By Ivan G. Goldman
Boxing writers have been focusing, perhaps correctly, on the news from Bob Arum that his super lightweight destroyer Terence Crawford will move up to pay-per-view for his next outing. That will be July 23 at a site and against an opponent yet to be named.
But to me the bigger news lies in Arum’s comments that HBO, due to a smaller boxing budget, won’t be doing as many shows on its network channel and will henceforth be placing more of its cards on pay-per-view.
That means fighters like Crawford who are still trying to build a following will have to gamble on drawing viewers if they want a good payday, taking a piece of the PPV action in lieu of a guarantee.
But the PPV model is not designed to attract new fans. It’s designed to screw the fans that already exist.
Professional prizefighting appears to have run out of good road and is slogging ahead these days on dirt and gravel.
Cable TV, which fed and pampered the sport for years, is getting battered around by new technologies. Lots of subscribers are moving on to other entertainment platforms such as Netflix, which boasts 75 million customers at about $9 each per month, depending on when they came aboard. HBO had 31 million subscribers at last count, but the number doesn’t appear to be growing. Its chief premium channel rival Showtime, is a rather distant 23 million.
HBO made a big splash when it started selling its wares separately to non-cable subscribers, but it probably shot itself in the foot by setting the monthly price at $15. Steep. Business Insider reported only 800,000 customers showed up.
And Al Haymon’s noble PBC experiment, which tried to take the fight game back to over-the-air networks, is starting to look like a thirsty, starved cowboy lost in the desert who’s down to half a canteen and already eaten his horse.
Awhile ago the Los Angeles Times surveyed 10 PBC cards in California and Nevada that paid out a total of $9.2 million in purses and state fees and took in $3.9 million at the gate. And you don’t have to be a marketing genius to notice advertisers and on-site sponsors aren’t lining up to make deals. This is nothing to celebrate. If PBC fails it won’t encourage others to invest big money in the sport.
We’ve run out of superstars to pull in hordes of customers. We’re still waiting for someone to come along and make it as a crossover celebrity, following in the footsteps of stars like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, and Floyd Mayweather.
Crawford, age 28, is a fine talent, 28-0 with 20 kayos, and if there’s anyone he’s ducking, I’ve seen no evidence. But it looks to be a little early to cut him loose from those multi-million-dollar purses HBO used to reserve for its stars.
Arum had a tentative deal for him to face Ruslan Provodnikov and it was a tantalizing match, but Provodnikov moved over to Showtime. These exclusive network deals are yet another barrier to creating the best match-ups.
A significant part of the bad road ahead is the fault of forces beyond the sport. HBO is a segment of Time-Warner. Its latest stock price was $70.96, or 22 percent off its high of $91.34.
Showtime is an appendage of CBS, which closed at $52.59, 18 percent below its 52-week high of $63.95. The S&P 500, a gauge of the broad market, was only 5.5 percent off its 52-week high. This tells us investors have been bailing from these two companies. They don’t much like the market and they like Time-Warner and CBS even less.
Incidentally, HBO spokesperson Kevin Flaherty said the network would have no comment on Crawford’s apparent switch to pay-per-view status.
If boxing mainstay HBO keeps backing off from boxing, as Arum described, Showtime may jump into the breach. If that’s how it works out, I suggest that as equal opportunity fans we cross our fingers for Showtime.
Ivan G. Goldman’s 5th novel The Debtor Class is a ‘gripping …triumphant read,’ says Publishers Weekly. A future cult classic with ‘howlingly funny dialogue,’ says Booklist. Available from Permanent Press wherever fine books are sold. Goldman is a New York Times best-selling author.