by David P. Greisman
Boxing promoters serve multiple masters beyond the preeminent goal of profit.
They must also cater to their fighters, who want to fight and want fame and fortune to come from doing so.
They must collaborate with the television networks, which sometimes want to create stars who will raise ratings and drive lucrative pay-per-view broadcasts, and other times want to ensure that they are getting the best bouts for the prices paid.
And they must appease the fans, who want to see good fights and their favorite fighters and who want to be able to afford the pleasure.
Except promoters don’t always cater to the fans. So while the ideal promotion will gratify these many masters, more often the major boxing promoters will take shortcuts. They need not navigate the needs of so many so long as they can still fulfill the top priority – the bottom line.
That is why the most important fights are placed on pay-per-view, where they will produce bigger paydays but are available to smaller audiences.
That is why less important fights are also placed on pay-per-view, where a niche audience will subsidize a boxer’s contractual minimum but will do little to grow the boxer’s popularity.
That is why promoters will protect their investment, carefully selecting whom their best fighters face, often making matches between two fighters they already have under contract, and, as a consequence, limiting how often the best fighters face each other.
And that is why we should appreciate that Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander are facing each other this Saturday.
Bradley and Alexander are two of the three best fighters in the junior-welterweight division. Each had talked about the other throughout 2010, and there had been talks throughout 2010 about them fighting.
That Bradley and Alexander finally came to terms toward the end of the year meant that fans finally had a date – Jan. 29, 2011 – when they could see a fight they much desired, both because of the fighters’ statuses and because of their styles.
Also, what is a big fight – and what could be a great fight – is being aired on HBO rather than on pay-per-view.
But though we should appreciate Bradley-Alexander, we must also criticize it:
Making great fights is only half the battle. The other half is marketing it.
In this case, Bradley-Alexander has been marketed poorly.
Depending on the source, as of Jan. 13, the fight had only sold 339 tickets (an anonymous tipster told Michael Marley of Examiner.com/BoxingScene.com), or it had sold “more than 2,000 tickets” as of Jan. 14 (unnamed folks told Dan Rafael of ESPN.com).
Those are tremendously low numbers for a fight between two top fighters in a large urban metropolitan area – the fight is taking place in the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., about half an hour north of Detroit – at a venue that has seen very few major boxing cards of late.
The arena’s general manager told Bob Velin of USA Today that they expected most of the tickets to be sold to walk-up traffic, that they were seating the tremendously sized football stadium to seat as many as 19,000, that they were only expecting 5,000 to 6,000 tickets to be sold ahead of time.
If what Michael Marley and Dan Rafael were told is true, then the fight will be fortunate just to have 5,000 to 6,000 paying customers total, not including the “papering” of the Silverdome via attendees receiving free tickets.
The fight’s promoters – Don King and Gary Shaw – say the numbers won’t matter.
“The ticket sales will not determine the greatness of this fight,” King said last week on a conference call promoting the fight. “The fight is on, and we got Alexander meeting Bradley. That’s what you should be writing about, in my humble opinion: the greatness of this fight.”
“The fight is bigger than the site,” Shaw said on the conference call.
Alexander is from St. Louis and is able to sell tickets there. Bradley is from Southern California and has not proven his ability to draw a crowd there.
This fight is taking place outside of Detroit because it is a neutral site for two boxers cautious of any advantage in fighting in his opponent’s hometown – especially hometown judging.
This fight is able to take place in a neutral site because the fighters’ purses are being paid for by a license fee of $2.7 million (as previously reported by Boxingscene.com Director of Operations Rick Reeno) and by a site fee from the Silverdome (about $600,000, according to Rafael).
This fight doesn’t need to be promoted. The promoters are profiting. The fighters are getting paid. HBO is getting a big fight between top fighters – and so are the fans.
The fans watching on television, that is. They are the target audience. Great fights might as well take place in empty arenas. They basically have.
“I put on the greatest fight of the decade,” Shaw said, referring to the 2005 war between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo. “We didn’t sell even 2,000 tickets. I never heard anyone say that it wasn’t a fight that was extraordinary.”
Bob Arum of Top Rank isn’t involved with Bradley-Alexander, but he also spoke recently with Fightnews.com on the topic of small crowds for big fights. Arum pointed out that a 1979 card featuring Sugar Ray Leonard against Wilfred Benitez (and, on the undercard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler against Vito Antuofermo) only had about 4,200 people in the crowd in Las Vegas.
But, as Arum said, that fight was featured on a broadcast network (on ABC). Even with a smaller crowd in the stands, there would be a sizable viewing audience watching on their television screens.
Bradley and Alexander fight at a time when the viewing audience is more fragmented, divided between hundreds of channels, video games and the Internet, and when boxing’s move from broadcast television to premium cable networks has coincided with the sweet science becoming a niche sport.
There are fewer American stars, and there are more world titles to confuse the casual boxing fans. Bradley and Alexander are top fighters. But they are far from stars.
The way in which fights are marketed tends to follow the same formula: the parading of the fighters in front of the boxing media via press conferences and conference calls and news releases and website articles (that reach an audience that already knows about the fight) and, if they’re lucky, quality attention from the local newspapers.
Rare is the crossover appeal: Manny Pacquiao on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on ABC and “60 Minutes” on CBS; Antonio Tarver on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno on NBC; Oscar De La Hoya or Shane Mosley on “Lopez Tonight” on TBS.
Evander Holyfield, at 48, had enough cache left that he was interviewed last week on a New York television station’s morning show ahead of an inconsequential fight against Sherman Williams.
World Wrestling Entertainment has a built in fan base when it tours the country, drawing on the millions who watch its weekly programming. And yet its personalities do interviews with newspapers and radio stations and television stations, fitting in those duties despite an exhausting schedule of travel and working out and preparing for their shows.
Boxing enthusiasts settle for being overjoyed when a knockout is shown on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
That was about as much mainstream attention as Sergio Martinez’s stunning one-punch knockout of Paul Williams received. There were no appearances on Leno (as with Antonio Tarver following his knockout of Roy Jones Jr.) and no capitalizing on Martinez’s good looks by connecting with TMZ and the other tabloids.
An additional publicist was brought on board. A press conference was held in Las Vegas in front of the usual boxing media.
Martinez' next fight is being held five days ahead of St. Patrick's Day. It originally had a supporting undercard bout putting two Irish fighters, Andy Lee and John Duddy, against each other – a wise decision that would have helped sell tickets. Duddy has since abruptly retired, and Craig McEwan of Scotland is said to be taking his place.
There isn’t much else that can be done at this stage of Martinez’s career to make him a bona fide draw. He is a 35-year-old from Argentina who will earn his money from the license fees that HBO is willing to pay for the skilled middleweight champion.
As for Bradley and Alexander – the fighters deserve better.
They deserve a packed house of cheering fans, not a cavernous stadium of people who don’t have an emotional investment in the fighters or the outcome. A great arena crowd, especially one brought in either by a local draw or through ethnic ties to a fighter, also makes for a great broadcast feel.
If their promotion relied on ticket sales, then a larger crowd could create more fans who would be willing to come to more shows.
It could create more fans who would tune into boxing on television and, potentially, on pay-per-view.
It could create more fans who would support the fighters so that their promoters need not rely on license fees and site fees.
It could create enough interest so that the networks and the arenas would feel like they are getting their money’s worth – rather than watching the promoters cash out on the promotion and check out on actually promoting.
The 10 Count will return next week.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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