Who said boxing is dead?
The sport, which many sports writers and observers left for dead amidst the surging popularity of mixed martial arts events, is alive and punching after the record-breaking pay-per-view performance of HBO’s May 12 Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight.
But it remains to be seen whether the sport can ride on the coattails of De La Hoya-Mayweather to generate similar blockbuster performances in the future. With the exception of a possible rematch between the two fighters, it’s unclear — given the dearth of marquee fighters — when the industry will see its next 1 million to 2 million buy fight.
The fight, in which the undefeated Mayweather won a close decision over the popular De La Hoya, became the undisputed PPV champion by garnering 2.15 million buys and $120 million in revenue. Those figures knocked out previous highs of 1.99 million for the 1997 Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson rematch and $106 million for the 2002 Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight, respectively.
“It’s a number I didn’t even dream of in my sleep, much less contemplate while I’m awake,” said HBO Sports senior vice president of sports operations Mark Taffet. “There’s nothing like a big fight when it comes to an exciting event for consumers.”
The fight was backed by nearly $100 million in marketing and promotional support, including HBO’s miniseries De La Hoya-Mayweather 24/7. Taffet believes that the marketing support, as well as the fight itself exposed boxing to a new legion of casual sports fans that he hopes will come back and support future PPV boxing matches.
“We brought so many new fans to the table that as long as we continue to provide exciting competitive matchups where the best fights the best, I believe the momentum will be carried forward,” Taffet said.
But how far forward is the question. The sport, which ruled the PPV category in the late 1990’s with marquee fighters such as Holyfield, Tyson, George Foreman and Julio Cesar Chavez, hadn’t broken the 1 million buy mark since Lewis-Tyson five years ago. In fact, outside of De La Hoya fights, few PPV boxing events have even drawn 500,000 buys.
The sport is also facing competition from mixed-martial arts, led by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as well as from World Wrestling Entertainment. Both offer monthly PPV events that regularly draw between 300,000 and 600,000 buys.
Boxing, mostly through HBO Sports, averaged around 425,000 buys in 2006. While fighters like former junior lightweight champion Erik Morales, former welterweight champion Shane Mosley and current division champion Miguel Cotto all have strong followings and have performed well on PPV, none of them have the crossover appeal to draw in the causal fans necessary to generate 1 million PPV buys.
“The million-buy mark is still the gold standard in the industry and any fight that does north of that has to be considered really special,” said In Demand Networks CEO Rob Jacobson. “I hope it doesn’t take another five years to reach that pinnacle.”
Neither HBO Sports’ June 9 Miguel Cotto-Zab Judah welterweight fight or its July 21 Bernard Hopkins-Winky Wright middleweight event are expected to hit the mark. While both fights appeal to boxing fans and should generate a six-figure buy, neither fighter has ever been involved in an event that generated 1 million buys.
In fact, boxing observers say there are no marquee fights on the horizon that could match the appeal of De La Hoya-Mayweather — except possibly a rematch.
But Taffet said the network isn’t planning De La Hoya-Mayweather II yet. “We’ll let the dust settle for a few weeks and then will focus on the future,” he said.
Both fighters are contemplating retirement, but Mayweather late last week told the New York Post he would consider fighting De La Hoya, Mosley, Wright, Cotto or Felix Trinidad in the future.
Veteran boxing writer and WFAN New York radio host Tony Paige said boxing has a future beyond De La Hoya-Mayweather with viewers and advertisers if promoters can bring quality fights to the table and get behind those fights with heavy marketing and promotion.
“You build it and they will come,” said Paige.