Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 22 No. 44
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Platform power: Social influencers are creating opportunity in combat sports

Since the early days of media, countless athletes have aspired to become musicians or actors, while musicians and actors have taken their own shots at competing with athletes. With a handful of exceptions to the rule, these performers have failed to make the transition successfully.

The tide, however, may finally be turning in their favor. Advances in digital technology are now combining sports and media properties across emerging OTT subscription streaming platforms (DAZN, ESPN+, UFC Fight Pass) and social media channels (YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok). This new landscape is resetting the playing field for modern entertainers and athletes.

A new wave of online personalities is also emerging, who have garnered global influence by publishing multimedia content for subscribers across their social accounts. By promoting themselves as products, influencers have developed personal brands that build cultural capital, develop para-social relationships with consumers and provide new revenue-making opportunities. This clout is a highly-valuable intangible asset, with Google/Nielsen finding 60% of YouTube users would make buying decisions based on the recommendations of their favorite “YouTuber” over their favorite TV or movie star. 

The outspoken personas these influencers portray fuel misconceptions about their intelligence, common sense and character. In reality, they are sophisticated artists who have scaled their operations alongside rising subscriber numbers. Flanked by teams working 24/7 to release content and interact with their audiences, these entrepreneurs are essentially running mini-production companies.

Two influencers entering a new industry are Jake and Logan Paul, brothers who rose to fame as content creators on social media. In 2018, they participated in amateur boxing grudge matches that were livestreamed by millions of viewers. The novel concept reached new heights in 2019, when Logan faced fellow internet celebrity KSI in the duo’s professional boxing debut. The event aired live on DAZN, was the platform’s fifth most-streamed event of the year and sold out Staples Center.

What is the business case for integrating influencers with combat sports?  

As we move toward a live sports broadcasting world where direct-to-consumer is the norm, OTT providers need to place greater emphasis on creating innovative funnels to access new customers who can be converted to subscribers. By tapping into influencer’s respective audiences, these platforms are attracting a new community of viewers, while reducing the costs of customer acquisition and subscriber conversion. The table below compares the online followings of boxing’s biggest names against their “YouTuber” counterparts, providing insight into how large — and valuable — this audience crossover can be.

The boxing industry’s most powerful promoters recognize the value these influencers can bring. Matchroom Boxing President Eddie Hearn shared the following perspective: “Boxing is experiencing a golden age right now and guys like Jake, Logan and KSI are turning a new, global demographic towards boxing and cultivating the next generation of fans.  Once these new fans experience the excitement of a live boxing event, it’s our job to make sure we keep them hooked with engaging content and a wide range of world-class boxing and combat sports offered on DAZN and other platforms.”

For the participating celebrities, and the sport of boxing itself, this new digital combat sports venture counters the risk of their fans “aging out” as interests shift and the platforms through which they consume content change. Influencers are also legitimizing themselves as multi-talented performers and establishing secondary revenue streams, while extending credibility among their fan bases. 

While there are less grueling ways to expand one’s career, the tradeoff is combat sports’ uniquely global appeal. It transcends nationality, ethnicity, and language and is easily understood. This naturally lends itself to influencers and OTT platforms wanting to reach an international audience.

Having spent time with Jake and Logan, I have witnessed their dedication to boxing. They respect the craft and view this as a long-term commitment.

Jake Paul’s professional debut, a Jan. 30 match with fellow YouTuber “AnEsonGib,” represents the next iteration of this trend. Jake has spent months training in the iconic Big Bear mountains with boxing legend “Sugar” Shane Mosley. The bout is positioned on a strong card headlined by WBO middleweight champion Demetrius Andrade, who is all for having these influencers on the same card: “Having them involved with this event is a positive for our sport. You’re talking about a totally new demographic, millions of which are new to the sport of boxing. You can’t argue those numbers. If we are able to retain even a small percentage of those viewers, then it’s a good thing for me, and for the entire sport of boxing.”

The shrewd decision to schedule the event ahead of Super Bowl weekend, in the same host city of Miami, presents opportunity to engage an even larger segment of mainstream sports fans, too. 

So, what’s next for this new sports niche? Following the commercial success of Logan Paul and KSI’s feud, and the 2017 boxing contest between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, select athletes are noticing the upside of crossover events as well. Look no further than the ongoing feud between Logan and NFL standout Antonio Brown as an example of convening different communities under the combat sports umbrella.

There are plenty of influencers with the potential to become combat sports competitors, who have already showcased work ethic by cultivating their millions of subscribers. Whether any influencers and non-boxing athletes become proficient enough to face tenured boxers remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is no ceiling on this unique fusion of entertainment, sports and technology.

Nakisa Bidarian is founder of BAVAFA Companies, an investment and consultancy firm. He co-founded and was the CEO of Fertitta Capital and prior to that was the CFO and CSO of Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com