Taking Off the Gloves for PPV Bout

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A pay-per-view fight headlined by Oscar De La Hoya sounds like a boxing match made in heaven, but HBO knows that some marketing muscle helps when it comes to packing a knockout punch at the box office.

Last year, HBO set records with its De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather bout — 2.4 million buys and $134 million in pay-per-view revenue — thanks in large part to a multi-city publicity tour, a documentary miniseries, titled 24/7, on the fighters and other promotional efforts. Now HBO and De La Hoya return in what some had thought might be the boxer’s last fight before retiring from the sport. De La Hoya will take on Manny Pacquaio in a Dec. 6 fight that is billed as “The Dream Match.”

“It’s the biggest star in the sport versus the best fighter,” said HBO senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view Mark Taffet. The premium channel, along with partners Golden Boy Promotions (De La Hoya’s own company) and Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions, is staging an all-out blitz to hype the event.

“With destination events, the more ubiquity the better,” said In Demand executive vice president of programming David Asch. “The more tactics across more platforms will create more critical mass.”

“We have an unprecedented marketing effort,” said Arum, adding that “you only can do this level for a mega-event but for these blockbusters this effort is the way of the future.”

Given that last year’s record-setter nearly equaled the entire opening weekend grosses for the hit Batman theatrical film The Dark Knight, Taffet hopes to make this fight into another major event.

“We will make sure that whatever people read, watch or listen to and where ever they eat, shop, work and play, they will learn about this fight,” Taffet said.

“This will rival De La Hoya-Mayweather,” he added, explaining that the last three years have been the biggest and best overall for HBO pay-per-view and that there are now 10 million more homes with PPV access than there were eighteen months ago. “It is all very, very encouraging.”

The publicity campaign kicked off with a six-city tour, with “Dream”-related stops at the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge and NASA’s space center. Both fighters’ camps will provide unprecedented levels of access via regular conference calls, “24/7” episodes and assorted short-form programming of the boxers being interviewed, training, and even playing pool or basketball.

There will be some traditional media publicity — Arum cited a deal with USA Today where “for every ad we buy, we get equivalent editorial on the same page” — but said the emphasis has shifted. “There will be unprecedented use of the Internet to reach a different demographic,” he said.

HBO has agreed to allow Web sites to show the first episode of 24/7 and previous fights of two men. Events like the weigh-in will be streamed live, with distribution not only on HBO’s sites but through Yahoo, AOL, ESPN, and FoxSports.com and some video access syndicated on up to 100 other sites in both English and Spanish. (Boxing generally draws big Latino audiences but particularly when Latino stars and especially when De La Hoya is involved.)

Even more ambitious is HBO’s program on social-networking site Facebook, which Taffet said is a viral attempt to attract a broader, younger demo for this fight — and hopefully for boxing in the future. Facebook members will choose their own nickname and have their face superimposed on a fighter’s body; they will then challenge one of their Facebook friends to a simulated bout, with the winner earning points and going on to fight other friends. The grand prize winner earns a VIP trip to the actual fight.

“This is not something we even gave consideration to last year but we have learned a lot about how to reach new audiences,” Taffet said. (He points out that even the TV ads are aimed at younger demos, starting off as if the Dream Match is a video game fight before saying, “This is no game.”)

Meanwhile, Golden Boy Promotions has been ringing up an unmatched lineup of sponsor activations, including newcomers like Smart Phone and DeWalt Tools and regular partners Tecate Beer and Southwest Airlines. Chief marketing officer Bruce Binkow says that even though this fight has a relatively brief lead-in, both Golden Boy and the sponsors have learned from past experience how to get deeper into markets.

DeWalt Tools (which has worked with NASCAR), is getting “Dream Match” displays prominently placed in 600 Home Depots while Tecate will display the boxers’ faces on eight million cans of beer. “We’re getting great buy-in from stores,” Binkow said. Overall, the sponsors are gearing up for over 60 million impressions from in-store display, billboards, radio spots and email blasts. The sports drink, Full Throttle, which will have a presence at Costco and in Hispanic groceries, along with Tecate, will both offer $20 rebates for the pay-per-view event, which Taffet termed a unique step meant to offset the sputtering economy.

Arum says that if this fight took place a year ago, he’d feel confident that it would break the De La Hoya-Mayweather pay-per-view records, but that in this economy “making any predictions is foolhardy.”

Asch believes that when people are forced to make decisions on spending with reduced disposable income a “magnet event” like this one will suffer less than ones without two major stars. “This cuts through the clutter.”

Taffet says that no matter what, he wouldn’t want to burden this fight with that level of expectations but that without putting hard numbers on it he remains confident that this will help operators meet their yearly budget and “be the event of the year.”

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