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Volume 21 No. 6
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Bout overcomes history, distrust

Take the trepidation that so often has come with large boxing co-promotions, fueled by conflicting business practices and historic distrust, then layer on the unfamiliarity of two organizations that had not worked together, coming from sports often seen as competitors.

That was the scene at the starting gate for what could be the most lucrative event in boxing history, the Saturday night pay-per-view bout pitting boxer Floyd Mayweather against MMA fighter Conor McGregor, which, depending on how you calculate comparisons, also could equate to the highest-grossing single-day event ever in any sport.

When he signed his network on to produce the pay-per-view, Showtime Sports Executive Vice President Stephen Espinoza thought back to the acrimony and, at times, dysfunction that marked the run-up to Mayweather’s 2015 record-setting, $600 million grossing fight against Manny Pacquiao.

Espinoza was prepared for more of the same.

Floyd Mayweather, Conor McGregor and their organizations have come together to create what could be the most lucrative event ever in boxing.
Not only was there potential for blowups between Mayweather’s side, led by powerful manager Al Haymon, and the UFC, directed by publicly volatile president Dana White, but there was also the memory of a brief relationship between the UFC and Showtime that suited neither side.

And, there was this wrinkle: The introduction of new UFC owner WME, which would be handling sponsorship and some foreign sales on a major co-promotion for the first time.

“There was fear on all sides that this situation could be similar to (frustrations) we had with Mayweather-Pacquiao,” Espinoza said, drawing comparison to the bout that brought together not only rival promoters, but rival networks. “Have there been some growing pains and hiccups? Sure. But the lack of baggage has made this a much smoother process.

“We have all been approaching this with a recognition that we each bring something to the table: different fan bases and distribution bases and different marketing angles. That’s the reason this has gone so smoothly. Everybody has got something to bring to the table.”

On Mayweather’s side, the promotion has gotten the usual behind-the-scenes “All Access” series produced by Showtime, along with support across the assets of the network’s parent company, CBS. From the UFC, it’s benefiting from the usual digital promotional onslaught, led by the massive social media audiences of McGregor (5.4 million Twitter followers) and White (4.7 million followers), which complement that of Mayweather (7.4 million followers) with little crossover.

They’re also benefiting from the leverage that the UFC brings in distribution conversations, thanks to both the volume of shows it pumps through for traditional cable and satellite providers and its experience selling pay-per-views through its over-the-top service,

While those distributors typically take about 50 percent of gross sales from a boxing pay-per-view and took about 40 percent on Mayweather-Pacquiao, they will get closer to 30 percent of this one, according to sources, largely because they’ve been asked to provide less promotional support. Showtime, the UFC and Haymon were comfortable foregoing those assets from the distributors because the event has generated so much buzz on its own.

“What we bring to the table is the digital side; boxing has never done anything like it,” White said. “I don’t care if you’re in New York City or on a deserted island, you will have heard about this fight. And if you can get Wi-Fi, you can watch this fight. The whole world has the ability to watch this fight. That’s never been done before in boxing.”

That revelation was one of the key, kumbayah moments for Showtime and the UFC, Espinoza said.

“We found out almost immediately that our philosophy on pay-per-view distribution platforms was completely consistent with each other. We both wanted this event to be ubiquitous and platform agnostic. For boxing, it’ll be a first.”

Mayweather-McGregor also will get far broader distribution of pre-fight coverage than Mayweather-Pacquiao did, with Fox airing an hourlong preview show followed by two undercard fights that will lead directly into the PPV.

It’s the model the UFC long has used to drive viewers to its pay-per-views, with White joining the broadcast crew to make his final tune-in sales push as the broadcast goes dark. Major boxing pay-per-views produced by Showtime and HBO typically put fight-night programming on a dedicated channel and on their streaming services, not on their flagship channels.

This pre-fight show figures to trump anything boxing has seen in decades, with big names from both sports — including Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Georges St. Pierre — analyzing the crossover matchup.

“I had my concerns going in, but once I was in a room with Al Haymon a few times, I realized that dealing with him was going to be amazing,” White said. “My sport is still in its infancy. So I’m dealing with a lot of stupid people every day. The guys who manage the fighters on my end — it’s brutal. Al Haymon is brilliant. And it’s so much easier to get stuff done when you’re dealing with smart people.”

That said, the manner in which this fight has been sold has raised eyebrows on two fronts: Ticket and sponsor sales. Both were priced significantly higher than those for Mayweather-Pacquiao. On Aug. 16, with the fight only 10 days away, large swaths of tickets still were available on the primary market and many brokers were waiting on the sidelines, anticipating price drops that, at that point, had not come. While conceding that mid-tier seats were moving slowly, White said the gate was tracking to eclipse $60 million, which would be within $20 million of the UFC’s sales for all 44 of its events in 2016.

Ten days out, the promotion also still had not announced a single sponsor, meaning that anyone that did sign on for the fight will have little time to activate around it. While Mayweather and Top Rank banged heads through the run-up to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, they had title sponsor Tecate locked down in a record-setting deal a month before the fight. For this fight, WME has taken the lead on sponsorship sales and international distribution.

White and Espinoza both said a clear division of labor has made the process far smoother than they had feared.

It’s difficult to compare big-event revenue across sports, because TV rights for events like the Super Bowl are tied to larger seasonlong packages. But, using Super Bowl ad revenue as a basis, Top Rank makes a compelling argument that Mayweather-Pacquiao’s $600 million is the largest single-day gross to date.

If this fight is to unseat Mayweather-Pacquiao, it all starts with pay-per-view buys, a steep hill to climb since that fight’s 4.4 million buys nearly doubled anything seen before.

“I knew that me trying to be a partner in this, saying I’ll do this and I’ll do that, was a bad idea, because I would absolutely bang heads with Showtime,” White said. “I said, ‘Let them just do it. Let them run the show. Let Showtime and Haymon run everything like they always did.’

“It was the right way to handle it. The process has been good and smooth, or as good and smooth as a big thing like this in such a short amount of time can be.”