Special Report: How the boxing landscape is changing

Warren-v-hearn-rival promoters

In the Blue corner, with white and blue shorts and Red logo we have Boxnation, boasting an impressive fight record of delivering international fights for a monthly subscription to the boxing purists and backed by an established Promoter of many, many years…the one and only Frank Warren.

And………..

In the red corner, with Purple logo and red font shorts we have Matchroom, consisting of a fight  record including providing major sports content around the world, with an impressive stable of fighters and putting on shows via the huge Sky Platform…..“Fast Car” Eddie Hearn.

For the thousands in attendance, and the millions watching around the world. Ladies and Gentleman lets get ready to ruuuuumble……

Now we have the introduction out of the way lets take a deeper look into the current state of boxing and how the fighters, sorry promoters, stack up against each other. In the UK, boxing without doubt is seeing huge sea changes in the way it is being handled and showcased by the main promoters.  I am no expert at all in either business or boxing, but public perception is everything, and we, the fans have a right to our viewpoint.  As fans what we all want to see is plain and simple, the best boxers in the best fights. Without knowing the intricacies of what goes on behind the scenes the lay boxing fan doesn’t see all the stakeholders involved in a fight event that are involved in the negotiations, contractual stipulations, legality and administration duties and what is right for business and wrong for business.  All we see is a lack, or unwillingness of boxers to fight each other, which dare I say is not the real stumbling block. The Manny Pacquaio and Mayweather fiasco a few years ago was the perfect example of this. Timing in boxing is everything. Miss that opportunity to get two fighters in a ring at their peak and then further down the line one loses, like Pacquiao did against Marquez ,and the hype is gone, the demand lessens and thus the mega fight business opportunity has gone.

Lets compare this to other major sports, football for example. If Manchester United lose the premier league title, there will always be another Manchester united next season, not so with boxing, once that fighter has gone no one can say when that country will produce another great that has enthused the general public.  Look at America, still waiting for the next big heavyweight after the dominance of Tyson, it can take years, decades even in boxing for that boom period to be recreated.  Every Heavyweight in the US that shows any kind of promise is hailed as the game changer – the next American great hope. Deontay Wilder typifies this hype by displaying boxing skills that are far below heavyweights of a previous generation but enough to start excitement in a Heavyweight period that has lost those greats. You see there is not a sport like boxing. We are not talking football, golf, tennis or any other sport where aswell as the individual player the brand fans buy into is “Wimbledon”, “The Premier League”, “the US open”,  “Ryder Cup”, or “The Ashes” but a brand that is the individual boxer. The brand of say a Wimbledon is timeless, players come and go and when we have an Andy Murray that brand strengthens but it’s always there and is a regular, annual fixture in the sporting calendar which is almost cultural in the UK.  From a business perspective Wimbledon offers a regular fixture, with a guaranteed revenue opportunity and that all important terrestrial television coverage that reaches into households of even the most casual of tennis fans and indeed people who don‘t even follow the sport. The Premier league is globally huge, the format brings fixtures and a set period of games in a certain timeframe. Boxing is more ad hoc, fighters aren’t in a series (the Super Six Series a notable exception to the rule) but titles and fan base are the key components for success. Without exposure some boxers may have all the skills to become a World champion but disappear in the Sport through lack of sponsorship, reaching out to fans and becoming disillusioned. Fighting takes preparation, the individual could suffer injuries, delays frustrate the fans, indeed control of the sport from a promoter’s point of view is harder to exert than other sports. Boxing is indeed a different animal.

Despite all this the sport demands respect. The boxers, brave enough to enter that squared circle in the first place, for the most part just want to fight. Done correctly they push their bodies to absorb punishment, build stamina and learn their craft. I enjoy football but the sacrifice given to boxing by the fighters, for much less reward than a Rooney or Lionel Messi is admirable. And that is where a promoter comes in, to effectively guide there boxer through the sport to make as much money as possible whilst keeping every party as happy as possible, from the fan to the demands of a TV network. Now that’s some juggling! A fighter may not always see the business sense of a fight he wants and the fan just wants to see the best verse the best. The trainer may disagree with a fighter’s willingness to take on a fighter he believes he isn’t ready for yet. The promoter may view a prospective opponent his fighter wants (even though it would be a good fight), as bringing nothing to the table in terms of the risk v reward equation.  The right fights at the right time, that sell, suit TV schedules, different time zones for international fights and that are realistic to make – now that’s an art in itself.

So the promoters, after all this is what the article is about. So we have the big question. We have Warren, following a business model focussing purely on boxing. with Boxnation. From my point of view the £10 a month subscription fee is outstanding value, delivering fights from around the globe, regular boxing talk shows, inside news and I like the specialist nature of the channel – purely about and for boxing.  So, let’s put this in a boxing context.  That’s a strong body shot thrown at Matchroom from Boxnation. However Matchroom throws a left hook back by providing regular boxing shows through the Sky platform that has access to a far wider audience – that’s an assumption by the way, but rather accurate I should imagine. Boxnation takes a huge swing back by offering big fights at no extra charge whilst Sky and Matchroom, for the big fights anyway, demand pay per view (PPV) rates. To be fair PPV in recent times hasn’t been a regular occurrence.  However this for me sours it a little – £15 for one show is asking a lot, invariably, but not always I will pay it depending on the quality of the under-card, other times I’ll watch it a week after the fight for free. It was very interesting to watch the IFLTV  interview with both Frank Warren and Barry Hearn that were filmed early this summer, both fascinating insights into the inner workings of boxing and the politics attached to the sport. It is not as simple as it may first appear.

Hearn played the relaxed, calm and philosophical role, quick to boast that his diverse portfolio of sports content, not restricted to boxing, is far superior to the more specialist nature of the Boxnation product.  Reading between the lines I almost felt Hearn was hinting, that in certain circumstances boxing was in essence subsidised by other parts of the Matchroom business. This would suggest that boxing as a stand alone product was a flawed business case. Bang, another swipe at Boxnation, this time a solid shot on the chin! Warren counters with a left hook, suggesting in a recent IFLTV interview, that Eddie Hearn doesn’t understand the dangers of boxing, hydration and weight loss factors and is quite simply content on arranging boxing shows away from home to satisfy the bottom line with inexperience to boost.

This is interesting stuff to the public. Here I hear Warren rebelling against Matchroom, in particular the new kid on the block Eddie Hearn. Someone he believes has come along, stole the limelight and being handed the silver spoon by Sky. I suppose Warren feels his long period in boxing has not earned any loyalty from the TV networks, Sky in particular I should imagine after sticking with one promoter – Matchroom and ousting the other promoters.  I for one have to agree that the decision to solely use one promoter by Sky has placed one promoter in a dominating market position. Therefore it makes sense boxers will detract from one promoter to the other in pursuit of bigger shows, more money and more TV exposure. Ultimately Sky has certainly played a significant part in changing the landscape of boxing. But this is a business and just like boxing getting a competitive edge is the key to achieving success.

However according to Warren, Box-nation is about boxing, real boxing and he’s very keen on emphasising the fact that boxnation is a unique product and purely for the fans. I like that approach it’s almost giving the fans ownership by acknowledging what they want and what Boxnation are delivering. Warren is stating his market position here. But according to Matchroom Boxnation isn’t a viable commercial option. Barry Hearn suggests, in a nice enough way, that Warren is ploughing his money into a bottomless pit. I suppose time will tell if this is true, but if Boxnation is to develop as a subscription channel I feel this will be solely down to how many fans are willing to commit to a £10 a month direct debit. Boxing is my favourite sport so for me it’s an easy choice and value to boot, but to the casual boxing fan is this enough, that is the make or break scenario of Boxnation, I for one hope it works.

Equally so Matchroom delivers entertaining shows and there is no denying that. In addition Sky’s regular Ringside show provides fantastic preview, review and analysis in the boxing world. Eddie Hearn comes across with bags of enthusiasm and his approach, has in recent times, appealed to an array of boxers who have made the switch from Warren to Hearn, most notable Ricky Burns, Scott Quigg, Stephen smith and now Paul Smith last week – to name but a few.  It must be demoralising for Warren to have so many of his boxers, in essence his products, move over to Matchroom. Its easy to forget that when a boxer moves so do all his fans and that will have a huge impact on Warrens ability to fill out arenas and where those fights take place. That could be the consequence of Sky’s decision to use one promoter, rightly or wrongly it has clearly caused a division in the sport. If boxers make the switch within the parameters of their existing contracts with their promoters then there can’t be a legal issue and that would just be the business of boxing. But the bigger issue seems to be that “tapping up” is occurring in the sport, as suggested by Frank Warren himself on the Sofa of Steve Bunce’s boxing hour last night (11th November). This term is often used to refer to illegal approaches by other Promoters to a boxer when they are still in contract without consent from the existing promoter. A memorable example was the approach by Chelsea and Mourinho way back in 2005 toward Ashley Cole of Arsenal which resulted in Cole been found guilty and receiving a £100,000 fine from the Premier League. In relation to Paul Smith whether he has indeed been “tapped up” or not, he will likely face investigation from the BBBofC if Warren pursues to lodge a complaint and challenge for “substantial damages” that he is likely to do. This would probably be for breach of contract and the losses Warren is likely to make from his 7th December show at the Echo arena where Paul Smith was scheduled to fight Luke Blackledge.

So now I haved bored you with the intricacies of contractual agreements lets compare the two promotional outfits. There is no denying that Matchroom has an impressive stable of boxers, Carl Froch being the Star attraction for the moment and strengthened by this years wave of boxers making the move from Warren to Hearn. I suppose Warren feels shunned by Sky, giving all their backing to Hearn and thus you can see why he is so riled. I am not taking sides here these are just observations. Warren, in the IFLTV interview, was also keen to distance himself from any media interest that James Helder at IFLTV suggested people had between the on-going war of words between Matchroom and Boxnation. Warren was quick to point out that no one was interested in himself and Eddie Hearn’s difference of opinion and their opposite business philosophies and that boxing was the real interest. Well to a large extent that’s true, but come on Frank you cannot tell me that after your recent interviews and comments no one is interested – its compelling stuff and in the long term its “added value” to the whole build up to see this rivalry unfold. Could we see Hearn v Warren at catch-weight on pay per view?

Another twist before I conclude is the move that took place in Summer when Box-nation brought on board promoters Frank Maloney, (who is now retired), and Ricky Hatton -another interesting move.  So we have a clear division forming here, it’s beginning to make sense. We have Warren forging partnerships with old rivals to bolster his case for the old school style of promoters, against the new breed, charismatic Eddie Fast Car Hearn. We have Matchroom that make excellent use of social media embracing new ways of working, bringing personalities into the mix, utilising every avenue to channel the sport of boxing out to the general public against Warrens more old hat way of working. No criticism there Frank just building the hype!  Absorbing stuff this. However let me finally conclude my article with some key-points. Box-nation, for the fan, is pound for pound the best value channel around in the UK concentrating only on boxing.  Not only has it produced some excellent domestic fights but stateside has brought some fantastic fights over here. Matchroom consistently produces regular shows that deliver to the fans and you have got to admire Eddie Hearn’s enthusiasm and personality. Despite the rivalry I am not loyal to either I watch both platforms and in the long term we shall see which strategy has longevity, the power of the Matchroom monopoly or the niche market of the Boxnation product. I suppose this solely depends on the size of the UK hard-core boxing fan base.  But with any public rivalry it can be healthy or damaging and PR maybe the key in this fight of the promoters. If things start getting ugly between the two there will be a loser and boxing as a sport will suffer, but aslong as it’s kept sensible then the boxing fan wins with some good shows and match ups. Played out right the Hearn v Warren saga could indirectly help both promoters widen the appeal of boxing without them actually knowing.

….and now to the judges, where for now, we have a draw!

Twitter: Punchperfect @AndrewPicken2

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