Monday, February 12, 2007

MAKE THE FIGHTS AND THEY WILL COME


Have a look around the arena the next time you attend a boxing match or are watching a fight on television. There are pockets of unsold seats and wide swaths of the place that are empty and cold. The atmosphere is often void of excitement with stodgy old farts sitting at ringside with their gray-haired companions. The naysayers might be right this time when they tell you that if the sport of boxing is not dead - then it’s on life support.

Listen to the fans and writers and they’ll tell you that boxing is destined to go the way of men’s tennis and horse racing, which is to say, pretty much irrelevant. Wise boxing sage that he is, Stephen Gordon, Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Cyber Boxing Zone says it like this, "It saddens me so much to realize boxing is on its last legs as a sport in the United States. Boxing, like horse racing, has now become only an ‘event’ sport rather than a sport that draws daily interest from the general sporting public. The only time you hear or read real coverage of horse racing is during the Triple Crown stretch of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. The rest of the year the sport is basically ignored by the media."

Boxing has so many ills that a medicine cabinet full of pharmaceuticals couldn’t cure what ails it at this point. The so-called "governing" bodies are either inept or corrupt -likely both. With super champions, champions emeritus and interim champions a flow chart written by Bill Gates would be of no help in trying to keep track of the plethora of title belts that pollute the sport.

Many point to the boxing promoters as the real problem in boxing. Most within the industry see the promoters as only being out for themselves while pasting together any cutthroat deal they can muster to pad their own bank accounts. Promoters and managers have essentially been replaced by television networks that green light the fights and sign the checks but their influence still looms like a dark shadow over many of the key decisions.

Casinos and television networks have made the clubfight obsolete because the promoters that are left have forgotten how to really promote a fight at the local level and put butts in the seats in a community. Regional and inner city rivalries have become a thing of the past.

It used to be that Don King and Bob Arum along with the aid of the WBC and WBA controlled boxing. Muddying up that mix of mayhem over the past couple of decades has been the addition of two more sanctioning bodies in the form of IBF and the WBO - with thirty four more "world champions".

No longer do King and Arum hold the promotional monopoly in boxing. Now there are names like DiBella Entertainment, Main Events, Cedric Kushner, Gary Shaw Promotions, Goossen-Tutor, Duva Boxing, Golden Boy Promotions, Warriors Boxing and a list that continues on as long as your arm. Even active fighters are jumping aboard the promotional bandwagon by forming their own loosely organized "promotional companies" in hopes of keeping a larger share of the pie by promoting their own fights. With so many so-called promoters representing so many different fighters with so many self interests, just getting two guys to take off their shirts and punch each other in the mouth has become nearly impossible.

These various promotional companies all sue one other, call each other names and bicker over promotional rights to fighters and titles. As they make veiled threats and trash each other’s fighters, representatives and business practices their escapades keep the Internet boxing sites filled with daily content – much to the delight of readers that are able to follow the ongoing antics and soap opera-like plot lines.

Meanwhile, each promoter retains a cadre of attorneys in the wings to keep fighters from reneging on signed contracts or fleeing to a rival. Most of the entertainment value in boxing these days is in following the comedic shenanigans of the promoters and managers who all accuse each other of back stabbing and what Lennox Lewis coined "politricks" and "skullduggery". The real battles in boxing these days are waged in the boardrooms and courtrooms.

Add to all of this the fact that the two dominant television networks in boxing continually "counter program" one another and split the ever-shrinking boxing viewing audience by broadcasting fights on the same night. HBO rarely allows fighters that appear exclusively on their network to fight a fighter that may appear on Showtime, thus preventing attractive, fan-friendly match-ups from ever seeing the light of day. Recently, the HBO announcing team shocked and disappointed a live viewing audience by announcing the results of the fights of Showtime’s simultaneous live telecast before many had a chance to see them.

Now comes ominous and serious trouble on the horizon. The recent explosion in popularity of the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Armed with unified rules and controlling sanctioning bodies that call the shots on everything from rankings to contracts to television deals to marketing it has attracted the coveted younger demographic and also the attention of both HBO and Showtime. Both networks are poised to begin broadcasting MMA bouts on their airwaves in 2007.

While the ratings for MMA events and pay-per view buy rates are held close to the vests of those in charge – they are said to dwarf that of recent boxing events over the past few years. Once subscription networks get a whiff of these ratings and the demographics they bring to the table - it’s a real possibility that boxing could disappear from their networks entirely in the not too distant future.

Because of it’s fragmented nature, boxing suffers in today’s world of slick marketing campaigns, targeting a specific market and moving quickly in a world of change. Multiple promoters, sanctioning bodies and warring factions within a faction make fights difficult to piece together. Deals can fall apart at the last minute because of a myriad of issues ranging from contract details to promotional disagreements or minor monetary issues. Each promoter ends up cutting separate and individual deals with sponsors, casinos and networks. Attempting to hold this hodgepodge together until the actual fight often proves impossible.

Then there is the issue of pay-per view. The past few years has seen the frequency of PPV events multiply like rabbits left unattended. Once reserved for only the very biggest of fights, PPV has become one of the few vehicles left to broadcast boxing. The number of available television dates on the premium networks are often reserved well in advance and are tied to other incentive packages with individual entities often leaving the un-connected promoters disconnected entirely.

Fights that once appeared on "free television" or were known as "ESPN quality" are now appearing on PPV for prices ranging anywhere from $19.95 to $59.95. This practice has only served to alienate the boxing fans that remain who cannot afford cable bills in excess of their monthly mortgage payments.

None of this is good for the health of the sport and none of these complex problems that plague boxing has a simple answer. Boxing is still what the great Jimmy Cannon called, "The red light district of sports." But, unless something changes soon, corporate America will be driven further away from boxing and into the bosom of more welcoming hosts with less complicated problems.

Gone is the time in boxing when in a span of 2 ½ years super fight after super fight was put together that captured the imagination of sports fans around the world. Consider that from June 1980 to November 1982 Roberto Duran fought Ray Leonard in Montreal and New Orleans as well as Wilfred Benitez in Las Vegas. Larry Holmes faced Muhammad Ali and Gerry Cooney in the Las Vegas desert. Leonard stared down Tommy Hearns in that same desert and Aaron Pryor filled the Orange Bowl against Alexis Arguello in Miami. Fights such as those only come along once every several years in this age of disagreement.

"Where have all the boxing fans gone?" is the question that many within the industry are asking.

Here’s a little message for those captains who are steering this rudderless ship called boxing hopelessly aground. It’s a simple answer really - Make the Fights and They Will Come.

January 2007

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