do that.”
Indeed, after such heavyweights as Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis — as well as lighter-weight fighters like welterweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez — dominated the PPV category in the 1990s, there was a lull before Oscar De La Hoya assumed the mantle in the mid-2000s. Once De La Hoya retired, the stage was set for Mayweather and Pacquiao to rule the PPV event business.
The template for building a PPV fighter has already been established, said Bob Arum, the president of boxing promotion company Top Rank. The key now is to find a fighter or fighters who can follow the game plan.
“It all depends on taking a fighter and putting him in a position where he can attract people to spend money on PPV to watch him fight,” Arum said. “That’s easily said and hard to do.”
Arum, a veteran promoter who worked with Pacquaio and promoted Mayweather in his early boxing years, said that in addition to championship in-ring skills, first and foremost a successful PPV fighter must appeal to as many demographic groups as possible — something both of the aforementioned fighters were able to accomplish over the years.
So who’s closest to stepping into the vaunted PPV ring? The consensus among most boxing observers is that Mexican boxer Canelo Alvarez is poised to make the quickest move to PPV superstar status. The middleweight champion — who’ll fight Amir Kahn in a May 7 HBO-distributed PPV event — has already participated in the third-biggest PPV event of all time: his 2013 fight against Mayweather, which drew 2.2 million PPV buys.
His last fight, in November 2015 against Miguel Cotto, pulled in more than 900,000 buys, according to HBO.
“Clearly, with Canelo, you have a PPV superstar that can transition into the next great era,” Mark Taffet, president of sports marketing/consulting company Mark Taffet Media, said. “The challenge for the sport, in order to create a regular flow of million-buy mega-fights, is to develop a great supporting crew.”
Other up-and-coming fighters like welterweight champion Keith Thurman, junior welterweight champ Terence Crawford, middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, undefeated former super middleweight champion Andre Ward and heavyweight champions Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua have been identified as potential draws either on their own, or pitted against one another in PPV mega-fights.
Top Rank will look to build a July PPV card featuring Crawford, Arum said, while the industry is hoping to schedule at least one fall PPV mega-event, although it’s unclear who would headline it.
STILL BUILDING FANS
But as good as those fighters are — and as well-known as they are within boxing circles — they still have yet to develop the broad, diverse audience they’ll need to win in the PPV arena, according to boxing observers.
“It takes time,” said Tony Paige, a boxing broadcaster and sports-talk host on New York radio station WFAN. “The fighters will have to build themselves up with big fights over time to become big PPV draws. If you get enough big wins, you’re driving the bus, so to speak.”
Some observers said the development of the Premier Boxing Champions series, which showcases current champions and young fighters on live fight cards airing on NBC, CBS, Spike TV, ESPN, NBCSN, CBS Sports Network and FS1 — along with other networks like BET and truTV from time to time — as a step in the right direction.
“The sport is not only in the transition to see who ascends to the mountaintop next, but I think there’s a great opportunity with the quickly changing television landscape and technology to reach out and attract the next generation of fans to support the next generation of fighters,” said Taffet, who most recently served as senior vice president of HBO Sports. “It’s a challenge promoters and networks must readily accept to insure a very fertile environment for the sport going forward.”
But offering fights on too many outlets could actually curtail the ability to create one or two mega-stars, Paige cautioned. “It’s hard to build up interest in one particular fighter when that fighter fights one month on one network and then maybe three months later on another network,” he said. “It’s hard for fans to keep up with the schedule.”
Developing continuity in the sport’s message to the consumers is critical if boxing is to build its next wave of top fighters into PPV superstars, Taffet said. “It’s important for consumers to regularly be in touch with the sport, the athletes and the storylines, so that in their increasingly busy, media-savvy days they can develop the attachment that leads to true fan support on an ongoing basis.”
One way to get a fighter’s brand beyond boxing’s core fan base is via social media. Digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram give promoters, fighters and sponsors a chance to continuously feed fans’ appetites in ways that have yet to be fully exploited, Taffet said.
Added WFAN’s Paige: “If you don’t get beyond your core followers you’re just preaching to the choir. What always makes boxers and boxing successful is when you get a crossover audience of people that don’t have anything to do with boxing, but are interested in the fighter.”
Getting to that point will take a combined eff ort from several corners, according to executives.
“It’s not just as simple as everyone getting together and saying let’s just create someone,” said In Demand’s Boccardi. “It’s a combination of the promoter doing their job and finding the fighters, the networks doing their job and helping to develop them, and the PPV industry doing their job to help promote those fighters.”