When the May 6 Saul Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. bout was announced, it was met with a predictable avalanche of criticism from many die-hard fans and so-called boxing “purists.”
But, you know what? Alvarez-Chavez Jr. is good for boxing and, for that matter, so is the tabloid-rumored fantasy match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. Whatever brings attention to the sport and generates money for the industry is good for boxing. And, at this point, boxing needs all the help it can get in those areas.
Take a look around at the American fight scene and you’ll see a sport in deep recession. Andre Ward and Terence Crawford, arguably the best active American fighters at the moment, only managed to generate a combined 220,000 pay-per-view buys for recent elite-level, career-defining title fights. No other fighter, without a niche ethnic following, could even do that much business. With very few exceptions, most premium-level fights on TV deliver the typical audience of 800,000- 1.3 million viewers—a number way down from just a decade ago when 1.6 million viewers for Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler on HBO was considered a heads-will-roll embarrassment. The raw network TV/basic cable numbers from Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions are higher than premium cable tallies, but should be taken into perspective (for instance, last August’s Errol Spence-Leonard Bundu bout, which averaged close to 5-million viewers on NBC, owes a good chunk of that viewership to being scheduled immediately after the USA Men’s Olympic gold medal basketball game).
The fact of the matter is that relatively few fighters are turning a profit for their promoters these days and the traditional TV home of big ticket prize fighting is also seeing a diminishing return on their investment. The end result has been inactivity for many of the sport’s best fighters because, frankly, it’s a wiser business proposition to earn zero money with inactive boxers than lose money (or break even) by throwing them out into fights not guaranteed to turn a profit.
“Canelo” Alvarez vs. Chavez Jr. is a guaranteed money-earner and, with the exception of a Mayweather-McGregor exhibition, the biggest money fight to be made on this side of the planet. Only Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko in the UK would beat the earning power of Canelo-Chavez at the moment. Mayweather-McGregor, though, would beat them all by leaps and bounds and would threaten revenue records set by the Mayweather-Pacquiao mega-fight in 2015.
On it’s own merit, money aside, Canelo-Chavez Jr. is a damn compelling match-up. A fight discussed for years as the “Battle of Mexico,” it was thought impossible because of weight issues. But it’s being made and to deny it’s drawing power, especially among the huge Mexican and Mexican-American fan base, is to deny all reality. In Mexico, Canelo-Mayweather in 2013 generated record-breaking TV ratings, producing a logic-defying 72 share, which meant that 72 percent of all households, with a TV turned on, were watching the fight. The battle between Mexico’s two prodigal sons will likely do even bigger numbers. In the US, Canelo-Chavez will be the biggest non-Mayweather event the sport has seen since the days of Mike Tyson (and it could even surpass Tyson’s numbers).
There’s always the urge among boxing’s die-hard vocal minority to regard the sport as some sort of noble endeavor of gladiators who fight only for honor and for the vicarious thrill of fans. But, while there is a certain nobility to it all, boxing is a business first and foremost and a business needs to make money. It also has to ensure for future growth.
It’s clear at this point that even the bouts hardcore fans regard as most essential will do very little to reach new fans and generate the kind of revenue that stimulates growth. Canelo-Golovkin is a good fight and one that would please the hardcore fans, but it’s not going to do anything beyond satisfy those already loyal to the sport. Boxing needs game changers. Boxing needs the kinds of massive money injections that help everyone from the networks and promoters down to the one-man boxing blogs. Canelo-Golovkin is more likely to happen because Canelo-Chavez will bring more money (and more casual fan interest) to the table.
For many reasons, most of boxing’s best fighters are simply not creating the kind of revenue that encourages risky elite vs. elite fights. Historically, the sport’s best fights happened because they were also the biggest fights. That’s just not happening anymore. Boxing’s business model is broken. The sad reality is that many of the fans’ dream fights would be money losers or, at the very most, small profit propositions. Nobody in the business is risking an elite-level fighter, and all the money invested into taking him to the main stage of the sport, on a dangerous bout that won’t deliver a guaranteed big-score payday.
Rather than playing budget matchmaker indefinitely and accepting that certain “big” fights are, financially, just not worth making, the sport has to take advantage of the remaining star power it does have and make Sportscenter, mainstream media-level match-ups whenever possible.
Boxing, for the sake of its long-term future, has to err on the side of big. And, then, when there’s money in the till and a stronger presence in the mainstream, it can start addressing its other pressing concerns…because, where there is no money, there is nothing.