Is Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao the last dying gasp of an increasingly irrelevant sport or is it the billboard advertising greater things to come? Well, that all depends on who you ask.
Much of the frat boy, man-boy culture that drives modern mainstream sports reporting views boxing as a thing of the past– but only because it’s not part of their own personal world. You could show them gate receipts, ratings numbers, and proof of unprecedented worldwide growth for the sport and it simply won’t register. In their minds, boxing is lumped in with “Other Sports,” like professional lacrosse, women’s softball, and college kayak racing.
I’ve worked at multi-sport websites and interned at an all-sports radio station. Even when boxing got the time of day– and performed well– it would soon find itself back on the island of misfit sports.
The truth is that the mainstream sports world is not very knowledgeable about boxing and, rather than bother learning the ins and outs and who’s who of the sport, they’d just rather ignore it.
On occasions when ignoring it is not an option (like Mayweather vs. Pacquiao), we get stabs at competence like the downright stupid Skip Bayless-Stephen Smith boxing debates on ESPN or Forbes Magazine’s third grade-level Mayweather-Pacquiao Keys to Victory.
Then, of course, comes the headier (but just as ignorant) stuff, like this flying crap ball by The Economist that waxes poetic about whether Mayweather-Pacquiao will “with a final bang, mark the sport’s passing from mainstream consciousness for good.”
The decline of boxing, according to The Economist, has a lot to do with the white middle class leaving the sport for lack of a “charismatic heavyweight to crown as the biggest, strongest, hardest-hitting fighter in the world.”
With the sport almost entirely in the hands of the “far poorer and less educated” black and Hispanic population, The Economist ruminates aloud: “…if Hispanic immigrants to America eventually assimilate as fully as the Irish and Italians did, boxing could lose its precious niche demographic appeal.”
This is the type of article one would write about the boxing business if they had no real working knowledge of the topic. Almost like writing a book review based off of someone else’s book review, but never actually bothering to read the actual book.
Expect many more of these types of articles as May 2 approaches and mainstream sports snobs are brought begrudgingly into the world of boxing.
As much as we could shoot down every poorly-conceived or flat-out silly report, there comes a point where perception becomes reality.
Boxing is in decline and dying and about to take its last great gasp of air…because that’s the narrative painted by a media that has already decided that the end has come. Forget that the same articles of imminent death have been written before just about every major boxing event for the last forty years or so
More often than not these days, the media deals in self-fulfilling prophecies. One guy at The Economist pines away for the days of a raging Mike Tyson and talks about the irrelevancy of a sport that he has admittedly not bothered to even try and follow. That article, however, carries a certain level of weight to it, regardless of its validity. It poisons the water for boxing’s possible growth and encourages the false narrative that boxing is Mayweather, Pacquiao, and a vast wasteland not worth understanding.
No, there are no more boxers on Wheaties boxes (it’s not like there have been many, anyway) and most of mainstream American probably can’t name the current heavyweight champion of the world. The truth is that, in America, the sport’s fan base has grown stagnant and uninspired over the last couple of decades. But is this because the public has left boxing or because the mainstream media stubbornly refuses to report on it? Likely, it’s a vicious cycle of the latter feeding into the former and the former fueling the latter.
But boxing’s biggest barrier in pursuit of mainstream America is not shifting demographics, changing culture, or the emergence of the UFC. And, sorry boxing rankings nerds, it’s not even the multitude of world titles floating around.
Boxing’s problem is purely business.
More specifically, boxing has made some atrocious business decisions over the last several decades that have resulted in the sport intentionally isolating itself from its target market.
The decision to move almost everything over to premium cable outlets like HBO and Showtime may have been a necessary evil at the time in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but the decision to stay there and grow fat from guaranteed money has hurt the sport tremendously.
When network TV finally gave up on the wild and frequently unsavory world of big-time boxing, premium cable networks, desperate for content, hurled large sums of money at boxing’s promoters. And the deal was, indeed, sweet.
In this business model, promoters and fighters made their paydays without ever actually having to build their star and make him an athlete who could actually draw. The network money became significantly more important than the live gate. Whether twelve or twelve thousand showed up, the promoters and fighters still got their take– something that was great for the short-term wealth of those able to take advantage of the game, but not so great for building a fan base.
Andre Berto, for instance, was a well-regarded amateur star with a reputation for producing exciting fights. HBO showcased the young fighter several times as prospect, top contender and, ultimately, welterweight world title holder. At the top of his game in 2010, despite his status as one of the network’s top stars, he could only manage a paid live attendance of 972 in his home state of Florida against respectable veteran former champ Carlos Quintana.
Under the premium cable business model, there was no longer any need to reach out to the actual flesh and blood fans. A sport that has always been built on local/regional grassroots support and free TV network exposure had isolated itself from all but the absolutely most dedicated of fans willing to follow the sport anywhere and pay for the privilege.
Berto has unfairly been used as the poster boy for all things wrong with boxing by the sport’s intelligentsia. Really, though, he’s just one of many in a quick cash business model that has simply not been in the sport’s long-term best interest.
For the last thirty years or so, fighters with star potential have been plucked from the amateurs and buried on off-TV undercards away from their home bases, eventually to emerge as “stars” on HBO or Showtime. And, again, only but the most hardcore and dedicated fans were left to care about these new showcase fighters.
Mainstream naysayers be damned, boxing has actually performed quite well given the way the sport’s growth has been stunted by its own promoters.
Thankfully, more and more boxing people are recognizing the need to get boxing back to the people. The undeniable electric atmosphere and thrilling action of a live show is boxing’s best friend. Very few walk away from a live show without becoming a fan.
For the TV audience, there’s a big difference between watching a prizefight in a sterile Vegas showroom filled with 2,500 high rolling friends of friends staring into their drinks and watching 15,000 fans go nuts for their hometown hero as he walks the aisle for his first big break.
Both HBO and Showtime have started featuring non-Casino bouts on their schedules and the results are obvious.
Watching “Canelo” Alvarez work his way through over 40,000 true believers in San Antonio, seeing Terence Crawford emerge as a true star in the sport as he played to 15,000 hometown supporters in Omaha, even witnessing a fight like Paulie Malignaggi-Zab Judah take on an exaggerated importance as Brooklyn vs. Brooklyn at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center– These are all helpful to the sport at the grassroots level.
As most already know, boxing is also making its return to network TV under the guidance of advisor Al Haymon in a Haymon Boxing effort to jump start interest in the sport via a series of company-funded time buys.
NBC will debut the Premier Boxing Champions project this March 7 with a solid primetime double-header of Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina. Time buys on CBS and Spike TV are also part of the Haymon plan, as well as possible additional programs on ESPN and BET.
This is, of course, a huge step in the right direction. The idea is to make the sport once again accessible to the fans and showcase a truly good product. Then, make plans for the post Mayweather-Pacquiao era by creating the next mega-star or, better yet, a whole crop of recognizable, marketable faces.
The question remains whether the mainstream public will give boxing the time of day or whether all the elitist page filler material from the mainstream press has poisoned the wells permanently.
We shall soon see.
In the meantime, we will continue to fend off article after article looking to bury boxing just as it may be headed for a full recovery.
You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or summon him in times of danger by blowing into your secret rocket whistle. You can also buy his book, Notes from the Boxing Underground! Paul is a full member of the Burger King Kids’ Club, a born iconoclast, and an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church.