Let’s be clear on something from the off. As cards go, Saturday’s Matchroom / Sky Box Office offering was very strong. Even those whose instinctive reaction is to criticise Eddie Hearn at every opportunity must accept that.
Ryan v Hibbert was a proper little classic. Lee Selby was awesome. Kevin Mitchell’s uncanny Denis Lebedev impression broke your heart. Ryder v Blackwell and Cardle v Evans were both gripping and AJ bowled over the Kingpin.
To my memory the big fella from Watford is yet to take a real punch as a professional, but it is getting past the stage where soft matchmaking can be held responsible for that. Kevin Johnson may not have come with much ambition, yet the fact the infamously durable yank was unable to sustain verticality for the first three minutes suggests an elite-level future for Josh, at the very least.
Sadly the bill topper failed to hit the same heights. Funtime Frankie Gavin was too tentative, unable to live with IBF welterweight champ Kell Brook’s size and power. Like eating a five course meal at La Gavroche then being served Asda arctic roll for desert, it was tempting to allow the finale to tarnish the whole evening, but that would be churlish.
Yes, Brook / Gavin was a mismatch but this was a great show. Purely for strength-in-depth I would have to think long and hard to recall one that compares. Sky and Matchroom should be proud.
Yet one glaring issue remains. Boxing fans had to pay through the nose, again. Still stung from shelling out a score to watch two multi-millionaires do the cha-cha for an hour a few weeks ago, we found ourselves on the wrong end of £15 for last weekend. Those already paying £40-50 a month for their Sky Sports subscription and then swallowing this extra £35, were facing a colossal 80% mark-up on their May bill to watch two nights of boxing.
There are those who say that when the show is as good as Saturday’s it’s justified. “That was worth the money,” they say. But they miss the point. The question is whether it is ever justified.
Although other sports have occasionally dabbled in this market (I remember Sky even flogging PPV darts for a while) it does seem that combat sport fans get hit harder than others. The majority of the highest grossing PPV events of all time are boxing, MMA and Wrestling nights. Attempts to introduce it to football failed.
It all developed out of the ‘closed circuit’ market of the 70s in which shows would be screened in private venues and cinemas to ticket buying audiences. As technology advanced, with cable and satellite television, it became possible to extend this to homes. Boxing’s dalliance with PPV began with the Thriller in Manila, Muhammed Ali’s trilogy-ender with Joe Frazier in 1975. That was little more than an experiment, with the fight only made available to a small number of addresses. Yet the take-up was encouraging enough for it to be repeated.
By the early 80s it was being rolled out more regularly. How quaint now to read that when Roberto Duran defeated Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 in Montreal, the fight was sold for the princely sum of $10 and was bought by only 155,000 people. By the standards of the time, this was considered good business.
Half a million bought in to watch Leonard’s defeat of Tommy Hearns a year later. At that point only a million American homes had the equipment necessary to receive the fight, meaning 50% of the potential market paid for it – extraordinary returns. Dollar signs lit up in eyes.
If the technology could be popularised, earnings could multiply exponentially. Beneath a disguise of increasing choice, cable and satellite TV boomed. First in the States, then over here and eventually worldwide. By the time of the Tyson era, most Americans and a sizeable proportion of Brits had set-top boxes capable of receiving PPV. By then yanks were used to spending more for huge fight nights. Figures began going through the roof.
Iron Mike’s 90 second demolition of Michael Spinks picked up 700,000 buys in 1988. His comeback mismatch against Peter McNeeley in 1995 was the first to get 1.5 million sales. It accumulated an eye-popping $63 million. From there the progression moved steadily upward. Tyson, Holyfield, De La Hoya and then Mayweather saw virtually all their career-defining bouts take place on Pay-Per-View. As the model became more entrenched, the prices went up, reaching their zenith when punters were asked to find $100 to view Mayweather v Pacquiao last month.
The dark allure of Tyson can be thanked for pay-per-view’s arrival on these shores too. His second bout with national treasure Frank Bruno was Sky’s first PPV offering, in 1996. Sold at £9.99, it is comforting to remember that despite it featuring a hugely popular domestic celebrity against a man still considered to be one of the best heavyweights ever, it aroused considerable controversy.
It was a massive sporting event, yet precisiely for that reason many subscribers were outraged at being asked to pay an additional sum for it. Was there not a moral obligation to make huge occasions like that accessible to as many people as possible? Where would it lead? Would we end up with The Grand National or the Wimbledon final on pay per view? The Independent Television Commission was deluged with complaints.
For a fleeting moment Sky’s American- influenced corporate model appeared under threat. Incredibly, considering how accepting of it so many fans are today, there were even claims that pay-per-view was illegal.
In an investigation by Practical Law Magazine, it was determined that Sky had covered their backs via the wording of their customer contracts. They were therefore entitled to use PPV should they wish. Optimistically, it was stated, “The Bruno -v- Tyson event was very much seen as a one-off so far as PPV is concerned…” However after analysing the variables the report finished with an ominous sentence, “without legislative intervention or that of the competition authorities, it seems likely that the UK will follow the US trend to more PPV.”
In those days it was Frank Warren, not Hearn-and-son who had the Sky deal. He pushed PPV through in the UK and it was welcomed by his top fighters, as you would expect. Why take £500,000 for a fight when you could pocket £5 million? Speaking to the Independent in 1996, Prince Naseem Hamed was asked if Pay-per-View was a good thing.
“For me it is, because you’ll be talking big amounts of money, but for the people that are watching …”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead the interviewer noted that ‘Naseem smiles, not without sympathy for the plight of the armchair fight-follower.’
With fortunes on offer for the very top bouts, boxing’s greatest performers, like Naz, soon all but disappeared from the public eye, secreted away as ‘PPV stars’. This made them and their promoters obscenely wealthy, but sucked money away from the lower end of the sport. PPV was good for a tiny minority, but bad news for boxing in general. It is no coincidence that while boxing disappeared from terrestrial TV and the biggest fights headed onto subscription channels with occasional PPV shows, that public appetite for buying small-hall tickets dwindled. The sport’s profile had plummeted.
Along with Bruno, whose career was forged on the BBC, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank were the last real UK, boxing household names. 17 million people watched the two super-middleweights’ second fight on ITV in 1993. As a result, Benn’s rawness and Eubank’s pomposity became as much a part of national culture as top football star, Paul Gascoigne’s Geordie japes. They shared back pages. Boxing had that level of interest. Compare that to our current dominant super-mid, Carl Froch, who fought most of his career unknown to the general public, only achieving celebrity status as he now nears his retirement.
After its spluttering start, with the Bruno v Tyson furore, British pay-per-view boxing nearly ground to a halt as recently as four years ago. The disappointments of David Haye’s fights with Audley Harrison and Wladimir Klitschko meant that Amir Khan’s bout with Zab Judah, originally earmarked for PPV, was moved to a regular Sky Sports channel. Explaining the move a sky spokesman said,
“We spend too much time trying to do deals on boxing for a limited return and do not think it’s fair on our audience to ask them to pay more for boxing. That is not to say we will never return to pay-per-view.” He continued. “It’s just not right for us at the moment.”
Return they did. Few could have foreseen how just four years later, regular PPV events would become part of our boxing fabric. We are now stuck, it seems, with three per year. How has this happened?
With Froch’s profile boosted by his super-six performances and his hammering of Lucien Bute in 2012, an opportunity was seen by new top boys Matchroom Sport to bring the cash-cow back to Sky’s pastures. The Cobra’s rematch with Mikel Kessler did decent numbers, achieving 1.1 million views. Emboldened, they pressed on.
The first mightly battle with George Groves clocked in at just under a million. The rematch did similarly well, making a clean 22 million profit from TV alone. Just as in the USA, it had become a juggernaut and there was no stopping it.
Such was the hubris developed by their heady success, that Matchroom and Sky placed a tepid card, headed by Tony Bellew v Nathan Cleverly, a non-title domestic clash on PPV last year. Official figures have not been released, but reports suggest there were slightly less than 200,000 buyers for that event.
In justifying these sorts of decisions, a common refrain is that “it would not be possible to make this fight without PPV.”
This is arrant nonsense.
It is perfectly possible. It would just involve less money. How much less is open to question. A prime time Saturday night slot on ITV or Channel Five could charge exorbitant rates for advertising if promoted in the right way. This is how events like the World Cup Final or a Grand Prix turn a coin.
But to have the confidence to do that, a promoter and media partner would have to be interested in growing the sport, so that the interest levels were high enough to generate huge numbers of views. This is a bigger, harder job than fleecing hardcore fans at every opportunity. But it is also a far nobler one and one that would have a long term impact.
In 1971, 27 million people watched the first Ali v Frazier fight on the BBC. To place things in perspective, the UK population at the time was 55.9 million. That means nearly half the people in the entire country watched it. Imagine, that’s how big boxing was.
We have sacrificed all that on the altar of mammon. Heavy money bags for a tiny minority have outweighed the good of the game. The empty justifications of businessmen are just that – empty, and should be treated as such. Boxing’s best interests? Don’t be so naïve! Eddie Hearn, Frank Warren and Sky do what’s best for Eddie Hearn, Frank Warren and Sky, end of story.
Everyone else involved in boxing has suffered – fans, most fighters, small-hall promoters. While they struggle to make a living, working jobs on the side, retiring broke and unhealthy, the few who benefit from pay-per-view tell us ‘it’s the only way it can be done.’
Don’t believe them for a second.