SBJ/Nov. 22-28, 2010/This Week's Issue

WSB ready to fight for attention in Americas

The latest big idea to come to boxing resides beyond the center-field wall of the Class AAA baseball stadium in downtown Memphis.

There, in a high-rise apartment complex, the 15 members of the Memphis Force boxing team eat and sleep. They train a half-block away, at a YMCA that the team’s owners renovated, adding padded floors, a boxing ring, heavy bags and other equipment.

The Force will compete in the World Series of Boxing, a 12-team league that was scheduled to launch Friday and Saturday night with events in Mexico City, Italy, Moscow, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, with a sixth season-opener scheduled for this week in Miami.

Global in reach, professional in look and feel, and linked to the Olympics in a prominent way, the league is a hybrid unlike any tried before.

“It’s like trying to get people to eat at a new steakhouse,” said Joe Smith, general manager of the Memphis franchise, who came to the league after managing the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. “If we can get them to take a bite of the steak, they’re going to like it and come back. It’s going to be good boxing.”

Funded by a 75/25 joint venture between Olympic boxing’s amateur governing body and IMG, the league brings together current amateurs who have competed in elite-level international events. They will box on teams fielding five weight classes. A 12-match regular season is followed by playoffs in April and finals in May.

Bouts are five rounds each, with fighters wearing pro-style eight-ounce gloves, with no headgear or shirts and a 10-point must system. Overall individual champions in the five weight classes earn berths in the 2012 Olympics in London. All boxers will retain Olympic eligibility. Boxers on the Americas teams signed three-year contracts that will pay them $25,000 to $60,000 a year, plus benefits, along with living and training expenses.

The league is made up of 12 teams. The Los Angeles Matadors, Miami Gallos and Mexico City Guerreros join Memphis in the Americas conference. Overseas franchises are in Paris, Moscow, and Beijing, as well as Istanbul, Turkey; Milan, Italy; Baku, Azerbaijan; Incheon, South Korea; and Astana, Kazakhstan.

As sports startups go, the WSB is well-funded. It will operate four teams in the Americas on a budget of about $11 million for the year. The Los Angeles team will fight at the Nokia Theatre, adjacent to Staples Center. The Miami team will call AmericanAirlines Arena home.

In Europe and Asia, where Olympic-style boxing carries a higher profile, the venture appears to have gained some traction. But in the Americas, the going has been slow. Unable to find qualified buyers for the franchises, the WSB was forced to fund the teams itself. Two weeks ago, IMG told league executives that it was close to securing a home on a U.S. cable channel. As of Thursday, the day before the Memphis vs. Mexico City opener, there was no deal. The only U.S. carriage was through Vme, a Spanish-language network available in about 10 million homes.

All three U.S. teams were slowed by snags with boxing commissions in the states in which they will operate. The Memphis franchise moved its home dates to Mississippi, where it found a more sympathetic commission. But the Los Angeles and Miami teams have done little marketing, in part because they’ve spent most of an already compressed run-up securing licenses to promote events. Tickets to the Los Angeles Matadors’ first home bout on Nov. 28 went on sale Nov. 11. Tickets to the Miami Gallos opener on Tuesday night didn’t go on sale until last Thursday.

“It will be midseason before we find our stride in what we’re doing with promotion and marketing,” said Mike Sophia, general manager of the Gallos, who also heads the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. “Fortunately, everybody that is a part of this has bought into a long-term vision.”

Operators of all three franchises said they tried to land on prices that were short of the typical prize-fight range but higher than minor league sports. In Miami, prices start at $30 and go to $150 for a premium seat at ringside. In Memphis, they’re $25, $50 and $75. In Los Angeles, most of the tickets will retail for $20, with a handful at the top end priced at $199.

In Los Angeles, Nokia Theatre operator AEG saw the WSB as content that would both develop its reputation as a boxing venue and drive traffic to the surrounding entertainment district.

“We view the Nokia Theatre as a very viable boxing venue and we’re looking to put more in there, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of [quality boxing] to go around,” said Lee Zeidman, senior vice president and general manager of Staples Center and the surrounding L.A. Live venues. “I think we have the opportunity with everything we’ve got going on to really help sell them here.”

The Matadors say their core target is the 18- to 35-year-old Hispanic male, a group that has kept boxing events viable in Southern California while they have struggled elsewhere.

“I think this property has legs,” said Jeff Benz, general manager of the Matadors, who previously worked as chief administrative officer of the AVP and general counsel at the U.S. Olympic Committee. “It faces a lot of challenges. But if we can figure this out, I think we’re going to change the face of boxing.”

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