While Lennox Lewis looked impressive in retaining his heavyweight championship last week, he was no match for the World Wrestling Federation's "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in the pay-per-view ring.
Buy-rates for the WWF's April 30 Backlash PPV event trounced TVKO's April 29 Lewis-Michael Grant heavyweight-championship fight, clearly establishing wrestling as the engine that currently drives the PPV business.
Operators reported that the WWF generated between 625,000 and 725,000 buys and more than $19 million in revenue for Backlash, which featured the return of popular wrestler Austin.
"To have another major WWF wresting event right on top of WrestleMania was challenging for both the WWF and operators, but it proved successful," Team Services president Bonnie Werth said. Team handles marketing and promotion for the WWF.
Werth added that a last-minute promotional alert about Austin's return helped operators to prepare for a higher-than-anticipated number of orders for the event.
Buys for Backlash easily bested the 380,000 buys TVKO said were generated by the Lewis-Grant fight, although operators placed the number at closer to 325,000.
TVKO senior vice president Mark Taffet said the fight met expectations, given the competitive sports marketplace surrounding the event.
"In light of the highly competitive sports schedule, with Major League Baseball and the [National Basketball Association] playoffs, as well as the relatively low exposure for Michael Grant, the fight performed within our expectations," Taffet said. "With the significant efforts by the industry to market and promote the event, we were able to maximize revenue."
One Northern California system executive said she was surprised by the performance of the WWF event, which more than doubled the buys for the bout.
"We thought we would do much better with the Lewis-Grant fight because there was so much national promotion for the event," the operator executive said. "Meanwhile, we were very surprised with the results of the WWF event. Wrestling is getting more and more popular."
Another East Coast operator executive who wished to remain anonymous said Backlash outperformed buys for Lewis-Grant by an astounding 4-to-1. "I didn't expect the WWF to perform as well, especially since WrestleMania was only three weeks ago," the executive said.
PPV executives attributed the WWF's PPV success to aggressive marketing and branding, as well as to its consistency in delivering PPV events.
Boxing, meanwhile, runs hot and cold. With the exception of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Oscar De La Hoya, the sport hasn't developed any marquee fighters that can garner significant PPV buy-rates.
"Wrestling is providing consistent revenue for operators-something boxing hasn't been able to do lately, either because fights have been canceled or deals have fallen through for the big events," Prime Cable of Chicago vice president of sales and marketing Michael Woods said. The system generated three times as many buys for Backlash as it did for Lewis-Grant.
The two events together, however, provided the industry with a much-needed payday in the PPV-event category, which has seen very few blockbuster events this year.
In fact, with Backlash's more-than-$19 million take-combined with 800,000 buys and more than $30 million from its April 2 WrestleMania 2000 event-the WWF in one month nearly matched the $61 million in PPV revenue the industry garnered for the first quarter.
"The two events met our expectations and kicked off a good second quarter for PPV events," In Demand vice president of programming, development and event acquisition Dan York said. "We look forward to the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley fight in June and to more events in the second half of the year."
But while the WWF will continue to provide one PPV event per month, it's unclear when heavyweight champion Lewis will fight again on PPV. Home Box Office will televise Lewis' July 15 fight, most likely against Frans Botha, Taffet said.
Beyond that, Taffet added, Lewis could fight again on PPV in the fall, possibly against top contender David Tua. But with few compelling up-and-coming contenders in the division, it is conceivable that Lewis might not fight again on PPV until next year.
The most lucrative PPV event for Lewis would be a bout against Tyson. But the former heavyweight champion is still working his way into shape with a number of bouts overseas.
Tyson's next fight, against Lou Savarese, was initially scheduled for PPV in March. It has been pushed back to June, and it will run on the Showtime pay TV network.