By Terence Dooley
When analysing Sky’s resolution to ditch PPVs for the time being some asked if Frank Warren’s decision to move Amir Khan over to Sky PPV in 2008 started the whole train wreck in motion. Warren, though, has put on big events since losing Khan in 2010: Kevin Mitchell versus Michael Katsidis at Upton Park, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Return Of The Magnificent Seven’ and May’s O2 Arena bill. Some grumbled about these PPV shows, however there was many a fan that felt they represented value for money, especially in contrast to Primetime’s murky broadcasts and Sky’s recent heavyweight showcases.
Whatever your perspective, Warren has been at the business end of boxing for years and has delivered many PPV shows, he believes that boxing itself is not the problem, that the sport can thrive on the paid platform if it is done correctly. Indeed, Warren funneled a lot of his energy into developing Ricky Hatton’s popularity; the Mancunian later registered around 1.2 million buys for his 2007 Sky PPV showdown with Floyd Mayweather.
Moreover, Sky posted overall pre-tax profits of £1 billion at the end of June, the broadcaster bucking the trend of recession by boasting a sixteen percent revenue increase. Sky’s programming costs hit the £2.19 billion mark, ‘reflecting the firm's heavy investment in sports rights but also a spending spree on new entertainment content for Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Living’ (Source: Andrew Laughlin, Digital Spy), with the corporation shelling out for the rights to share F1 broadcasts with the BBC between 2012 and 2018.
ITV have also reported big pre-tax earnings, £286 million in 2010. Some of the success was down to the recent World Cup, with sport events a prime source of ad revenue for networks.
Therefore the money is there. In a time when most businesses are suffering TV companies can profit as people are nixing their regular nights out and staying at home in front of the TV or using the Internet – Sky’s broadband service is a key part of their success. Sporting events are a key part of any network’s strategy and boxing can draw viewers when done correctly, as we saw recently with the Dereck Chisora versus Tyson Fury fight on Channel Five.
The corporation also understands the value of boxing, in 1995 they signed a two-year, fifty million pound deal with Warren in order to deliver Naseem Hamed and other big names to their subscribers (The Guardian, September 1996). These huge stars may not be available today but there is always a next big thing lurking within boxing, the sport just needs the platform to develop and market the future standard-bearers.
“Sky spent a lot of money on Formula One and more on football so the money isn’t a problem,” mused Warren when speaking to me over the phone. “Obviously [Sky’s Managing Director of Sky Sports] Barney Francis is a fan of boxing but the PPV is a problem. I think we as promoters are suffering because of the two poor fights David Haye had – Audley Harrison and the [Wlad] Klitschko fight. Plus on the night of Haye-Klitschko there was a problem with the Sky booking system so that wasn’t down to boxing itself.
“I’ve read quotes from Sky saying that they have problems with fighters pulling out. That happens in boxing over the years but invariably, and speaking for myself, the shows are value for money and the only way we can develop talent and big fights is with PPV.
“People might say, ‘Screw that, why should we pay money’, but the simple reason is that is how it works in television and has done in America for God knows how long. That is how they’ve brought fighters and fights through, otherwise you reduce to a certain standard and it will be very difficult to rise above that.
“Let’s have it right, the undercard to Haye-Klitschko was abysmal, as was the Harrison fight, there was only George Groves on there, that was it. We did that last PPV show and were on the air from six in the evening until midnight. To do that costs money. If you go and see boxing live you have to buy a ticket, and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about PPV.”
Khan’s move to Primetime boiled down to cash and the undercard, Amir’s team deciding that their interests were best catered by the switch after Sky dug their heels in over a card that took hit after hit and amidst claims that they had only done fifty buys going into the final weeks. Warren revealed that he had to stand his own ground when putting together his last fight with Amir, a single stanza destruction of Dmitry Salita in December 2009.
“One of the arguments I had with Khan’s people was when we got Salita,” his recollection. “It was a mandatory defence and I was concerned about it because I thought Amir could win within two or three rounds so we put Kevin Mitchell against Breidis Prescott and other fights on there. The fans would have quite rightly been pissed off had we hadn’t.
“We don’t just take the money and run with a main event, we invest in fights and fighters on those big shows. On some of these big shows there is no return investment into the sport. The Klitschko fight didn’t put anything back in, nor did Haye and nor has Khan. They don’t invest in the sport – we saw this with Khan’s undercard in Manchester [for his WBA light-welterweight title defence against Paul McCloskey].
“So there is a problem, the money hasn’t increased, it has diminished over the years, and money is getting sucked out for Prizefighter, which hasn’t found a big star, hasn’t done gang busters and doesn’t make fighters.
“The sport is suffering, we have the best batch of talent in a long, long time and there is a problem with the sport. For the first time, and I’m an optimist, there is a problem around how much money is being put back into the game. I cannot exist on eight shows a year, the last couple of years that is what we’ve been doing. I declared record losses in my accounts last year and it is a nonsense that we should be in this position bearing in mind the type of fights we put on and the fighters we’re working with.”
As with any industry, competition is vital, hopefully Channel Five will invest in the sport after doing good numbers on their broadcast of Dereck Chisora versus Tyson Fury. Ironically the positives of multiple broadcasters are weighed against the problems of the past, when different promoters had stables on different networks and never the twain would meet. However, Frank believes that Five’s recent interest was a real boost for boxing.
“Channel 5 were very encouraged about Tyson Fury, Mick Hennessy did a good job there and got good ratings. Primetime are doing OK but every show on there is a pay-per-view and you can overdo it. You can’t keep expecting people to keep dipping into their pockets for every bill given the economic climate we’re in. It is feasible that Sky has two or three PPVs each year because that isn’t going to kill anyone financially,” he stated.
“I think you need to build up the fighters on regular Sky before putting them on PPV to get the opponents they need to compete with the Americans and the rest. People talk about going to America for fights but then you’re expecting people to stay up until four or five in the morning, would you rather pay fifteen quid to watch boxing in the wee small hours or for a UK bill?”
Warren strongly believes that his PPV shows have provided entertainment as well as a platform for his large stable, telling me that mixing PPV with regular nights gives the sport a strong spine and helps build for the future. “How can you build fighters now?” he asked as talk turned to the ramifications of Sky’s decision.
“It is not just about paying for the fighters, you pay for the events. People say, ‘Oh, you get it all back on tickets’, but let’s get it right: twenty percent comes off the tickets for VAT, there’s the hire charge, some boxers get ticket commission, flights, security, police, the venue, ambulances, doctors, board of control officials, hotels for people because weigh ins are the day before, food, publicity, printing, plus there are office overheads and costs – it all mounts up. This is a tough sport and I don’t know how some guys do it to be honest.”
Boxing has been cast as a self-destructive beast, with some at Sky said to exasperated by the minutiae of negotiations and the constant helter-skelter of putting together boxing shows. “This isn’t a difficult sport to deal with”, argued Warren, “I don’t accept that.”
“Don’t Sky have to negotiate for football fixtures? For example, they have to negotiate for overseas matches. They negotiate with sports on a one-off basis all the time. How many big negotiations do they have to do for boxing? You may have big shows and discuss them but are you going to sit there and go, ‘This is the end of the negotiations’, if we drive a hard bargain, of course we drive a hard bargain. Do you think fighters say, ‘Thanks for that offer, Frank – I’ll fight’, it takes ages to do these discussions. Life is like that. For big shows we have to negotiate and agree purses.
“At the end of the day it is a great sport, a consistent sport, one of the best out there and people like it. Thankfully we do have Sky or we would be in trouble but I think things will change, there are other opportunities and hopefully they’ll make it more competitive.”
As for Warren’s plans for 2011-2012, the veteran fight figure wants to continue to forge ahead. Saying, “I just want to do big shows. I am maybe blowing my own trumpet here but I’m maybe the only promoter who puts on big shows in the UK, otherwise they mainly take place in small halls now. We’ve got some good fights lined up and we have a few to announce.
“I want to see Cleverly fight Bellew, I want to see James DeGale in his European title fight, Ricky Burns against [Adrian] Broner, Kevin Mitchell in a rematch with [Michael] Katsidis and all our youngsters coming through. I’ve never ducked out of making big fights and I’m going to carry on doing what I’ve always done.”
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