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Boxing Grinds To a Halt: The Present, The Past, and The Future

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Boxing, like all live spectator sports, relies on the here and now for revenue. If fights don't happen, people don't get paid.

In recent weeks, boxing has ground to a halt. Fighters, trainers, managers, promoters, arena personnel, and others down the line are out of work. Even the sanctioning bodies (which are accustomed to win-win propositions) are losing money. The sanctioning-fee spigot has been turned off and their 2020 conventions (if they occur at all) are unlikely to turn a profit.

The coronavirus pandemic has been compared to the 1918 "Spanish flu." For society at large, that's an apt comparison. But sports in 1918 were nothing close to the national obsession and money-making machine that they would become in the "Roaring Twenties" and are today. Some high school and college football games were cancelled in 1918, and the Stanley Cup finals ended midway through the series after a contingent of players on the Montreal Canadiens roster fell ill. But boxing was largely unaffected.

October, November, and December were the worst months of the 1918 pandemic. The sweet science was somewhat curtailed during that time. BoxRec.com reports that Harry Greb fought 22 times between January 4 and September 21, 1918, but not at all during the rest of the year. Benny Leonard fought 12 times between between April 8 and September 23 but not again until 1919. Jack Dempsey, who fought 21 times in 1918, took an 8-week hiatus from the ring toward the end of the year. But club fights carried on.

World War II also had an impact on boxing. More than 4,000 active professional fighters served in the United States military during the conflict. Many of them were forever denied their chance for ring glory. They came out of the war with their bodies broken or didn't come home at all.

Joe Louis enlisted in the United States Army in 1942. Rather than assign him to active combat, the Army placed him in Special Services, a role in which he participated in close to one hundred boxing exhibitions. There were no "champions in recess" or "champions emeritus" in those days. The Brown Bomber's championship was frozen for the duration of the war. He defended his title on March 27, 1942, and not again until June 9, 1946.

Active fighters who served in the military during World War II included Ezzard Charles, Joey Maxim, Billy Conn, Gus Lesnevich, Fred Apostoli, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Marty Servo, and Tony Zale. Each of them was a world champion at one time or another during his ring career.

Meanwhile, during the war, boxing went on. Fight cards were filled by fighters who were too old or too young to serve in the military, had physical conditions that disqualified them from military service, or were otherwise ineligible to serve. Madison Square Garden (the Mecca of Boxing) was often reduced to featuring club-level fighters in main events.

It's too early to predict with certainty how boxing will come back from the current crisis. We don't know how severe the pandemic will be or how long it will last. But the sweet science will face strong headwinds when it returns.

Baseball was boxing's only competition as a national sport after the 1918 pandemic and World War II. Now boxing is a niche sport. When arenas reopen, it will be competing with other sports for dates. Teams with season ticketholders will have first dibs on arenas. Concert tours will be rebooked.

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In recent years, the live gate has diminished in importance as a factor in the economics of boxing in the United States. But it's still a significant revenue stream.

What will happen to live attendance for sports in general when our games resume? Will people want to sit in close proximity to 5,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 other fans to watch a game? How will they feel about standing on long lines before putting their smartphones in dirty plastic bins and walking through metal detectors? Will they feel comfortable lining up at concession stands? Will the average fan have enough discretionary income to buy tickets? Will corporations still pay big dollars for luxury suites?

There has been talk of fights without spectators. But that would put the fighters' camps, state athletic commission employees, TV personnel, and others at risk. Given the proximity within which these people work, many of them would have to be tested for COVID-19 prior to the weigh-in for every fight.

And unique to boxing - suppose a fighter is seriously hurt. Transporting him to an emergency room would be complicated by coronavirus precautions. And what would happen once the fighter is there? Emergency rooms are already overcrowded and not functioning as they should.

After 9/11, the norms changed.  For example, airport security was never the same again. There will be new protocols for sports. We just don't know yet what they will be.

Boxing will have a more difficult row to hoe than many sports. There are no season-ticket packages in boxing. Each fight has to be sold on its own merits.

How long will it be before people feel comfortable getting on a plane, flying to Las Vegas, hanging out in a casino, and going into an arena with 16,000 other fans to watch a fight? When the reboot comes, will insurance companies deny coverage for certain eventualities that have been previously covered?

It's unlikely that arenas will be full again until there's an effective vaccine to combat COVID-19. This means that the live gate for fights will be adversely affected for the foreseeable future.

Also, major sports have an institutional framework that will help them recover once the crisis has passed. Weaker entities will be helped by their affiliation with stronger ones. But not in boxing.

People in the boxing community might say, "We're all in this together." But some boxing people who are mired in quicksand will climb onto the backs of others and trample them down to save themselves.

By and large, the major promoters in boxing don't cooperate with each other. The television networks and streaming video services don't help each other out. Adam Silver can guide the NBA as a unified entity. Who will guide boxing in this time of crisis?

Right now, the money to underwrite boxing in the United States comes primarily from ESPN, FOX, DAZN, and Showtime. Boxing on television and streaming video will rebound before live gates do. But as part of this process, network-promoter contracts will be reinterpreted and adjusted.

Most contracts have a "force majeure" clause that relieves the parties of certain obligations in the event that unforeseeable circumstances intervene on a grand scale. Wthout knowing more about how the various network-promoter contracts for boxing are written, it's impossible to know with certainty how they'll be affected by the coronavirus. In all likelihood, most of them have already been temporarily suspended and will be extended by the duration of the suspension. But there might be exceptions.

Will the advertisers come back? Viewers will still be buying beer. But chances are that they'll buy fewer automobiles.

Meanwhile, just as ESPN, FOX, DAZN, and Showtime have contractual obligations to promoters (and vice versa), promoters have contractual obligations to their fighters. Many promoter-fighter contracts will also be affected by "force majeure" clauses.

Right now, the fighters are in a bad place. It's hard to train when gyms are closed. And in many areas of the country - especially cities - they're closed. Fights have to be planned in advance, but that's impossible today because no one knows when circumstances will allow for fights. Moreover, the bubble in license fees and purses occasioned by DAZN's entry into the marketplace is about to burst. For the foreseeable future, there will be fewer fights and, most likely, smaller purses.

There's a school of thought that pay-per-view fights might benefit from the coronavirus crisis because they're safe stay-at-home entertainment. But many Americans will be hurting financially. The Hispanic market - the most reliable component of boxing's pay-per-view base - has been particularly hard hit.

People will be struggling to pay for essentials like food, rent, and medical care. For many, shelling out $79.95 for a fight won't make sense. Promoters will wax eloquent about "giving a gift to the fans" and cutting the price of a PPV to $44.95. But that's not likely to convince people who have lost their jobs and seen their saving dwindle to pay up. They'll have more important things to worry about than fistfights.

Moreover, Wilder-Fury II demonstrated that boxing's pay-per-view model is in trouble. Forget Bob Arum's prediction of two million buys. Very few people in the industry took that seriously. But ESPN and FOX put more resources into promoting that event than had been put into promoting any pay-per-view fight ever. The promotion needed roughly 1.2 million buys in the United States to break even. And the number wound up between 800,000 and 850,000.

The balance of power at the promotional level in boxing is likely to tilt further in favor of the haves over the have nots in the year ahead. Many small and mid-level promoters who are already being squeezed might not survive. Most of them don't have TV contracts for their shows and are almost wholly dependent upon the live gate.

Also, large promoters have libraries that they can monetize to cushion the coronavirus blow. Top Rank already has a deal in place to exploit its library on ESPN platforms. Don King Productions and Main Events (both of which have seen their clout in the boxing industry fade) can offer similar content. The Golden Boy and Premier Boxing Champions libraries have value. Small promoters don't have that asset.

DAZN is in an unusual position.

People are likely to spend more time at home watching television in the foreseeable future than they did before. FOX and Showtime have a huge amount of non-sports content that will continue to attract viewers. ESPN has seen a significant drop in ratings because of the absence of live sports. But the network still has a great deal of content - archival and otherwise - of interest to sports fans.

DAZN's ultimate goal is to become the dominant player worldwide in digital sports media. But because it's still in a start-up stage, it has very little inventory. And there are few live sports events that it can stream now.

DAZN has delayed the launch of its worldwide English-language app which had been planned to coincide with Canelo Alvarez's now-aborted May 2 fight against Billy Joe Saunders.

Looking forward, it's hard to imagine DAZN's subscription base in the United States not plummeting while combat sports are shut down.

Now would be a good time for DAZN to rethink its business model in America. It might continue on its present course. It might reorganize and cut its budget. Or at the far end of the spectrum, it could terminate operations in the United States. As long as Len Blavatnik (whose net worth was reported by the Bloomberg Index last year as approximately $25 billion) remains committed to DAZN, this latter eventuality won't occur. But who knows how Blavatnik's net worth has fared during the past month? He might be investing his billions more cautiously now.

Ironically, the coronavirus could turn out to be economically beneficial for DAZN. During the past two years, DAZN has driven the rise in fighter purses and license fees for boxing to cost-inefficient levels. From its inception on, its monthly expenditures for licensing and marketing in the United States have far exceeded its revenue. Thus, in the short run, DAZN is saving money as a consequence of the boxing shutdown. At the very least, it will have more cash on hand than would otherwise have been the case when boxing resumes.

Also, if the current shutdown leads to Canelo Alvarez fighting Gennady Golovkin in September without an interim fight for either man, that will be a plus for DAZN.

Boxing fans hope that the country is going through what will be a relatively short period of economic and social disruption and that sports will soon return. An optimist might even say that this is an opportunity for the sweet science to reinvent itself. But a successful reset for boxing will require forceful knowledgeable executives at the television networks and DAZN.

When fight programming resumes, what level of quality control will the networks enforce? Will match-ups be better, worse, or the same as before? Will elite fighters be willing to go in tough? Will fighters and promoters take greater risks for the big score (which, with a few exceptions, won't be as big as it would have been before)?

Tyson Fury vs. Anthony Joshua could jump-start boxing in the United Kingdom. But Fury-Joshua, if it happens during the next year, is likely to take place in Saudi Arabia before a small elite audience with the Saudi government paying a huge site fee as part of its "sportswashing" campaign and footing the bill for Deontay Wilder to step aside. That would make a few rich people richer, but it wouldn't help boxing. It would be like the NFL saying, "We're canceling most of our 2020-2021 season and then playing the Super Bowl in Riyadh."

It's a pipedream to think that boxing or anything else will return to "normal" soon. The restoration of normalcy will be a long slow process. No one knows how long it will take or what the new normal will be. Boxing could start up again and then have to shut down once more. All of us will be in danger until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. And then we'll wonder when the next pandemic might come.

Meanwhile, let's get our priorities in order. Health is #1. Restoration of the economy is #2. The fate of boxing is far down the ladder.

Thomas Hauser's email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored him with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. On June 14, 2020, Hauser will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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User Comments and Feedback
Comment by Dasmius Shinobi on 03-31-2020

Tremendous informative article and one that scare one for the unknowns future.:boxing:

Comment by Marcov on 03-30-2020

Strange times!!

Comment by Mick Higgs on 03-30-2020

So yet another pro USA article. There was actually boxing all over the British Empire just after WW1, but yet again it's all about the good ole USofA!!

Comment by OctoberRed on 03-29-2020

I probably won't be going to any live shows any time soon, until a vaccine comes about.

Comment by 57Blues on 03-29-2020

Like everything else right now it is all speculation. Not that speculating can not be nice to do when sport is on hold. Good read though. I still feel that the big boys MLB NBA NFL all have lots of…

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