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Brooklyn-born welterweight Paulie Malignaggi scanned the rollicking Barclays Center crowd from his ringside seat and smiled, soaking in the thunderous chant of “B-Hop, B-Hop, B-Hop” that echoed through the building.
“You never hear Bernard Hopkins cheered like this,” Malignaggi said after watching Hopkins, who is 48, become the oldest fighter to win a world championship last month. “The fans showed tonight that they want boxing here. If you market it the right way, you’ll bring them out. You just need to have a consistent presence.”
New York is unparalleled as a fight town when it comes to its history, which winds back to the late 1880s and the bare-knuckle bouts of John L. Sullivan at the then open-air Madison Square Garden.
Boxers pose in front of the Brooklyn Bridge for a publicity photo in October prior to a fight night at Barclays Center.
Photo by:Getty Images
Ali’s last fight in New York was more than 30 years ago, and the rest of those iconic stars retired long before that. Over the decades, the pipeline of big fights in New York City has slowed for a variety of reasons, some cyclical, some financial, some cultural.
The casinos of Las Vegas now are home to most of boxing’s biggest bouts. The next tier frequently land in Atlantic City, or in any number of casino ballrooms on Native American land.
Since 2008, only Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto has played the Garden’s main building. Every other fight has been in the adjacent Theater at Madison Square Garden, which seats about 5,600 and, because of renovations, hosted only three fights in the last two years.
It has been a span of relative slumber for boxing in New York. And then, as the calendar turned this year, things began to percolate.
On Saturday afternoon, NBC was set to air heavyweights Tyson Fury and Steve Cunningham from the Theater at MSG, which also hosted an HBO show in January. The Saturday before that, HBO aired promoter Top Rank’s Guillermo Rigondeaux vs. Nonito Donaire fight from sold-out Radio City Music Hall. This coming Saturday brings the third card held at Barclays Center since the building launched its boxing program in October. The event, which airs on Showtime, features a heavy Brooklyn flavor, headlined by popular hometown lightweight Zab Judah against Danny Garcia.
Boxing also is on the Barclays Center’s calendar in June, when Malignaggi fights rising star Adrien Broner, and July,
“You’ve got to get people conditioned to know that boxing is in Brooklyn,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center, who envisioned boxing as tent-pole programming for the arena from the time developers put the first shovel in the ground. “Doing it sporadically doesn’t accomplish it. So our goal is to have regularly scheduled events. We have to re-engage the boxing fan.”
The steady flow of Brooklyn fights comes as a result of the venue’s three-year deal with Los Angeles-based promoter Golden Boy, which will use the venue to develop a home base for fighters on the East Coast.
“There haven’t been any (big-arena) fights for a long time in Brooklyn,” said Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer. “So we look at this the way you do when you build a business. … You have to expose the people to your product.
“It’s great to do a fight in a big market. But it’s even better to do it with the consistency so that people know you are coming back.”
Only two events in, it’s too early to tell how the market is taking to the program.
The Hopkins fight generated a $611,974 gate from 9,377 tickets sold. The debut card, which Golden Boy and the Barclays Center seeded by giving away as many 1,000 tickets to anyone who showed an ID with a Brooklyn address, sold 9,635 tickets and did a gate of about $750,000. This week’s fight paced ahead of the other two, with about 6,000 tickets sold even before the lights came on for the Hopkins fight.
“The idea that if you keep doing more fights people will come — I would so like that to be the case and I’m really rooting for it to be the case,” said Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events, which promoted the NBC fight at MSG and has tried a similar tack with boxing at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. “It certainly is logical. But I have to tell you that in reality it’s harder than that.
“At the Pru Center, they continue to do everything they possibly can do to help us sell tickets. But we’ve found that going in there more than two or three times a year is overdoing it.
“Consistency is good. But you also have to know when enough is enough.”
Barclays Center puts on the gloves
Holding court in a bunker suite in the bowels of the Barclays Center a couple of hours before Hopkins made history, an occasional roar seeping through the walls as a parade of Brooklyn fighters slugged it out on the undercard, Yormark sat down to explain his vision for bringing big-event boxing to New York’s most populous borough.
He was reaching for a bowl of assorted nuts when a Nets executive strode in with news from the ring.
“Your guy looked pretty good,” Nets chief administrative officer Leo Ehrline said to Yormark.
“Which one?” Yormark said.
“The one you ran across the bridge with,” Ehrline replied.
“Oh, Frank Galarza? He won?”
“He knocked the guy out.”
Yormark nodded his approval.
Now, he’s rooting for him.
“We wanted to both grow the local talent and stage events that have national appeal,” Yormark said, settling back into the conversation. “So far, it’s unfolding the way we’d hoped.”
The first event, telecast by Showtime, had Danny Garcia of Philadelphia as the co-feature and Devon Alexander of St. Louis as the first televised fight, but the meat of the local promotion leading up to the fight came from Malignaggi and a popular up-and-coming New York middleweight, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin. Mike Tyson, from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, was at ringside.
For the second fight, they went with Hopkins, a Philadelphia fighter whose story line as a man making history appealed to the broader sports audience. The third fight brought in Judah, likely the most popular of the current Brooklyn fighters, to fight Garcia.
The idea is to blend fighters with local connections with those who aren’t local, but might develop a local following if they turn the arena into their home base.
“A local major league baseball team or NFL team can have a home team following, but it’s hard to develop that for an individual athlete that’s fighting twice a year,” said Ken Hershman, president of HBO Sports, the premium cable network that, along with rival Showtime, provides the economic engine for boxing in the U.S. “This is a great effort to make a connection between the athlete and the community.
“To really sell tickets, there’s got to be a connection — something that fans say, ‘That really resonates with me.’ And it’s getting harder and harder. So you need to develop it carefully, and preferably locally, where the fighter is connecting in the community. Do that and then you’ll have a real place where you can keep coming back.”
On that front, the deal between the arena and Golden Boy places expectations on both sides. A year before the building had opened, Golden Boy began investing in fighters that made sense for the market, adding Malignaggi and Quillin to a stable that already included another Brooklyn-born fighter, Danny Jacobs.
During this NBA season, Malignaggi, Quillin and Jacobs all have been courtside at Nets games, where they’ve been shown on the video screen, backed by a reminder to fans to buy tickets for their fights. The Nets have supplied fighters with logo caps and jerseys in the hope that it will deepen their connection to the overall brand.
For the first fight, Showtime got involved in the marketing. Schaefer arranged a meeting between the head of the network’s sports division, Stephen Espinoza, and Yormark. They crafted a plan to jointly advertise the event, featuring both Showtime and the Barclays Center.
“It’s something that doesn’t usually happen,” Espinoza said. “Usually you advertise either the broadcast or the ticket sales. We worked together to market the message consistently, so we would both benefit. It’s little things like that that show the partnership that we’re all trying to build.”
Though early in the process, the Barclays marketing staff has begun compiling a database of ticket buyers and prospects. One key takeaway is that only 1,146 buyers have purchased tickets to both fights, indicating that, at least initially, the market is more segmented than one might expect.
Buyers for the first two fights were 70 percent male, with an average age of 42.8, and 46 percent were married.
Twenty-six percent of buyers reported household incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 and 17 percent earned more than $125,000. Their music preferences skewed toward rock/pop, hip-hop and R&B. Their sports preferences were basketball and football.
While promoters typically have some of that information about their buyers, they rarely can market to them with the effectiveness and efficiency of a venue that will dedicate the resources to do so.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to organically get to the customer,” said Sean Saadeh, vice president of programming for the Barclays Center, who serves as the conduit between the arena and promoters. “Some of that is through word of mouth, but it’s also social network and database building. We’re working fiercely to build it to a level where we’ve created hard-core boxing fans who feel like they’ve got to come back every single time.”
When the two parties signed the three-year agreement in 2010, they envisioned a monthly fight rotation at Barclays Center, with one-third to half of those dedicated to developmental cards that would air on ESPN, Fox Sports Net and Spanish-language cable. They talked about scaling the building down to a few thousand seats or less.
As the arena schedule came together, it became clear that those dates would be harder to come by than expected. The upcoming move of the Islanders to Brooklyn will further reduce availability. Rather than a dozen cards, it now looks like the arena will cap out at eight a year, or even six.
Yormark still wants to see Golden Boy develop young, local fighters in the building. But it will be done on the undercard of bigger fights, rather than on smaller shows. The goal is for those fighters to eventually matriculate to the top of the card.
The Rockettes joined boxer Nonito Donaire to promote this month's bout at Radio City.
Photo by:Madison Square Garden
Yormark grew up going to fights. His twin brother, Michael, interned in the boxing department at MSG years ago. Still, Brett Yormark said he had only a cursory understanding of the business when he decided to make boxing a regular part of the building menu. The one thing he knew was that he wanted a single promoter he could rely on to be responsible for the flow of shows. For counsel, he turned to Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of AEG, which owns a stake in Golden Boy and has provided a consistent home for the promoters’ fights at its venues, including Staples Center.
“I don’t understand that world,” Yormark said he told Leiweke, “but I do know that I need to align myself with someone who if they tell me something on Monday, it’s going to be the same thing on Friday. And I know that in boxing that hasn’t always been the case.”
Yormark said Leiweke recommended Schaefer.
While executives from both Golden Boy and Barclays call the deal a partnership, the financial structure for most fights will be similar to those at venues where there isn’t a long-term contractual relationship.
Golden Boy takes all the revenue from ticket sales, TV rights and the national sponsorships that it sells. Barclays Center makes its money from rent, concessions, local sponsorships and some club and suite rentals. The venue may have to pay a guarantee in order to compete for some of the bigger fights, as sources said it did to bring in Hopkins, but that won’t be the norm.
While Schaefer said Golden Boy does “four wall” rentals for almost all its events, he said he wondered whether the practice was the right way to go when he was going to be a frequent provider of fights for one building. When he deals with AEG, which is a Golden Boy investor, the venues have skin in the game.
“(Barclays Center has) the resources, but I was worried about whether they really would use them to push our tickets,” said Schaefer, who initially told Yormark he wouldn’t do fights there without a guarantee. “When I got to know them a little bit, I said, ‘Let’s try.’ If I see that they’re not going to support us the way they can, pushing the tickets, then we’ll have to change that. But so far, so good.”
Yormark and Saadeh said it only makes sense for them to put resources behind selling the fights, not only because bigger crowds buy more concessions, but also because they are trying to build something sustainable.
Most of the events at Barclays fit into one of four platforms. Brooklyn Hoops starts with the Nets, but also includes college and high school basketball. Brooklyn Show is all the concerts. Brooklyn Family is the circus and other similar events. And then there’s Brooklyn Boxing.
“Boxing is a platform within our brand, so if boxing doesn’t do well, it hurts our brand,” Saadeh said. “We want to be successful whether we’re at risk or not. And the way we look at it, we are at risk. The last thing we need is for our programming partners to fail. Because if they fail they don’t do it again. And then what happens to our boxing program?”
MSG goes toe to toe
Across the Brooklyn Bridge, the man who oversees boxing at Madison Square Garden ran down the benefits that a date at the venue affords a promoter, everything from placement on a famed marquee on one of the city’s most-trafficked corridors, to fighter appearances at Knicks and Rangers games, to a database of ticket buyers that goes back for decades,
Madison Square Garden still considers itself to be the mecca of boxing.
Photo by:Madison Square Garden
“We’re fortunate because we’re the mecca of boxing and have been forever,” said Joel Fisher, executive vice president of MSG Sports. “We’ve got great lists. There is the general boxing list of ticket buyers. There also are ethnic groups that buy tickets for different fighters. We have all of that. That gives promoters a head start in terms of selling tickets.”
The tactics sound similar to those the Barclays Center has employed thus far. Fisher said MSG rolls them out for every promoter that brings a fight to the building.
That being the case, some in boxing wonder whether it makes sense for a promoter to lock into one venue for most of its fights, or for a venue to tie to a single promoter.
“New York is always, always, always an incredible market for boxing,” said Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank, which sold out 5,600-seat Radio City Music Hall for its fight April 13, doing a gate of about $400,000. “But in my business model, my partner is the market, not a building. Therefore I feel that while New York is an important part of boxing in its totality, I don’t believe it’s building-centric. The support of a building is great, especially when you’re talking about a building that is forward-thinking and proactive about helping you promote. But I don’t believe buildings drive markets. I believe it’s always about promotion and content. And that really comes back to what we do as promoters.”
Duva, the CEO of Main Events, said she sees merit in a connection between a promoter and a venue. She said she had similar ideas when she started doing fights at the Prudential Center in 2009.
They planned to do smaller shows with a scaled-down seating bowl as a grassroots means of developing and engaging fight fans. Those went by the wayside once the building began attracting more concerts and other events.
They developed a legitimate headliner for the building in heavyweight Tomasz Adamek, who made himself visible around Newark and sold well with the local Polish-American community. But Adamek’s career is on the wane now, and Main Events hasn’t yet found a fighter who can replace him as a sales driver in Newark.
The tactics seemed sound. But the returns weren’t enough to justify putting more boxing on the menu.
“We marketed to the season-ticket holders and we brought fighters to games and we did everything else you could do,” Duva said. “Having access to all those people is terrific. But we found out that being a hockey fan does not necessarily translate to being a fight fan. The support of the venue is great, and we certainly got it.
“If the building is going to take ownership of that and go out and do it, that is a wonderful thing. They’re there all the time. They have the database. They have access to people. It’s all great. But you still have to convince people to spend their money to go see a fight.”
Before Joseph Griffo was elected to New York’s State Senate, he was a regular guest on Bill Keeler’s morning radio show in Upstate New York. During one segment in 2005, Griffo — then Oneida County Executive — was interviewed alongside Matt “The Hammer” Hamill, a local mixed martial arts fighter. Hamill pressed Griffo on New York State’s ban on mixed martial arts and asked the politician for help.
The conversation stuck with Griffo, and when he was a freshman state senator in 2007, he helped draft a bill that would allow the New York State Athletic Commission to oversee mixed martial arts in a similar fashion to its 90-year oversight of boxing.
The UFC has led the push to get New York to sanction mixed martial arts and has even secured a November date at Madison Square Garden should the state legislature approve the measure before it adjourns this summer.
Photo by:Getty Images
Fast-forward several years and mixed martial arts competition is still illegal in New York. Griffo’s bill has become the focal point of a proxy battle that pits the UFC against two Nevada labor unions, the New York State Catholic Conference, and the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. The opposing sides have spent millions on lobbying efforts, and because of the political pressure, Griffo’s bill has repeatedly bogged down in Albany’s political gears.
For the past four years, the State Senate has approved the bill, but in order for the bill to become law, it also must win a majority vote in the state’s lower house, the 150-member Assembly. Each year the bill has become stuck in various assembly committee debates, and it has never reached the floor for a vote. “The opposition always moved the bill to more committees to stall it,” Griffo said.
But 2013 could be the year that Griffo’s bill finally becomes law. In early March the senate again passed the bill, this time by a vote of 47-14. A week later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his first public comments about mixed martial arts’ legalization, saying in a televised interview that if mixed martial arts shows could bring revenue to the state, “that’s something we’re interested in.”
Griffo’s bill gained momentum when Joseph Morelle, who is the Assembly’s Majority Leader, introduced it to the Assembly this year. And as of press time, 64 Assembly members had co-sponsored the bill, meaning it needed only 12 additional supporters in a vote to become law.
Morelle said the Assembly’s Democrats will decide how to vote on the bill at the annual Democratic Conference in early May, which could determine the bill’s fate. Morelle said he’s optimistic because of turnover in the Assembly’s Democrats. The bill’s staunchest opponent, Democrat Bill Reilly, retired last year.
“We’ve hit the high-water mark,” Morelle said.
Perhaps the most important sign that mixed martial arts could pass this year comes from the seemingly innocuous
“We’re asking for a vote, and if they give us the vote, I think we’ll get it,” Griffo said. “This is the best chance we’ve had.”
Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO of the UFC, shares Griffo’s sentiment, and the UFC has begun planning for the New York market. The UFC has even secured a November date with Madison Square Garden so it could move quickly if approval comes. It also has stepped up advertising in Times Square.
Fertitta promised lawmakers that he would hold 12 events in New York State over the next three years, should the law pass. The number of dates would put New York State on par with Southern California, UFC’s strongest market. Fertitta predicts a show at Madison Square Garden would generate $12 million in overall revenue.
“New York already represents the biggest piece of our pay-per-view business, with over 10 percent of the buys coming from the area,” he said.
But Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s general counsel and executive vice president, said he’s seen the bill die on the vine too many times to be overly optimistic. “Let us have a vote — if we lose, then we lose and it’s settled,” Epstein said. “We’re not getting a vote on the floor, and we feel it’s an abusive process and a thwarting of the democratic process.”
Fertitta is the lightning rod in the political debate. He and his brother, Frank, own Nevada’s Station Casino chain of hotels and gaming establishments, which are non-union chains. Nevada’s Culinary 226 and Bartenders 165 Unions have long protested Station Casinos and the Fertitta brothers. The Fertittas have accused both unions of enlisting the New York Hotel and Motel Trade Council to help block the vote in the Empire State.
While New York lawmakers opposed to the bill have never publicly acknowledged a tie between the unions and the political opposition, the Fertitta brothers and UFC President Dana White have regularly accused the unions of hijacking the debate.
Lorenzo Fertitta said the arc of the discussion around mixed martial arts speaks to the political influence. Five years ago, he said, the UFC’s lobbying efforts focused on convincing lawmakers that mixed martial arts were safe.
“In the last two years not one legislator has asked me about health and safety,” Fertitta said. “This is solely a political issue relative to the Culinary Union in Las Vegas.”
Representatives from the Culinary Union of Nevada and the New York Hotel and Motel Trade Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Koepfer also operates the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York, and runs a blog dedicated to documenting the push for legalization. He wonders whether mixed martial arts would have already gained legal status in New York if the UFC had played a smaller role in the lobbying effort.
“You don’t see the unions going after Bellator or Strikeforce or the other companies; it’s just the UFC,” Koepfer said. “The UFC has spent a lot of money to establish itself as the dominant brand in MMA. Now it’s hurting us in New York.”
Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.