Tonight, the undefeated Terence “Bud” Crawford defends his 140-pound belt against fellow undefeated titleholder Viktor “Iceman” Postol on HBO Pay-Per-View. This is the rare boxing pay-per-view that is actually worth the money. Crawford is, at minimum, one of the most exciting boxing prospects in years, and perhaps the heir apparent to Floyd Mayweather’s currently-vacant throne as the biggest draw in boxing. Postol represents his most significant challenge to date, a fighter whose once-unremarkable career took an abrupt turn for the better when he began training with Freddie Roach and sparring with Roach’s most famous charge, Manny Pacquiao.
The undercard is also compelling, culminating in a fight between two undefeated knockout artists, the Mexican Oscar Valdez (19-0, with 17 KOs) against the Argentine Matias Rueda (26-0, with 23 KOs). After a recent season of pay-per-views consisting of unexciting matches involving faded veterans, a night of undefeated exciting young champions should have the whole boxing world tuned in. But, instead, predictions are that this fight will be a bust at the box office. That’s because it’s on pay-per-view. Pay-per-view is killing boxing.
We’ll turn to the fight in a bit, but first a note on pay-per-view, and how something that is responsible for historic box office figures is simultaneously strangling the life out of boxing. Boxing is unique among professional sports in its reliance on pay-per-view. The most popular sport, football, airs almost 100 percent of its games on free TV, and basketball and baseball are widely available on basic cable packages. Boxing’s main competitor, the UFC, puts its biggest fight cards on pay-per-view, but also has a vibrant package of options available on Fox Sports, including smaller cards featuring the sports biggest stars, pay-per-view undercards, and the popular Ultimate Fighter reality series. The biggest fights in boxing, by contrast, are available almost exclusively on pay TV services, like HBO or Showtime, or on pay-per-view.
It’s no secret that, in recent years, boxing pay-per-view has led to record-setting revenues in the world of sports. The all-time box office record belongs to last year’s Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, which attracted more than 4.5 million buyers and revenue in excess of $400,000,000, more than last year’s Super Bowl. In turn, this led to record-setting purses to both fighters, making them the highest paid athletes in the world in 2015. Record setting box office revenues are good for the sport, and record setting purses are extremely good for the fighters involved. But pay-per-view is a very bad thing for boxing. It is boxing’s fracking, its deep water trawling, its super-sized value meal. Pay-per-view is boxing’s crack pipe.
There are basically two categories of people who buy boxing pay-per-views: existing hardcore boxing fans, and casual fans or new faces drawn to the particular event. The first group—whatever its current size—is a finite population that only shrinks as older fans die or lose interest in the sport. Cards that appeal only to the first group, even if they appeal tremendously to the first group, are generally box office busts, with no more than a few hundred thousand pay-per-view buys at most, and often well less than that. So, as an industry, boxing should be focused on expanding the second group, a population that could replenish its fading stocks of existing fans and even expand it. But therein lies the challenge: boxing is not truly an industry, it has no central authority looking out for the sport’s best interest, and thusthere’s almost no incentive for fighters or their management to think beyond the immediate paycheck
How is boxing supposed to grow its fanbase when the cost of entry is so high? Anyone with even a basic cable package could have seen every marquee event in our biggest sports, as well as almost every marquee fighter in the UFC, but you wouldn’t have seen Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, or Manny Pacquiao in decades. How do you convince someone who is new to the sport to plunk down $60 or more—an amount that could take an entire family to the movies, or even the cheap seats at many a baseball game—to watch a sport that they know little about?
Maybe it’s easy enough when you have a fight like Mayweather-Pacquiao, in which mainstream interest had been building for years, but those were two generational talents and it took five years to put together that fight. And in those five years, both men had predictably aged from their physical prime to something significantly less than that: how many first time pay-per-view buyers from that night will be back for more after shelling out $100 for a snoozefest? That’s how you wind up with nights like tonight, where a truly exciting card will be a disappointment financially because none of the fighters are yet the sort of household names that can draw in casual fans to watch.
This is why pay-per-view is so pernicious. It feels so good at the moment it happens, but it leaves boxing with a dreadful hangover afterwards. With every fight that winds up on pay-per-view, boxing costs itself future fans in exchange for a quick hit of higher revenues that night. The few fights that do end up on free TV are almost exclusively infomercials for a single boxing promoter, Premier Boxing Champions, which has purchased the time on network TV in order to highlight its own fighters in the hopes of building them into—wait for it—future pay-per-view stars. The sport is essentially a Ponzi scheme, only instead of running out of sucker investors, it will eventually run out of huckleberry fans, like me, who reluctantly buy anything that the sport offers.
And it’s not just fans; boxing won’t be able to attract its next generation of fighters if today’s kids are watching football or UFC instead. Children, particularly children from impoverished areas, have long been boxing’s chief supply of new talent. These are the individuals least able to follow the sport in a pay-per-view model. The late boxing writer and historian Bert Sugar once said that the most talented heavyweight in the world was former Ravens star Ray Lewis. A half century ago, when boxing and football were equally accessible, maybe Lewis would have been drawn to boxing instead of football, but if trends hold up, there’s almost zero chance the next Lewis would make that choice. The next Lewis might not be able to afford his first pay-per-view fight until after he’s signed his first NFL contract.
Let’s pivot from that depressing note to why tonight’s goddamned pay-per-view is something you should watch, even if doing so means you’ll be contributing to boxing’s death spiral. I’ve already held forth at length on Bud Crawford, and why I think he’s one of the most special and unique talents to enter the sport in decades. By contrast, my initial reaction to his opponent tonight, Viktor Postol, in his US television debut against Selchuk Aydin, was somewhat less enthusiastic, as I thought he was underwhelming, and one of the least artful fighters I’d seen.