WITH great revenue comes great expectations and, ideally, great responsibility. Ideally… Not a word our country’s government or their corporate brethren tend to honour, but I digress.
On the back of Liam Smith’s stunning win over Chris Eubank Jnr, which headed yet another pay-per-view event, it’s not a bad time to shed a few thoughts on the ever-debatable platform, which, speculatively, has probably driven more people away from boxing over the years than the amount it has attracted.
Pay-per-view in boxing feels a lot like government policy, particularly privatisation. It’s a purely profit-driven model, where the yearn for revenue outpaces the value that is delivered. Naturally, it is fervently backed by its purveyors (television networks and promoters) and messaged to end-users (the fans) as the only way to deliver the lucrative fights they crave for, which does have some merit, as money doesn’t flow into boxing from corporate or blue-chip sponsorship. Yet, like privatisation, everyone knows that pay-per-view has largely undelivered and will continue to do so.
Privatisation as a concept and in practice has glaring flaws, many of which have been laid bare by the current avalanche of public sector strikes across the UK, but a few of the most detrimental to the way things run are it costs more; private companies can’t be held accountable, so when they fail to deliver, the public has no power to intervene. Such companies do not allow democratic voices, and they tend to cherry pick the profitable part of a service or entity so they can make as much money as possible. Not to mention that your product or services get worse. This is always a conflict between making money and taking time to care.
Apply this to boxing and the pay-per-view model and let it marinate. You’ll soon realise it’s not so difficult to see the major obstacles that boxing must overcome if it’s to expand its reach and regrow into a majority sport.
The line between what is worthy of being offered by promoters and television networks as pay-a per-view event and the price they go on sale for, has been well and truly blurred. Profit is the primary goal, and what fans want to pay for is shunted further down the list. The standard for what is considered acceptable is being lowered all the time, as are the expectations of fans, who nobly continue to dig deep in their pockets to gain access to the boxing’s brightest stars, sustaining the sport along the way. But for how long, as prices increase and socio-economic pressures dictate what they can and can’t pay for?
The prices for pay-per-view shows have always been a bone of contention in America because they’re so exorbitant, but the UK is beginning to edge closer and they’re doing it largely with shows without the historic quality or star billing that was once a requisite. Shows which, once upon a time, wouldn’t have offered enough financial return to justify sticking a price on them.
When the PPV price for the Tyson Fury and Derek Chisora trilogy was announced – to watch on BT Sport Box Office came at a cost of £26.95 – it looked like pending financial haemorrage from the outside. Queensbury had made a third fight between the pair, which no one really wanted to see, one that would take place in a London stadium, in December, with the result being all but a forgone conclusion. The dots weren’t joining and only Fury’s star power could help it generate the numbers needed to make it worthwhile.
There wasn’t really an attempt to window dress the card with more than the odd competitive fight. That obviously helped to keep costs down but offered scant return for viewers that stumped up for the event. The chief support to the main event was left to Daniel Dubois who took on a little-known former cruiserweight, almost got knocked out and confirmed for viewers that he’ll only be going as far as his punch resistance will allow.
I suspect everyone involved knew it was a sub-standard offering, but if enough tickets and pay-per-views were sold to pay everyone and gain some margin of profit, then I guess it was ‘job done’. If losses were made then BT Sport has the financial might to absorb them, but then does that lead to greater risk management by the platform and reduce the commercial pot available for future pay-per-views? Then it’s off to Saudi Arabia we go, where money is limitless and Fury and Usyk can negotiate to receive tens of millions to make their fight.
From a fan’s perspective, paying for a boxing event is a reluctant decision. It’s a necessary evil if you don’t want to resort to streaming fights, listen to the radio, or get updates from social media. Decades of this platform hiding many of boxing’s world champions and most talented performers behind paywalls have conditioned fanbases into a gradual acceptance of almost whatever networks and promoters want to give them. Well, it’s either that or a gross over-estimation by promoters of the value for money ratio of what they are putting on for audiences.
Even though PPV is Sky’s tried and trusted method of delivering ‘big’ fights, it’s doubtful that last weekend’s fight between Eubank Jnr and Smith would have previously had equitable star power and value to be a credible PPV event, let alone be charging 20-quid. It’s the sort of match-up that would’ve been slotted on an Anthony Joshua undercard during his time as the ruler of UK PPV.
Meaning no disrespect to the men involved, as they’re good, solid veterans, with Smith being a former belt-holder, but a decent domestic dust ups between two fighters who are fringe world level fighters is not what springs to mind when one thinks of paying a score for a fight. Then again, for many who have found Eubank Jnr unpalatable over the years – and I’m not one of them – seeing him lose so emphatically probably justified purchasing the pay-per-view.
Conversely, it was Eubank Jnr’s burgeoning popularity and not his notoriety, which likely contributed most to the fight becoming an attraction. He came out of the breakdown of his fight with Conor Benn and the furore that followed with his image and brand in fine fettle. His once cold and emotionless exterior and dismissiveness of other fighters has been replaced with a jovial, more relatable version, who has deployed sharp wit to antagonise and trigger Benn and Smith in the build up to their fights.
As an ex-pro I’m always rooting for the fighter to get paid a purse that is commensurate with the physical and mental sacrifices he or she makes, the potential risk they face inside the ring and the entertainment they provide to watching audiences. However, I do wonder if the bigger names or those with large enough profiles might might have to adjust the sums they’re asking for. If what they want is a lot but within the budgets of the networks, then fans won’t be forced to pay steeply to watch. It would still depend on networks passing the reduction on to fans or keeping the surplus for themselves. The cynic in me would bet on them doing the latter.
At this end of the spectrum the sport operates a bit like how our government does with the richest in society: it’s committed to making the biggest and richest even bigger and richer. In order to generate the most revenue possible, hardcore boxing fans are being asked to be super fans, to help prop up the market rate for the biggest stars. But you can only ask so much of those faithful before they chafe.