The mobs of humanity and billions of dollars that will flow through Las Vegas this weekend for Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao’s long-awaited boxing match at the MGM Grand Garden Arena would seem to provide proof of the sport's vitality. Traffic will choke the Strip as fans clamor to simply be in the vicinity of the most high-profile event in town. Millions more will order the fight on pay-per-view, despite its record-breaking price tag.
Saturday’s match is latest in a long line of boxing superfights. It marks the first time -- and quite possibly the final time -- that Mayweather and Pacquiao, the premier fighters of their generation, will meet in the square circle. But for all the attention the fight has received, it’s still just a one-off event, an isolated spark for a sport that had all but fallen out of the American mainstream.
Boxing’s business model remains fundamentally flawed, as does its ability to build sustained interest in the product. Observers say it will take new ideas, such as one entrepreneur’s bid to bring boxing back to television on a regular basis -- rather than as an occasional event -- to return the sport to its former glory.
“I don’t think this fight is necessarily going to have a significant impact on boxing’s future,” said Thomas Hauser, a noted boxing historian and writer. “You had the same sort of interest in [Oscar] De La Hoya vs. Mayweather [in 2007]. It was the fight to save boxing, it did 2.5 million buys, and a week later pretty much everyone had forgotten about it except the people who were counting money.”
Still, it’s hard to dispute the financial numbers behind Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. Showtime and HBO will conduct a joint pay-per-view broadcast of the bout, which will cost a record $100 per household to purchase and will undoubtedly shatter the 2007 De La Hoya-Mayweather match’s record of 2.4 million pay-per-view buys. Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum said the live gate at the MGM Grand should approach $75 million, more than three times boxing’s previous record, with total revenue in excess of $400 million, ESPN reported. Promoters sold just 500 tickets at face value, with the rest gobbled up by the secondary market to be sold at unprecedented prices.
The figures are a grudging testament to Mayweather and Pacquiao’s respective promoters, who presided over years of escalating hype amid squabbles related to the fight’s purse split and pre-fight drug-testing. Mayweather will receive 60 percent of the pot -- an estimated $180 million; about the annual payroll of a free-spending Major League Baseball franchise -- for a single night’s work. Both fighters are in their late 30s and are past their physical prime. But at this stage, in-ring skill may be beside the point.
“People aren’t buying this fight for the fight. They aren’t buying it for the actual action in the ring,” said “Iceman” John Scully, a former light heavyweight boxing contender-turned-television analyst and trainer. “They’re buying it for the event, the whole package, the celebrities and the glitz and the glamor and the music.”
But the attention boxing receives from the fight is little more than a Band-Aid, and many say its promoters are a big part of the sport’s overall problem. Fans have called for a Mayweather-Pacquiao match since 2008, when both men were at the height of their skills and of their animosity toward each other. But top-level fighters are represented by promoters, and promoters have free rein to let personal financial gain and existing feuds dictate if and when a match will take place. It often takes years for negotiations to manifest as an actual fight, as promoters search for the perfect moment to cash in on public interest. Fans would miss a chance to watch top-level competition, and boxing would lose out on a chance to build sustained interest.
“In the major leagues, if the Yankees and Red Sox are both awesome, they’re playing each other. It’s just a done deal,” Scully said. “In boxing, you have a guy who wants to fight another guy, but their promoters can’t get along or can’t come to a deal, so they don’t fight.”
Boxing’s use of pay-per-view to broadcast its most prestigious fights also presents a major hurdle. Fans interested in watching professional baseball or football can tune in to dozens, if not hundreds, of games as part of a standard cable television package. Boxing fans have to pay about $50 for the average pay-per-view event -- double that for a generational bout like Mayweather-Pacquiao.
'Too Expensive To Watch'
The average American household has neither the money nor the inclination to spend so much for a one-off event on a monthly or even semimonthly basis. Mayweather-Pacquiao may generate 3 million pay-per-view buys, but the average NBA playoff game attracts 5 million viewers at no additional cost to television subscribers, data compiled by Rukkus show. It’s hard to produce new fans when they’re asked to spend so much on a premium event.
“Tiger Woods would never have become the monster economic force he was if we’d been able to see him play in the Nabisco Open on NBC, but had to pay $69.95 to watch him in the Masters,” Hauser said. “People don’t watch boxing because the flagship events are too expensive to watch.”
The notion that modern boxing lacks talent is overblown, Scully said. Mayweather and Pacquiao are among the few that have name recognition with the general public, but fighters like Adonis Stephenson, Sergey Kovalev, Danny Garcia and Keith Thurman have displayed the ability to compete at a high level. Nevertheless, the existence of various competing sanctioning bodies has made it much more difficult for fighters to distinguish themselves on a national level, experts agreed.
The World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, World Boxing Organization and International Boxing Federation are all recognized professional organizations with separate championship belts. That means there can be as many as four separate champions within a single weight class, a factor that can create confusion among casual fans -- who may not know which boxers hold which titles -- and allows top boxers to avoid fighting each other, if they choose.
“People in America don’t know what’s going on, because of so many fighters, because there’s a championship every day, because there’s four or five heavyweight champions. They don’t pay attention to it,” said Randy Roberts, a history professor at Purdue University in Indiana who has written extensively on boxing.
The rise of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world's premier mixed martial arts organization, has made boxing seem all the more disorganized. With UFC, fans can easily identify the contenders in any weight class, such as troubled light heavyweight Jon "Bones" Jones and women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who has become a full-fledged crossover star. UFC fights are packed with action and are rarely affected by the internal politics that often derail boxing matches.
The boxing establishment is well aware of these dilemmas, but it’s proven difficult for the sport to abandon the financial model that’s made so much money for its top figures.
Boxing's Best Chance?
Al Haymon, a boxing promoter and manager who represents a stable of 150 fighters, has a daring plan to affect that change. With $400 million in financial backing from a top asset management firm, Haymon has signed deals with NBC, CBS, ESPN, Spike TV and Showtime to air a series of events called “Premier Boxing Champions” on network television, without a paywall, Sports Business Journal reported. The reclusive 59-year-old plans to sell advertising windows and secure sponsorships to recoup his investment, while simultaneously exposing a greater portion of the American public to the sport.
Haymon’s goals aren’t entirely altruistic. He has pursued the "PBC" plan in search of a new, sustainable revenue stream.
“Al Haymon isn’t Mother Teresa,” Hauser said.
Still, "PBC" premiered on NBC in March with an average audience of 4 million viewers during its main event -- the biggest American audience for a boxing event since 1998, Sports Business Journal reported. Haymon’s undertaking is widely regarded as boxing’s best chance to regain its status as one of the America's top athletic attractions. A one-off Mayweather-Pacquiao match won’t save boxing, as so many have suggested, but it could help the sport jumpstart its future.
“This is boxing’s showcase event,” Hauser said. “It’s a chance to put its best foot forward.”