One of the recurring themes that readers have become accustomed to in the last several years has been a continued dialogue on the changing landscape of television and how it could benefit the sport of Boxing. In December 2015, a column written by yours truly was released here on The Boxing Truth® that asked a simple question. “Is It Time For “Big Time” Boxing To Go Over The Top?”
A column that discussed the evolution of the “Pay-Per-View” concept as it related to the sport of Boxing from the days of closed-circuit television, to the initiation of Cable/Satellite pay television, up to what was then present day and the shift of entertainment options in the medium known as Over The Top digital distribution or (OTT) for short. While I do not want to start this column by doing a total rehash of the topics I discussed almost three years ago, I did reference the benefits of direct to consumer streaming services/networks like Netflix and Hulu as well as the growth of networks like World Wrestling Entertainment’s WWE Network and the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) UFC Fight Pass network in addition to the general decline of the cable/satellite industry as more consumers were choosing to “Cut The Cord” and not subscribe to a pay-TV cable/satellite provider.
The latter was in reference to a general decline in the success of pay-per-view Boxing events as well as the ever-increasing prices for such cards on a per card basis. In the years since I wrote that column, the general push towards OTT distribution as well as the decline of the cable/satellite medium have continued. As the push toward the direct to consumer model has continued, there has also been growth in live television streaming services as services such as Hulu live TV and YouTube TV have introduced low-cost options as an alternative to the traditional cable/satellite model. Satellite television providers such as DirecTV and Dish Network have also introduced similar services DirecTV Now and Sling TV respectively that one would assume is an attempt to eventually transition from each’s traditional pay-TV services.
While the general trend toward OTT distribution has continued, Boxing has also made efforts to adapt to the changing times. Readers may be familiar with the recently launched ESPN+ digital network that is offered directly to consumers by both ESPN’s website as well as its recently redesigned app across mobile and connected streaming devices that does not require a cable/satellite subscription to access the services. With two separate subscription plans a monthly subscription of $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, consumers can access the ESPN+ streaming service.
A multi-sport service offering both live and on-demand content that is not available on ESPN’s traditional linear networks. Among the sports highlighted on the service has been Boxing with several exclusive cards highlighted by events promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc.
In the little more than four months since the service launched there has been a healthy mix of international cards that would likely not otherwise be seen on television here in the United States as well as a mix of cards televised in portions combining ESPN+ and the linear ESPN network where undercard portions air on ESPN+ as a lead-in for an ESPN main portion televised card. What has also been noticeable has been ESPN’s willingness to showcase marquee talent on the ESPN+ streaming service that in most cases would either be showcased across premium cable networks like HBO or Showtime, or on the medium of traditional cable/satellite pay-per-view.
The first marquee event to be shown exclusively on ESPN+ was the recent WBO Welterweight world championship bout between Jeff Horn and Terence Crawford. While some might have been critical of ESPN’s decision to bypass both the traditional PPV medium as well as their own linear network and showcase that fight and its full undercard exclusively on the new ESPN+ service, this observer applauded it.
This was soon followed by a second marquee attraction with the recent Welterweight encounter between future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao and longtime top contender Lucas Matthysse that took place in Malaysia. While some may question what Manny Pacquiao has left to give as a fighter after a long and hard fought career, it was clear that this was the first instance where a fighter that up until recently had fought most of his fights on traditional pay-per-view, taking a step away from the “Tried and True” model of pay-per-view and a step toward the future of television and a realm that opened up an avenue to an audience that would not have had an opportunity to see one of the superstars of the sport ply his trade simply because many consumers are no longer subscribing to a traditional Pay-TV provider and thus do not have access to potentially order a pay-per-view card. When one factors into the equation that prices for such cards have risen to a price point where most high-level events are priced at $70 or more, the subject of whether those who have “Cut the Cord” possibly being willing to pay an ever expensive fee if those consumers had access to pay-per-view becomes even more debatable due to the belief of many that not subscribing to a pay-TV provider allows the consumer to first and foremost save money.
Without getting further into the aspects of cord-cutting as that would be a column in of itself, ESPN+ is not the only digital streaming service that has been generating buzz. It was announced in July of this year that DAZN (Pronounced DA-Zone) a multi-sport live and on-demand streaming network that has been called the Netflix of sports will be launching in the United States on September 10th.
Although DAZN has established itself as a major rights holder internationally holding rights to various sports leagues including Serie A soccer, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, Japanese Baseball among others in a variety of countries, DAZN’s launch on U.S. soil will feature combat sports at it’s main attraction with the intention of adding more sports as rights become available. The two central combat sports that DAZN has invested heavily in are Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
First and foremost, I want to state both for the record and for any reader who might question what this observer says before I go any further, I do not currently work for DAZN, ESPN, or any other television network whether delivered on traditional mediums or via Over The Top (OTT) digital distribution. What I have always done in over two decades covering Boxing and other combat sports as well as when I have had the opportunity to be a guest on radio and television as an analyst is provide an objective view of facts while also sharing my point of view on a given subject and it will be no different here or going forward in the years to come. Now that I have made my position clear to anyone who may have questions or criticize I will continue.
In regard to Boxing, DAZN has announced a multi-year agreement estimated at a billion dollars with promoter Eddie Hern’s Matchroom Boxing. The United Kingdom-based promoter has established himself as one of Boxing’s power players, routinely staging sell-out cards in arenas and stadiums throughout the United Kingdom. With the recently signed and announced deal with the also UK-based DAZN, Hearn will look to expand his successful promotional company into the United States.
While both due to the time between the official announcement of DAZN’s launch as well as the length of this column and subsequent release, I will not go through each and every aspect that was touched upon during the press conference that took place in New York City in July, I will discuss some of the highlights as well as my impressions. The Price: DAZN will launch with a monthly subscription option of $9.99 per month and will not offer an annual subscription option. The digital network however, will offer a thirty day free trial for new subscribers where the subscriber has the option to cancel at their discretion. While DAZN’s subscription model differs slightly from ESPN’s offering for their ESPN+ network in a slightly increased monthly subscription fee and not at present time offering an annual subscription option, DAZN’s monthly plan appears right in line with the monthly subscription plans of WWE Network and UFC Fight Pass, which are priced the same at $9.99 per month.
The Content: DAZN will begin it’s U.S. offering with content from Matchroom Boxing, the Viacom-owned Bellator MMA, and the World Boxing Super Series annual tournaments. Matchroom Boxing: Some of the highlights of what has been announced thus far will highlight three cards. The first, a major event in London’s Wembley Stadium will be headlined by undefeated unified IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO Heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua defending his crown against longtime Heavyweight contender and current WBA number one contender Alexander Povetkin, which will take place on September 22nd.
Matchroom will follow that with the debut of it’s Matchroom Boxing USA promotional branch with two cards taking place in October with events in Chicago, IL and Boston, MA respectively. In Chicago, on October 6th former WBO Welterweight world champion Jessie Vargas will face top contender Thomas Dulorme in the main event of a card that will also feature a Heavyweight bout between undefeated top contender Jarrell Miller facing former two-division world champion Tomasz Adamek. This will be followed by an event on October 20th at the TD Garden in Boston as undefeated WBO Middleweight world champion Billy Joe Saunders will defend his portion of the World Middleweight championship against undefeated WBO number one contender Demetrius Andrade in the main event.
Impression: One of the key things that stuck out in my mind, which one would assume will cover all events broadcast by DAZN is every bout on a card from the first fight to the main event will be televised and shown to subscribers. This differs significantly from the traditional television model and traditional pay-per-view events where in regard to a cable network, anywhere from the top two to four bouts of a card are televised, leaving a significant portion of an event to be unseen by viewers. This is also similarly adapted on most major pay-per-view cards where anywhere from three to five fights will air on pay-per-view out of cards that may have anywhere between eight to twelve fights total. More on how this differs from the traditional pay-per-view model later in this column.
Although it is worth noting that ESPN has adapted a similar approach with their ESPN+ network in typically airing two separate streams one labeled as undercard bouts and one labeled as main events, which features the main portion of most of their Boxing events, both those exclusive to ESPN+ and those that air on an undercard portion of an event on ESPN+ as a lead in to a main portion of a card that is shown on the main ESPN linear network, this marks a shift in how events are televised and offers considerably more content to a viewer than has been the case in years past. While some may have varying opinions on what is being offered, this should be viewed as a step forward for the sport.
Bellator MMA: The Viacom-owned MMA promotion, which has been a mainstay on the Viacom-owned cable network Paramount Network (Formerly Spike TV) for several years will also be a significant presence on DAZN, with both full events exclusive to DAZN as well as full events, with portions also simulcast on Paramount Network being available to DAZN subscribers. Bellator has established itself as one of the top Mixed Martial Arts organizations in the world and has also branched off a division of it’s organization to cover Kickboxing known as Bellator Kickboxing or Bellator KB for short. Bellator has emerged as a competitor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and has signed several notable former UFC fighters including Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Chael Sonnen, and Cheick Kongo just to name a few as well as promoting some of the recent fights involving MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko.
Impression: Although Bellator staged a pay-per-view card in the last year, which took place in Madison Square Garden in New York, I feel the partnership with DAZN will only benefit Bellator in the long-term as cord-cutting continues to grow and more consumers move away from the traditional Pay-TV model. This partnership will allow Bellator to stage events that are akin to what one would expect on a pay-per-view card, but included in the subscription price to DAZN. This should also benefit Bellator’s parent company Viacom in terms of potential cross-promotion advertising in that Bellator will be able to heavily promote their DAZN partnership on Paramount Network, which will potentially open the door for potential subscribers to see what DAZN has to offer. In return, with events being televised in full on DAZN, that are in part being simulcast on Paramount Network, it allows Bellator to potentially for lack of a better term attack potential audiences on both the OTT and traditional TV mediums.
When one considers that ESPN recently signed into a joint-rights agreement along with Fox to acquire rights to non-PPV events put on by the UFC, which in terms of ESPN will see a combination of UFC Fight Night cards carried both exclusively on ESPN+ and the main ESPN network, Bellator’s partnership with DAZN figures to be a smart move in the long-term picture in terms of where consumers are likely to consume/view content. More on what I feel this will ultimately mean for the traditional pay-per-view model later in this column.
The World Boxing Super Series: It was recently announced that DAZN had acquired rights in a multi-year agreement to broadcast the popular World Boxing Super Series or WBSS for short. The professional tournament series where tournaments take place in multiple weight classes and in its first season set out to unify the Cruiserweight and Super-Middleweight divisions has garnered significant acclaim across the globe. It is a tournament concept however, that has remained largely unseen here in the United States due to many networks choosing to pass on the opportunity to carry the competitions for viewers. A lone exception to this was the choice of the AT&T-owned Audience Network, a network available to only AT&T-owned DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse Pay-TV providers to broadcast select bouts in the tournament.
One of the primary reasons why this observer did not cover the first season of the WBSS, despite my desire to do so, was simply due to not knowing what bouts in the global tournament would be shown here in the United States and on which medium they would be shown. Although I as a long time and current DirecTV subscriber was hopeful that Audience Network would be able to acquire rights to both season one WBSS tournaments, that was simply not the case. If it was a source of frustration for those of us who cover the sport in trying to gain access to the tournament, one can only imagine the frustration experienced by Boxing fans here in America who were denied seeing a tournament that broke new ground in the sport, a frustration that fans internationally depending on where they were in the world did not experience due to several networks opting to carry the series. With DAZN setting it’s sights on the United States, this frustration has been solved for U.S. fans as the digital network will carry full tournaments from the WBSS going forward. Impression: While the addition of the WBSS in addition to Matchroom Boxing and Bellator MMA gives three sources of content for DAZN’s U.S. service at launch, it is not out of the possibility that other content providers throughout all combat sports could follow their lead.
What this means for the current state of Boxing on cable networks and the realm of traditional pay-per-view: One thing that has been noticeable with the inception of ESPN+ much to the criticism of some has been ESPN’s willingness to bypass their traditional linear networks that are available across cable/satellite and the new live TV streaming services mentioned in this column, and make Boxing a central part of their new digital network. While some may be critical due largely to being used to more traditional methods of television as some expressed to this observer prior to Manny Pacquiao’s recent bout with Lucas Matthysse, times are changing and as yours truly has said on more than one occasion on various social media platforms, a consumer should educate themselves as to the new technologies that are available.
Although it may be hard to believe in 2018 with digital subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Video, Hulu, Tribeca Shortlist, WWE Network, UFC Fight Pass among others continuing to experience subscriber growth across the board that some have still not tried streaming devices, I feel it is similar in some ways to the experience of those who did not want to initially subscribe to a cable TV provider when cable/satellite pay-television was in it’s initial growing stages in the 1970’s and 1980’s choosing instead to go with traditional Over The Air (OTA) broadcast television. Over time those who are not and have not been as willing to venture towards OTT distribution platforms like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and others that are also more and more being integrated into the newest televisions on the market, will almost have to at least test the waters. This will especially be true as cable and satellite pay-TV providers continue to look to transition the method of distribution of their respective services to OTT distribution.
In the interest of full disclosure with the reader, as someone who owns several streaming devices and primarily use Roku and Apple TV for my streaming needs, I do not feel where technology is heading in terms of OTT distribution to be something that will be bad for consumers. The question as it relates to Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts is how will the sports, the networks that broadcast the sports across traditional platforms, and promoters who are resistant to change and who also rely on what was once a “Tried and True” medium of traditional pay-per-view respond to the changing times?
An example yours truly has often used in pointing out the similarities between the growing OTT model and the position the cable/satellite medium was in during its initial growth is to compare it to the territorial system that was once the business model of professional wrestling. Several wrestling promoters in the territory era were able to be successful in their respective territories and as technology grew and evolved, a good majority of those promoters did not know how to adapt. As someone who also spent several years covering the pro wrestling industry in addition to Boxing and other combat sports, those who also follow the industry are likely familiar with the story of how Vince McMahon took over the northeast territory in the United States from his father and saw the advent of cable/satellite television as a way to expand his business from a territory, to a national company, and as time has gone on, adapted the global business model where his company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE for short now thrives.
The irony is as many of those territory-based wrestling promotions did not adapt and were ultimately left behind as cable/satellite eventually became a preferred choice of how to market a television product, McMahon and his company have stayed ahead of the curb as a consistent ratings draw for cable networks that air their programming as well as being one of the key players in the pay-per-view business. As the traditional pay-per-view model got bigger and ultimately morphed into what has become in this observer’s view out of control in terms of how pay-per-view events are priced, McMahon took a calculated risk with the introduction of WWE Network, choosing to bypass the cable/satellite model and offer access to the network directly to consumers, with a key selling point that all the company’s pay-per-view events would be included as part of a subscription.
While some told yours truly that I was being overly optimistic in saying that WWE’s decision was a game changer not just when it came to the pro wrestling industry, but for television in general, and predicted that the decision to bypass the cable/satellite model in addition to destroying what once was a lucrative pay-per-view model in terms of revenue would adversely affect the company if not outright lead to the company’s downfall, in the four years since WWE Network launched in February 2014, the company has shown that they can thrive outside of the realms of traditional pay-per-view totaling over two million subscribers while continuing to expand access to the network internationally and securing lucrative TV rights agreements with NBCUNIVERSIAL, owners of USA Network and Fox in the United States for first-run rights to WWE’s weekly programming resulting in record revenues both quarterly and annually for the company. The UFC has continued to put on pay-per-view cards across cable and satellite pay-TV providers here in the United States, despite their successful UFC Fight Pass network, where pay-per-view events are available to subscribers on a delayed basis. One may wonder however, with the recently signed TV rights shared agreement between the UFC and ESPN/Fox how much longer the UFC’s biggest events will be saved for traditional pay-per-view.
As someone who subscribes to many of the streaming services discussed in this column including WWE Network and UFC Fight Pass, I have always felt that it is only a question of when and not if a UFC pay-per-view card would be available live as part of a subscription to UFC Fight Pass. In terms of Boxing, pay-per-view is still viewed as something the sport relies on for a major source of revenue. There is no denying however, that the pay-per-view model as it relates to Boxing has become overpriced and undervalued. While there are still certain marquee events that will generate a significant return in pay-per-view buys, those events have become few and far between.
While it is unrealistic to expect the advent of ESPN+ and DAZN to have a sudden impact to the degree that it will immediately kill off what remains of the traditional pay-per-view model, my hope is over time it does happen as networks who have produced pay-per-view events like Showtime and HBO translation toward OTT distribution. What this will mean for DAZN, ESPN, Showtime, HBO, Fox and others involved in broadcasting Boxing is increased competition for rights fees, looking to sign long-term deals with promoters, and those promoters looking to put on the best fights and biggest events possible for their subscribers. If DAZN’s agreement with Matchroom Boxing and the World Boxing Super Series, ESPN’s recently announced extension with Top Rank Inc. to serve as the primary content provider for ESPN and ESPN+’s Boxing programming, as well as recently announced separate multi-year agreements between Showtime, Fox, and the Premier Boxing Champions series are any indication, there will be some very interesting times ahead for the sport of Boxing, which will ultimately have one winner, the consumer.
What those who have been resistant to the OTT distribution model should keep in mind however, is consumers will ultimately be the determining factor. As more and more consumers opt to “Cut The Cord” and not subscribe to a traditional pay-TV provider, adapting to the changing times will become a necessity or those who are resistant to change whether they be promoters and/or networks will ultimately be left behind.
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”
DAZN will launch in the United States on September 10th and will be available on mobile and connected streaming devices as well as DAZN’s website. For more information about DAZN, upcoming schedule of events, and to pre-register please visit: www.DAZN.com.
ESPN+, the new digital streaming network from ESPN is available through the ESPN app, website, mobile, and connected streaming devices. For more information about ESPN, ESPN+ and to subscribe to ESPN+ please visit: www.espn.com and watch.espnplus.com.
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