Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Jabs And Observations March 2022: Four Pay-Per-View Events In One Month, To Boxing’s Benefit?


Longtime readers know this observer's long-standing criticism of the pay-per-view model in the sport of Boxing. Of several recurring themes over a lifetime covering combat sports, it is perhaps the theme that I have written about the most. While it is something that has become repetitive by my own admission, it is something that unfortunately continues to be warranted both as a regular subject matter for yours truly as well as something that should be discussed by everyone who is involved with the sport whether they be fans, the fighters themselves, trainers, managers, promoters, broadcasters, commentators, and those of us who cover Boxing. With this in mind, I felt it appropriate to dedicate the March edition of the new monthly feature that was introduced in January as a way to frankly try to cover as much ground as I possibly can in regard to the action throughout the sport that I simply cannot cover as they are occurring, a departure from the first two editions of Jabs and Observations however will be that this month’s edition will be centered on one subject “Pay-Per-View.”


Recently, the news in regard to the pay-per-view model has centered on digital subscription-based sports streaming network DAZN choosing to implement what they insist will be an occasional use of the pay-per-view model due largely to the newest multi-fight agreement between the network and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who returns to their network following a brief venture to premium cable network Showtime where he headlined a pay-per-view event against IBF Super-Middleweight world champion Caleb Plant, in which he completed his goal of fully unifying the Super-Middleweight division. While that event did between 400,000 and 800,000 buys at an $80 price point depending on where you read and who you choose to believe as Showtime and its parent company ViacomCBS, the recently rebranded Paramount does not release actual numbers, and keeping in mind that those “Guesstimates” as I call them are still better than the vast majority of pay-per-view events over the last several years, it is a far cry from the massive buy numbers in decades past that in some cases were in the millions for some of Boxing’s biggest bouts.


Although this should not be a reflection of both Alvarez’ standing in the sport or one of the overall commercial appeal of Boxing as a whole, the consistent dwindling buy numbers for most pay-per-view events are an indication of a much bigger problem the sport faces. It is a problem that I have repeatedly pointed out in various writings as a two-part issue. The first part is the price points for such events have gotten out of control over the last decade and one might even go as far as to say longer than that as most major pay-per-view Boxing events now begin at a $70 or above price point here in the United States, which differs significantly from international countries that offer the same events on a pay-per-view basis, but do so at a much more reasonable price point, in some cases under $30 to use the United Kingdom’s pay-per-view model as an example where most pay-per-view events are capped under that thirty dollar price point regardless of who is the main event attraction for such cards.


The second part of the problem is the mere frequency of pay-per-view Boxing events, which should not be blamed strictly on one network, but rather viewed as a wider scale problem. Simply put, the pay-per-view model in 2022 and in several years past is no longer reserved for the legitimate major events, but are used and basically admitted by those who rely on the model as a necessity to gain revenue. While I do sincerely hope that DAZN will stick to their word of using the model sparingly, unfortunately, they are not the only players who will be using the model and as such it creates a significant issue as to how well each respective card will do in terms of the bottom line buy numbers.


Beginning on April 16th, there will be four pay-per-view Boxing cards in the span of one month running through May 28th. While DAZN will only be responsible for one of those events, the May 7th card, which will be headlined by Saul Alvarez challenging undefeated WBA Light-Heavyweight world champion Dmitry Bivol for his world championship, the likelihood of all four events, which will be split between Showtime and ESPN outside of the one event DAZN is doing will likely be priced at, at least a $70 price point each here in the United States exists.


In the interest of honesty with the reader, I do periodically read the works of others who cover the sport, particularly when I am taking some needed downtime between covering cards and focusing on my own work. Recently, I read one blurb on one website that may have been a fan page that I randomly came across while browsing that listed the upcoming pay-per-view schedule for its readers and ended the content with three simple yet depressing words “Start Saving Now!”


For all of Boxing’s ills, what I often refer to as “Black Eyes” that give its critics more than enough justification to both criticize and mock the sport, I can honestly say as someone who has spent most of his life covering Boxing and by extension combat sports going back to when I was a youngster, I never thought I would see the day where I would observe a listing of a pay-per-view schedule with the conclusion imploring its readers to “Start Saving Now!” It is as much a reflection of the major problem Boxing faces from those who rely almost exclusively on the pay-per-view model to those who are in DAZN’s position in more or less admitting that they needed a pay-per-view component in addition to its subscription-based model, not because the subscription-based model is a failure, but because of pay-per-view being a tool to lure fighters that might otherwise not want to do business with their network, despite the declining state of the pay-per-view model. I can also honestly say to the reader that those three words “Start Saving Now!” put me in a state of depression. Both in terms of what the consumer will be asked to pay to see each respective card, but also as someone who truly has Boxing’s best interest at heart.


When one considers that we are now also in an era where novice “Celebrity” bouts and exhibition bouts now headline pay-per-view events at the same high price points as those events featuring main events where world championships are at stake, it should not be hard for one to understand why it depresses me as someone who wants to see Boxing not only grow, but thrive. I will also say in the interest of honesty that it troubles me to hear some whether they be fans, promoters, or network executives use the sentence “Boxing is a niche sport.” as justification for an over reliance on such a model. While fans are more than entitled to their point of view, in my experience when networks and promoters use that line, they do so when confronted with underwhelming returns on fights that they not only try to sell, but ones that under the original purpose of pay-per-view /Closed Circuit television would not be considered legitimate big fights, much less pay-per-view main events.


The one thing I will say is at least DAZN when announcing their newest agreement with Saul Alvarez were up front and honest about the pricing for the Bivol-Alvarez bout for both current DAZN subscribers as well as non-subscribers. Something that other networks and promoters often wait until the days before a pay-per-view card to announce. Although $59.99 for current DAZN subscribers and $79.99 for non-subscribers is still overpriced, hopefully, if the returns on Bivol-Alvarez do not meet a profitable number, the network will consider at least reducing the price for existing subscribers for their next pay-per-view offering. Another issue that will likely play a factor in that decision process is the scheduling of the other non-DAZN pay-per-view events that will be scheduled around the May 7th Bivol-Alvarez card, which will likely affect the overall buys in addition to the price point for both current and non-subscribers of DAZN.


As for the other three cards over the month’s span of time, let’s discuss each event. First, will be the April 16th Welterweight unification bout between undefeated WBC/IBF Welterweight world champion Errol Spence and WBA champion Yordenis Ugas, which will be broadcast on Showtime Pay-Per-View here in the United States. Although this will be a very interesting fight on paper that I frankly am looking forward to covering, one should question how successful this card will be not only in terms of buys given what is likely to be a $70 or above price point, but also the remaining events in such a narrow timeframe. While this figures to be a good fight, which might have quite a bit of action based on the two fighters' styles, it is also important to note that this will be Yordenis Ugas’ second time as a pay-per-view main eventer after stepping in on short notice in August of last year and successfully defending his title against future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao.


Even though there is no disputing Ugas’ skillset or the fact that he outboxed an aging legend who subsequently retired shortly after the fight, he has not been marketed as a pay-per-view attraction and perception in fans eyes might be that he defeated a legend that was at the end of his career in a fight that was not the most entertaining to watch. While Ugas cannot be and should not be blamed for promoters and networks reliance on the pay-per-view model, the perception some might have, could convince some to save their money and thus effect the overall buys.


The second card, which will be offered on a pay-per-view basis here in the United States will take place one week after the scheduled Spence-Ugas Welterweight unification bout when undefeated two-time Heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury makes the second defense of his WBC Heavyweight world championship against number one contender Dillian Whyte in the main event of a card that will be offered through digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+. While ESPN’s direct to consumer streaming network ESPN+ has grown significantly since it’s inception here in the United States in 2018, the periodic times they have dabbled in pay-per-view outside of their agreement as the exclusive pay-per-view platform for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) MMA pay-per-view events, have been underwhelming. Although again, this can be attributed to the price points for the handful of Boxing pay-per-view events that the network and its parent company Disney have offered through ESPN+, much like DAZN, subscribers have seen a greater value in terms of content offered as part of either a monthly or annual subscription and have not been as willing to pay expensive fees on a per card basis as a result.


In regard to the Fury-Whyte pay-per-view offering, the card will be taking place in London, England at Wembley Stadium and while the pay-per-view event will likely do significantly more buys in the United Kingdom through broadcast platform BT Box Office at a lower price point compared to here in America, the challenge for both the promoters of the bout as well as ESPN/Disney here will be to get a decent amount of buys at a higher price point for a Boxing card that will air during the afternoon hours on the east coast and late morning/early afternoon on the west coast stateside. Though not impossible depending on the sporting event to draw a big viewing audience during daytime hours, both Fury and Whyte are bigger stars in the United Kingdom, despite Fury’s two victories on pay-per-view here in America over Deontay Wilder. The three pay-per-view bouts between Fury and Wilder did produce varying results in terms of buys, but the second and third bouts in which Fury was victorious produced underwhelming numbers.


While not a reflection of how competitive those fights were or Fury’s standing in the sport, one can question whether the selling point of a fight being for a version of the World Heavyweight championship alone will be enough to convince consumers here in the U.S. to buy the event. Given that the buy numbers will likely be impacted in some way by the afternoon start time here in the United States, and despite ESPN's best efforts to market that as a positive given that many main events on pay-per-view typically do not begin until at least midnight for those events that take place during the evening hours, one might wonder if this event would do better numbers if it were included with an ESPN+ subscription, not unlike several international cards that are carried on pay-per-view in the countries where they are taking place, but broadcast stateside on either a digital subscription-based streaming network or on traditional television.


The third pay-per-view card, which will take place outside of the DAZN Bivol-Alvarez pay-per-view event on May 7th will occur later in the month of May with the rescheduled Lightweight bout between undefeated former world champion Gervonta Davis meets undefeated contender Rolando Romero at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY in the main event of a card broadcast by Showtime Pay-Per-View here in the United States.


A bout that was originally scheduled for December of last year, but was changed when Romero had to withdraw from the fight due to issues outside of the ring. The bout, which was scheduled to headline a Showtime Pay-Per-View event, went forward with Isaac Cruz stepping in to face Davis. Although that was a competitive fight, the event did not perform well on pay-per-view as it was scheduled in between a slew of pay-per-view cards from October through December of last year, not unlike the position that this rescheduled event will find itself in. Unlike the previous two events discussed, this fight will not feature a world championship at stake, but will be for an interim/regular championship designation in the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) Lightweight ratings.


The politics that be in the sport, which are just as problematic as the over reliance on the pay-per-view model aside, and keeping in mind that it has little to do with what could be a good fight between two unbeaten boxers, the fact that this event like this previous two will likely be priced at $70 or above without a world championship being at stake or the fighters involved being household names in the sense of their name recognition being enough to draw significant interest particularly amongst the casual sports fan, should indicate how the standard of Pay-Per-View being reserved only for the legitimate special events is not necessarily applied by promoters and networks in 2022 and frankly has not been for some time.


A more crucial illustration of the flaw in relying on an outdated model can be reflected in the total cost that one could be expected to pay for all four of these events. If one were to exclude the slight wrinkle in regard to DAZN's pricing structure in offering a slightly reduced price for current DAZN subscribers for the Bivol-Alvarez bout, assuming that each of the other events are priced at a $74.99 price point to go with the $79.99 price point that Bivol-Alvarez will be priced for non-DAZN subscribers, one will arrive at an estimated total cost of $304.96 not counting taxes and other applicable fees.


Now, the reader is probably asking what my point is by giving that total cost estimate for four pay-per-view Boxing cards. When one factors in the amount of Boxing content that is offered under subscription-based models that come to a fraction of that cost even on an annual or monthly subscription plan, it does not take one who is an expert in the financial industry to see the flaw in the pay-per-view model. One should also keep in mind that Boxing is really the only sport outside of the UFC Mixed Martial Arts promotion that relies heavily on such a model.


To put things in perspective, currently here in the United States, the sports world is in the midst of the NCAA College Basketball tournament. A tournament that even if one does not follow College Basketball regularly during its season draws significant interest amongst even the most casual sports fans. The tournament run known as March Madness draws significant television ratings for the networks that broadcast the games. It was not long ago during the period where the cable/satellite pay-TV industry was in much stronger shape prior to the advent of digital streaming that the NCAA offered an out of market package for both it’s basketball and College Football seasons, which were offered under ESPN branding through cable and satellite providers. While those packages did succeed for several years, as technology evolved, those packages eventually gave way for content that would be offered as part of those cable/satellite packages to be offered as part of a digital subscription streaming option where a subscriber has access to much more content as well as other sports included with their subscription. While professional sports are gradually adapting a similar approach as evidenced in the National Hockey League’s (NHL) recent agreement with ESPN to make their standalone out of market streaming package available as part of an ESPN+ subscription, the biggest games and playoff games are still made available to a wider audience without such a pay wall structure as pay-per-view. Just imagine the backlash the NCAA or professional sports leagues would incur if playoff games, college Bowl games, and the ongoing NCAA College Basketball tournament were only made available on a pay-per-view basis and on a per game basis on top of that. It would be something that those running those respective leagues/organizations would find it very difficult, if not outright impossible to survive.


For Boxing, there is no real benefit by continuing to rely on such a model because not only does the economics no longer benefit the consumer, but by pricing such events so high, it limits the potential audience as well as the potential to expose the sport to new eyes. Although this should be obvious to anyone with an objective view, the question is how can it be fixed to benefit Boxing and the fans that support the sport?


This observer believes strongly in the subscription-based models that have been established by both DAZN and ESPN+ and if I felt that both dipping their toes into the pay-per-view model even on an occasional basis would serve the networks and the sport well, I would say so. Although as I have said in previous columns regarding the pay-per-view subject that some have expressed to me that the root cause of the pay-per-view problem is that fighters are simply being guaranteed so much money that it makes the model a necessity, I am against the idea that a fighter’s pay should be reduced. The bottom line is a fighter’s career can end at any moment each and every time they compete as they are risking their lives. It is therefore important for a fighter to be able to make as much money as they can while they can, but for those around them to also share in the responsibility of preparing the fighter not only for competition, but also for life after Boxing in trying to ensure that a fighter’s earnings will be able to sustain them and grow when their careers are over.


What I am instead referring to is the need for those who rely on the pay-per-view model, promoters and networks to look for alternative sources of revenue. The types of revenue that would essentially allow the revenue that is hoped for by the pay-per-view model, but rarely achieved to be replaced, but at the same time opening up the opportunity to watch the sport and it’s biggest events to a much wider audience regardless of one’s economic standing. It should also not be overlooked that there are those who instead of paying such high pay-per-view fees openly seek streaming events via a third-party website, which is not something that will go away by doing more pay-per-view events. With honesty again being at the core between yours truly and the reader, I cannot put a number on how many times readers and others used to reach out to me via social media and other forms of communication to ask me if I knew of any third-party streaming websites that would be showing pay-per-view events in the days preceding the advent of digital subscription-based streaming networks like DAZN and ESPN+. While I always have said that I would not be a party to such requests and that the best way to view such events would be the legal way of purchasing the events via pay-per-view, it does speak to the problem that Boxing as a whole has not been able to solve.


In regard to seeking other forms of revenue that could replace the pay-per-view model and open up the sport to new eyes, I believe an obvious source would be something that major sports leagues such as the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have used to great effectiveness. Advertising/Sponsorships. You need look no further than the recently concluded NFL playoffs to see what type of audience numbers can be possible by opening up access to the sport without a pay wall structure. How does the NFL and other sports leagues earn revenue beyond the lucrative broadcast agreements with networks and the respective out of market packages on cable/satellite and streaming? Advertising. 


Even as those standalone out of market packages appear to be heading for inclusion with a subscription-based streaming network like what the NHL has done with ESPN, there is still an advertising component. Those who regularly watch Boxing coverage on either DAZN or ESPN+ will likely see advertisements aired either between rounds of bouts or prior to bouts themselves. All of which are revenue generators. Now, some might ask well it might work out for the promoters and networks to turn to advertising, but how would it benefit the fighters who still think, despite evidence that pay-per-view is still the way to go? When I was growing up in the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s, it was not uncommon to see some of the biggest stars in the sport on television and radio commercials as spokespeople for products, which in some cases earned those fighters more money than they would earn simply by relying on pay-per-view revenue or their purse for bouts alone.


With rare exceptions, we do not see boxers take part in commercials beyond advertising their own bouts. This is something that should be openly sought by promoters, a fighter’s management and even networks as a way to not only give fighters an opportunity to earn more money, but also in doing so, market the sport to new eyes, while not relying on a pay wall structure that is pay-per-view to draw revenue. Although much was made of the now severed guaranteed contract between DAZN and Saul Alvarez, that was for eleven fights and $365 million to see his bouts be aired exclusively through DAZN’s subscription model without pay-per-view, one aspect of that deal, which should be implemented is there were incentives for the fighter if certain subscription numbers were met.


This is something that all networks whether they be streaming or traditional television need to adapt. While DAZN in response to the backlash it has faced for adapting an occasional pay-per-view model has said that it was necessary to get Alvarez back on it’s network, I cannot see a network not at minimum setting a standard in saying if fighters insist on pay-per-view, we as the network expect x number of buys not as a break even point, but as a profit point to be met regardless of who that fighter will be competing against with failing to meet that point resulting in the network not being willing to do pay-per-view. Even though such a standard obviously puts more pressure on a fighter, it might be the only way to convince fighters that pay-per-view is not the guaranteed revenue generator that it was prior to the advent of subscription-based streaming.


Would fighters in Saul Alvarez’ position benefit more by being offered guaranteed contracts to fight under a subscription-based streaming model as Alvarez was for a time? Obviously, I think it would vary on a fighter by fighter basis, but if for example a fighter in Alvarez’ position were to fail to draw a buy number on pay-per-view that would be profitable for all involved, what would the alternative be? Step one would involve reducing pay-per-view prices to see if it is strictly the price point for such events that turn off consumers, but a more sensible approach would be to give a fighter a similar structure as Alvarez had in his initial agreement with DAZN in 2018 that would give a flat guarantee for x number of fights, but also implement incentives for meeting certain subscription numbers. It makes it more sensible for the consumer, but it also would put a fighter, a fighter’s management, and a fighter’s promoter in a position to aggressively market a subscription-based network such as DAZN in order to hopefully increase subscriber numbers. One aspect that you also do not see fighters doing much of in present day in addition to commercial advertising/sponsorships, is you do not see the elite fighters in the sport making the television talk show rounds on either late night or morning chat shows that you would see in years and decades past.


While some may not see the benefit of a star boxer making the talk show rounds, what is important about it from a marketing perspective is by doing so, it gets the attention of the casual viewer who may watch talk shows regularly, but might not watch Boxing and other sports beyond occasionally. Thus, by exposing the fighter to new eyes and promoting an upcoming bout as a result, it has the potential to increase the audience and if overpriced/inflated pay-per-view prices are not part of the equation to see those bouts and are replaced by reasonably priced subscription alternatives, the potential audience would likely increase as well as allow the fighters, the networks, and the promoters to earn more revenue by not only increased subscription numbers, but also by the implementation of advertising that would replace the pay-per-view model


All of this at the end of the day might seem like an overly optimistic viewpoint by yours truly, but the bottom line is these are the things that would benefit Boxing, its fans, and most importantly the fighters in the long-term than simply those who continue to rely on such an outdated model just putting events together and putting them on pay-per-view. Something needs to change and without those who think such a model is still beneficial coming to that realization, Boxing will continue to see underwhelming results as well as limiting the sport’s potential to grow. As a Boxing lifer, I want to see the sport thrive and that simply will not happen as long as those who continue to refuse to adapt stand in Boxing’s way. Four pay-per-view offerings likely totaling a $300 expense for a Boxing fan to view every card in one month’s span of time is evidence of preventing the sport’s growth. Anyone who truly has Boxing’s best interest should see that as unacceptable and should demand accountability not just for the sport itself, but for those who support it.


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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