By Thomas Gerbasi
Brett Yormark is a confident man. Someone doesn’t get to where he has as CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment without that trait. But as he watched the first boxing event at Barclays Center, headlined by the Danny Garcia vs. Erik Morales title fight on Oct. 20, 2012, he didn’t know what the future held for the sweet science in this new building.
“You hope for the best,” he chuckled. And he got it as he prepares for the 25th pro boxing event in Barclays Center this Saturday, one headlined by Deontay Wilder’s heavyweight title defense against Bermane Stiverne. It’s been a good run - for Yormark, for the arena, for Brooklyn, and perhaps most importantly, for the sport.
You don’t hear too much about venues being a major part in a sport’s ability to stay on the radar of fans outside of the hardcore. The StubHub Center in Carson, California immediately comes to mind as a place that has become synonymous with boxing. But as boxing has had one of its best years in recent history in 2017, Barclays has been a significant player, delivering major fights like James DeGale-Badou Jack, Keith Thurman-Garcia, the recent junior middleweight title tripleheader, and this weekend’s return of Wilder.
But it all started in 2012 with the commitment of Yormark to take the sport in as one of his building’s franchises and not just a one and done enterprise. It was a unique approach, but one he felt strongly about as soon as the venue opened.
“I was a fan as a kid and I used to go to Atlantic City for some of the fights with my twin brother and we were both pretty big boxing fans,” he said. “And then coming to Brooklyn, knowing that we had to fill out the calendar of events, effectively, I thought boxing made a lot of sense. And my ownership was a hundred percent aligned with my thinking and were committed to making the right investments in order to establish something for the future.”
The future. That was the difference between what Yormark envisioned and what most venues do, and it all started with the local fighters that saw this new building as an opportunity to finally fight at home. Not in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn.
“We befriended some of the fighters early, even before we had a ring in Brooklyn, and we became friendly with Paulie (Malignaggi), and then Danny Jacobs and Luis Collazo and Peter Quillin,” he said. “And we knew we had something going because there were fighters in Brooklyn that wanted a home. So I sensed early on that we had a chance, but you never know how these things ultimately play out.”
The Brooklynites, most of which were already established, got their time to fight at home in headlining or featured bouts, but it was also a place for younger fighters to make their bones and build their careers a couple subway stops away from their homes. Some up and comers have fought most of their fights at Barclays, building a following to go with the family and friends that already cheer them on. And when it comes time for them to step up, there will be no place they will want to fight in more than their home arena.
“Early on, one of the goals that we had was for people to aspire to one day fight in our building,” Yormark said. “I look at that in two ways: Someone aspiring to fight there for the first time in front of their family and friends and using that as a catalyst to grow their career. And then I see in phase two that not only getting rooted in our building, but getting to the point where you’re ready to headline a card and take the platform and utilize it in a way to catapult your career. I look at Danny Jacobs as an example of that.”
Jacobs’ first fight after beating cancer was on Barclays’ first card in 2012, and he would beat Keenan Collins, Jarrod Fletcher, Sergio Mora and Quillin in the venue, building his name and becoming the face of the Brooklyn Boxing brand that is another part of Yormark’s vision. And despite the fact that everything is centered on the borough, that hasn’t stopped out of towners from wanting to make the trip to fight there.
“Just like artists choose what venue they want to play in, fighters also weigh in as well,” Yormark said. “And they feel comfortable in our building. But beyond our commitment to the sport, we’ve made a substantial commitment to the fighters and the fight community. When fighters come to our building, whether they’re there just to be a fan or they’re there to fight, I think the hospitality and respect we show them and the approach we take is significantly different than any other venue in the country. I personally greet them and host them and create a hospitality room where they can come in and really feel like any other sports celebrity.”
And hey, it is New York City, which is never a bad selling point.
“When they come into New York and it’s fight week and they’re competing, we’re going to give them the biggest platform possible. And it’s a platform that goes beyond the traditional. I’m not saying anything negative here, but it goes beyond the sports media that covers the sport. We’re going to deliver them and their personalities to the biggest and widest audience possible. Our goal there is to help them build their brand, their image and give them the biggest voice possible, and I think they appreciate that too.”
That’s a lot of growth in just five years, and it’s taken a city that looked like it was going to lose boxing due to changes in the NYSAC’s insurance rules and made it a major destination again. And unlike 2012, Yormark isn’t just hoping for the best; he’s expecting that things will only get better.
“I think we’ve got a great future,” he said. “We’ve certainly built a foundation in our first five years, and we’ve helped to nurture the careers of some of these great fighters that are only reaching their peak now. Even though this year has been the best year we’ve ever had, I truly believe next year is going to be better.”
So what’s the secret? Yormark believes he took some gambles that hit big.
“I think in some respects I befriended the right people in the sport and those people have been loyal to me,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve alienated others, but that’s okay. My building’s an open room, we’ll work with anyone, but it’s no secret that we’ve worked with a couple people more so than others, and in general, you’ve got to bet on people and I made some bets and they’ve paid off nicely for us as we’ve been able to build the Brooklyn Boxing brand.”
He’s also uninterested in sitting on his laurels and keeping the status quo. So despite the success over the last five years, Yormark wants to keep tweaking things until they’re perfect. That begins with quality over quantity when it comes to the cards hitting the building.
“We’ve learned a lot,” he said. “When we first started, it was probably a little bit more about volume and variety. Not so much how many great fights do we have, but I think it was more about how many fights can we have annually. Then I realized managing our arena that people want the big event business. They want to attend moments that are important, events that are significant, that mean something. So when you now look at how we schedule our fights, it’s five to seven big fights a year, fights that have significance both nationally and locally, fights that have fighters that are both nationally acclaimed and those that are up and comers, and in combination it makes for a big event.”
None has been bigger than Thurman vs. Garcia in March, and if Yormark has his way, there will be more of those to come.
“That Garcia-Thurman fight was a big moment for me because I finally was able to say we’ve arrived,” he said. “It showed me the possibilities and how far we’ve come, but I live in a world where I’m happy but never satisfied. That gave me a taste of what it could be like, and I want it to be like that every night.”