October 17th, Gennady Golovkin had his pay-per-view debut and the number of buys reported ranged from 97,000 from matchmaker and boxing insider Rick Glaser to just over 150,000, a number pushed by the event’s promoter Tom Loeffler. The Boxing Tribune, based on information provided and culled from three independent sources, reported that the buy total was less than 150,000 (and later edited to a much clearer “between 120K and 150K” total).
Now, let’s take another fact from the Golovkin-Lemieux card.
The show was a Madison Square Garden sell-out and, according to reports, sold $122,000 worth of merchandise– the most for any MSG boxing show.
As someone who works on the publishing end of the media, I can vouch for the fact that Golovkin coverage does not move the needle at all in terms of traffic generation and page views. On the other hand…Mayweather, Pacquiao, Canelo, Cotto? Absolutely game-changing in terms of reader interest. I have always found this to be the case and, just to make sure that I wasn’t working in a bubble with this finding, I confirmed this fact with three friends who run websites– one who owns a major site, another who is the editor at a major site, and another who owns a mid-sized site. Golovkin just doesn’t move the needle.
So, what we have is a confusing set of stats here where the guy can sell out a major arena (and other major arenas), sell merchandise like a rock star, yet generate relatively little interest in “big picture” scenarios.
What to make of this…
To me, all of this adds up to the clearest case against boxing’s current business model and proof positive that relying on the motherly embrace of premium cable is slowly crushing this sport.
Golovkin is clearly a big deal within a circle of the hardcore boxing fan base. The loyalty he generates falls somewhere between laughably intense and frustratingly dense. He also is the subject of intense man-crushes within the boxing media. However, as a commodity suitable for real crossover stardom, it’s just not happening.
Very few fighters have been pushed as hard as HBO is pushing Golovkin– and it has whipped the true believers into a frenzy. But, in terms of big picture stardom, the guy is barely a blip despite blanketing the media with positive spin and doing an absolutely expert job in selling the hell out of him as the next big thing. Only Floyd Mayweather has been on TMZ more than Golovkin.
The Golovkin-Lemieux PPV sales were weak. Forget the BS about the PPV being up against playoff baseball and college football. As I said to those who would similarly try to downplay Premier Boxing Champions’ weak TV ratings: “boxing fans watch boxing, regardless of what else is on TV and anyone geared up to watch MLB playoff action probably wasn’t going to be lured away to watch boxing, either.” Anyone potentially interested in paying 60 bucks for a fight card was not going to be lured away by some other sporting event.
Also, Golovkin TV ratings are not really all that immense– and certainly not as strong as how the media frames the raw data. His fights generate what would be considered the high end of normal in terms of ratings. His ratings performances are on a par with other top names in the sport, but well below the elite four or five draws.
And before I get dozens of angry emails about “attacking” Golovkin, this is not a knock on him or, even, the HBO hype machine powering the cult of Golovkin. Everyone is doing what is expected of them in trying to guide this guy to more and more money.
No, this is about the premium cable business model in boxing and how the Golovkin-Lemieux case study points directly to how 30+ years of isolating the sport from the mainstream has decimated the fan base. 30+ years of having to pay extra on top of extra to see any boxing at all and then even more to see the truly big fight has turned boxing into a micro-niche sport. That should be pretty clear to everyone.
What hasn’t been made too clear is just how small that available fan base actually is.
Given that HBO/Showtime ratings rarely get close to the 2 million mark and PBC prime time shows on free network TV began at a high of 4.2 million viewers (with a steady trend downward), the assumption can be made that, at any given time, there are fewer than 4 million actual dedicated boxing fans in a nation of almost 320 million.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 1% of sports fans in America claimed to like boxing above all other sports, placing it a firm ninth and in a virtual tie with figure skating and track & Field. The 2013 number was down from 2% in 2007, where boxing tied for eighth most popular sport with ice hockey.
TV ratings also tell the tale of a sport in decline.
Although recent ratings, over the last year or so, have been climbing slightly, there is still a clear downward trend overall. Consider that the 2007 bout between Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler, which was considered a laughing stock flop at the time for delivering just under 1.6 million live viewers, would be lauded as a ratings blockbuster now and rank among the three highest rated boxing shows on HBO this year. Yes, people watch TV “differently” these days with DVR and such, but having no urgency to see a live fight translates into having no passion for the product.
All of this doesn’t mean that boxing is dying, of course. The sport is undergoing huge growth all over the world and, thanks to its return to network TV, more people will watch boxing this year than at any other time in the recent past. Don’t forget, also, the 4.4 million who coughed up 100 bucks each for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao PPV.
What is happening, though, is that the American boxing scene is settling deeper and deeper into a niche within a niche. The fan base will shrink, the available talent pool will diminish even more, and the effort to create true stars will become harder and harder. Floyd Mayweather was the last of an extinct species. From now on stardom will be on a smaller scale and reserved almost exclusively for the foreign star with strong ethnic support in the U.S.
Think the Grateful Dead. The sixties band hadn’t had a hit song in ages, but kept touring for decades, performing to sold out shows and generating enough money from performances and merchandising to be profitable for themselves. This will be boxing. Able to produce small-scale regional/cult stars and sold out arenas, but not strong enough to produce anything resembling a true crossover athlete.
And this trend will continue as time passes and as the premium cable business model continues to do what it does. Everything will simply be scaled down.
Remember, the premium cable companies are not in the TV ratings business, they’re in the subscription business. The one-fight impact of giving fans a fight they want to see means nothing to them. HBO and Showtime want a stable of fighters they can spotlight and slap on a poster as exclusive content to entice potential subscribers into signing up. This business model almost begs that tough fights NOT be made as the ultimate goal would be to build a stable of stars as quickly and as effortlessly as possible.
A business model built on actual ratings and advertising would live and die by the fight by fight quality of their programming. It would force promoters to deliver on a consistent basis.
Obviously, the premium cable model is much safer and more secure for the promoters and their efforts to make quick cash with as little risk as possible. But, a sport like boxing, which lives and breathes on producing memorable moments through competition, suffers under this easy cash model. And the fans, who are asked to pay and pay again for the privilege of watching HBO or Showtime carefully guide their roster of stars to poster boy status, sometimes just get sick of the whole mess and walk away– with nobody taking their place in an ever-shrinking fan base.
There are solutions to be had, or at least attempted, for this large scale shrinkage, but the sport’s power brokers aren’t going to change what is a sweetheart deal for themselves just to help the sport. And, sadly, as the fans become more and more indoctrinated into accepting this self-destructive model as the way things should be, they’ll fiercely attack any attempt from an outsider talking new strategies and fresh ideas. The attacks sustained by PBC and Al Haymon– whether deserved or not (and that’s a topic for another Rant)–are prime examples of this.
So, yeah, unless I’m wrong, it looks like this boxing well has finally run dry. I sure hope I’m wrong.
You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org . Those tuning in this week for the salacious muckraking promised last week, will have to wait right now as the real nastiness will be reserved for Paul’s Farewell Boxing Tour: Coming Soon. In the meantime, 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.