By Thomas Gerbasi
It wasn’t a call Todd duBoef was expected, and when Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame CEO Michelle Corrales told him that he was being inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame on August 18, the Top Rank president was a little worried.
“When she called to congratulate me, I said, ‘Do you know something I don’t know? To be qualified for the Hall of Fame, you’re usually out of the sport five years. Did I just get fired?’” duBoef laughs. “You’re supposed to be done; I feel like I’m just starting.”
That’s not just a feeling for duBoef, 50, that’s a reality, one made abundantly clear earlier this month when it was announced that Top Rank’s initial four-year deal with ESPN was being scrapped and replaced with a seven-year contract that is highlighted by 54 events per year to be aired on the network’s platforms through 2025.
Not bad for a dead sport, eh?
“That is completely the narrative that we have been countering for the last 10-15 years, this perpetuation of a product not being viable,” said duBoef. “Yet we would do these massive events and the world would stop. There was a perception of toxicity that didn’t exist.”
Boxing’s demise has been predicted since the first time two people put on gloves and started punching each other, but it’s still here, surviving scandals, mob infiltration, the retirement of its greatest stars, and dozens of other negative factors. Yet what hasn’t been figured out in the last few decades is how to make it front page news again. That’s an issue of fragmentation, promotional and network skirmishes, and a growing uprising from fans who don’t want to have to pay for the best fights, especially since many of those marquee events are filled with underwhelming undercards and main events that don’t live up to the hype.
Of course, hearing that many of Top Rank’s events would be aired on the ESPN+ subscription service didn’t sit well with those fans that didn’t want to shell out $4.99 per month, but that’s an argument that baffled duBoef.
“Boxing, UFC and wrestling are the only three properties that have historically got their fans to pay for their premium events,” he explains. “It’s innate, it’s part of their DNA, they’re used to it. It goes back to closed circuit. People were used to paying $25 and watching it in a theater. That isn’t the driver here. I don’t want people to say, ‘You’re just trying to get money from the boxing consumer.’ I’m absolutely shocked at some of the comments I get – ‘You’re doing stuff on ESPN+, why should I pay $4.99?’ The boxing community is uber-sensitive or critical of every move that anybody makes. Do we hear the MLS fans saying, ‘How dare you put MLS on ESPN+?’ Or the NBA fans screaming about seeing Kobe Bryant’s ‘Detail’ on ESPN+? Or are they complaining about Netflix or are they complaining that in their basic cable package, they’re already paying eight dollars a month for ESPN? Even the conflict when they say it shouldn’t go to pay-per-view, it should go to HBO or Showtime. You’re paying $15 for that.
“So I have a real problem with the sensitivity and the boxing fans positioning it as more money, more money, more money,” he continues. “Because it isn’t the objective. The objective is that in the United States, there has been a dormancy to feeding a very fertile and very vibrant fan base for boxing. That’s what it gets down to. All other sports have a platform, all other sports have different programming initiatives and shoulder programming and offerings that can keep feeding them. And we have been very fragmented in that approach. As a sport, we haven’t had a home.”
That’s not to say it does now, as there are still the usual obstacles to deal with in terms of promotional and network issues with fighters not under the Top Rank banner. But this is a start, and a good one, and given the numbers from the start of the ESPN deal, it’s something viewers are embracing, which was apparently music to ESPN’s ears, because how often do you see companies extending deals these days and not cutting them short?
“The iteration that we are in today (with ESPN) was ideally where we wanted to be at the beginning,” said duBoef. “Yet there was a perception about boxing that kind of haunted everybody and made people apprehensive. As a result of that, we went forward with a pared down deal a year ago, and the success that we collectively had between ESPN, ESPN+, all of their properties, all of the events and the success showing what the numbers were across the board said, ‘You know what? You just proved your theory that you walked into our offices with two years ago beyond a doubt that this is where the market should be, and we want to grow that with you. We want to be more aligned.’”
It was a sweet victory for duBoef, who had faced his share of doubters as he attempted to take his company – and the sport – to a greater level than where it was at.
“The premium channels pick and choose whatever premium fighters they wanted or slots they wanted to give, we lost all the ability to have really robust shoulder programming, there were a limited number of households, and people, as we saw, weren’t going to premium channels for sports,” he said of the long existing boxing model. That model made money for the players who had the content to offer, but it didn’t grow the sport. Grow the sport, and consequently everybody makes money and more of it.
“There was a media evolution,” duBoef said. “That was the calling – let’s not have this separated where somebody’s only going to get the pre-season. I said this in a lot of our pitches early on. Whatever network we met with, they all had the NFL. And I said, ‘I’ve got a question for you. Imagine the NFL coming to you and saying, ‘We’ve got a great proposition; you get all of our pre-season games’ Who wants that proposition? (Laughs) But that was the hand we dealt everybody since I’ve been in the business for 25 years. We said you can’t touch the premium level content because that has to stay status quo with HBO or Showtime, that’s it. But I want to sell you the pre-season games. That’s just a terrible proposition. So how would they jump into the sport? And that was the pivotal thing – offering the entire vertical.”
Luckily, Top Rank has the kind of current product and past archives to offer something an ESPN would bring into the fold, especially with their new streaming service in need of compelling content to keep subscribers coming in. And while you won’t hear this coming out of his mouth, duBoef now has his own sandbox to create a vision of boxing for a new generation. He’s got two of the best in the game on his roster in the form of Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko, a host of champions, contenders, former Olympians and hot prospects, and a place to keep them busy in front of a growing audience. In other words, it’s not just smart business; it’s smart business in 2018.
“It wasn’t Todd duBoef or Top Rank being the author of this new book for boxing,” he said. “It was more like, let’s position the sport correctly. Let’s stop with this a la carte behavior, because a la carte behavior doesn’t work. And that’s why the NBA has media partners in Turner and ESPN, the NHL has a media partner primarily in NBC and now ESPN+ has offerings. Football is different because they have everybody as a partner because everybody wants a piece of the 800-pound gorilla. UFC has had a media partner in FOX. In 2019, they’ll have a media partner in ESPN. So I think rather than looking at it micro, our objective was to look at it macro. It was a shift in psychology. Let’s take the entire vertical and move it to a media partner. The vertical included preliminary fights, medium level fights, premium level fights, the biggest fights, the classics, the shoulder programming, everything, like all the other sports. That’s all it was. It wasn’t at anybody’s exclusion, it was marrying the assets that our sport had with a media partner.”
That’s Hall of Fame worthy behavior right there, not bad for someone who really never saw this coming, but who is glad he got on board.
“I really appreciate this and it’s flattering for people to recognize the body of work that I’ve been a part of,” said duBoef of his NVBHOF induction. “I learned from Bruce Trampler and Teddy Brenner, Brad Goodman and Lee Samuels, and the big professor, Bob (Arum), so it was very flattering. I always loved media as a kid. I loved the media world, I loved entertainment, and I was also big into sports. But I never thought that the perfect blend of both of them would be boxing and business. And it’s not just a regional product. This sport is so massively global, and that’s exciting. It checks the boxes when it comes to what gets you to wake up in the morning to know that you’re in the media business, it’s global and it’s sports. It’s very empowering.”
For more information on the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame, please visit www.nvbhof.com