Sunday, October 21, 2018

Boxing Podcast with Lou DiBella and Kathy Duva

My guests on this podcast are two of the best promoters in the sport of boxing - Lou DiBella of DiBella Entertainment and Kathy Duva of Main Events.  I talked to each of them about upcoming shows featuring their fighters, as well as the state of play in regards to the many recent broadcasting deals in the sport.  We also discussed the impact of HBO exiting the scene.  Two great conversations - hope you enjoy!

Check out what's going on at DiBella Entertainment at the following link:

Check out what's going on at Main Eventsat the following link:

I'm happy to announce that I am now partnering in the distribution of my podcast with the Leave It In The Ring network.  I'm honored to be joining the LIITR network that includes podcasts by founder David Duenez, Gabriel Montoya and Evan Rutkowski.

Just so there is no confusion - you can still find this podcast and older Boxing Esq. podcasts on this blog and on Soundcloud or subscribe to the Boxing Esq. Podcast on either iTunes or Stitcher.  If you enjoy the podcasts, please leave a comment or rating, that would be greatly appreciated.  The podcast will appear on both the LIITR network of podcasts as well as under the Boxing Esq. Podcast name.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Time Is Right For A Boxing League

HBO’s announcement that they are no longer in the boxing business was big news.  They were the leading broadcaster of the sport for decades.  In the mainstream media, there were choruses of the old familiar refrain “boxing is dead.” 

One sports radio broadcast in particular grabbed my attention.  Fox Sports Radio posted a clip entitled, “Are We Seeing the End Times for Boxing?”  Show hosts Rob Parker and Chris Broussard remarked that HBO’s exit was “another nail in the coffin” of boxing.  They then went through the usual litany of complaints about the sport: no centralized world governing body, no national commission in the US, the best don't fight the best in a timely manner, bad judging, the biggest fights are behind a paywall and start too late, etc.

What’s ironic about this broadcast is Parker and Broussard were blissfully unaware that the very network their show was broadcasting on had just done a four-year, multi-million dollar deal with Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) to broadcast 10 shows a year on Fox in primetime on Saturday nights and 12 additional shows per year in primetime on FS1.  

Far from being in its “End Times” – world class boxing is now on two major networks (ESPN, Fox), one premium cable channel (Showtime) and one massively funded streaming service (DAZN).  There are also more television deals rumored to be in the pipeline.  HBO dropped out of boxing because the competition is too strong for them to be the premiere broadcaster in the sport - not because the sport is dying.

But Fox Sports Radio is not alone in their overall perception of the sport as lacking in structure.  Many commentators over the years have lamented boxing's fragmented nature and lack of a centralized organizational body.  

Around the time of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor spectacle in August 2017, the Guardian, a British daily, did the typically mainstream press article around a big fight, asking if boxing’s latest big event would be the fight to “save boxing.”  Promoter Lou DiBella was quoted as stating, “The decline of boxing was hastened by the fact there is no . . . one dominant company in boxing.  Boxing has had a decline largely based on its own inability to govern itself.  There hasn’t been a sensible model or paradigm for the industry in years and years.”   

The big question is what would a “sensible model or paradigm” for boxing look like?  Before getting to that, a look at the current state of play in the sport is useful. 

I. The Current State of Boxing 

A. The Sanctioning Bodies 

The current morass that boxing finds itself in is due, in part, to the proliferation of world sanctioning bodies (four “major” organizations (IBF, WBC, WBA, WBO) with a fifth gaining momentum (IBO)).  Unfortunately, none of whom adequately do the job they are intended to do – impartially and fairly rank fighters or provide a unified structure that effectively administrates the sport.  Their ratings, when compared to those of independent media, do not accurately reflect the best fighters in the sport.  It follows that if the ratings do not reflect the best fighters - the chances of the best fighting the best are significantly diminished.  

With the sanctioning bodies all recognizing 17 different weight divisions, there are potentially 68 fighters calling themselves world champions at any given time.  A few of the organizations also crown "interim" champions and one (WBA) crowns three different grades of champions - interim, regular and super.  Ultimately, all of this leaves the general sports fan with no idea of who the real world champion is in any given weight class.

The sanctioning bodies also have differing rules when it comes to drug testing, satisfaction of mandatory obligations (even with unified champions) and any number of other issues.  Suffice it to say that with the proliferation, inconsistency and incompetence of the sanctioning bodies, they have failed to adequately act as effective governing bodies of the sport.

B. The Major Promoters and the Networks Behind Them

The real power structure in boxing lies with the more powerful promoters and managers and the television money behind them.  At present there are four major players, PBC, Top Rank, Matchroom and Golden Boy, most of whom are tied to major broadcasting deals in the US.  There are a number of other promoters who have world champions or top contenders including Main Events, Frank Warren, Tom Loeffler, Zanfer, DiBella Entertainment, Teiken, Sauerland – to name a few. 

PBC has the deepest roster in the sport with at least 40 or more champions and top contenders.  Al Haymon, the top manager in the sport, formed PBC in an effort to bring boxing back to network television.  PBC was funded with roughly half a billion dollars of hedge fund money.  Rolling out in 2015, they bought time on several major networks to feature their fighters.  It was an interesting plan to corner the television market as well as overpay their fighters in hopes of attracting other major fighters in the sport.  The idea was that boxing on free TV was always a ratings success and once PBC proved that, the time buys would turn into lucrative TV contracts with one or more networks.

Unfortunately, PBC was almost immediately met with two separate antitrust suits (unsuccessful) by the biggest promoters in the sport (Golden Boy and Top Rank).  This brought bad publicity.  PBC also burned through the majority of its cash in the first few years without consistent ratings success on the major networks.  PBC spread itself too thin by doing shows on seven different networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, Spike, Showtime and Bounce).  The confusion over the schedule and where the next show would be did them no favors.  The lack of consistency in quality of matchups was also a major problem. Thus, most of the networks dropped PBC.  There was also a shareholder suit against the hedge fund (since settled). 

By the end of 2017, Haymon’s effort to make PBC into the “UFC of Boxing” had largely failed, but it did get network executives to see that boxing could generate ratings akin to those of other major sports given the right matchups.  When PBC featured marquee fights on the major networks, viewers tuned in by the millions (e.g., Errol Spence vs. Leonard Bundu (CBS - 4M+ viewers), Keith Thurman vs. Danny Garcia (CBS - 3M+ viewers), Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero (NBC – 3M+ viewers), Adrien  Broner vs. Shaun Porter (NBC – 3M+ viewers), Garcia vs. Guerrero (Fox – 3M+ viewers), Thurman vs. Porter (CBS – 2M+ viewers), Garcia vs. Lamont Peterson (NBC – 2M+ viewers)).

Ultimately, the bulk of PBC’s programming went back to premium cable at Showtime, where they have done a much better job of presenting quality fights in 2018.  Showtime generally features between 15 and 20 world championship level fights on their network per year.  

PBC recently negotiated a three-year deal with Showtime.  The deal is estimated at over $60M and, in 2019, Showtime plans to do potentially up to 30 events, with 12 events (one per month) featuring the PBC on Showtime Championship Boxing.  PBC also landed their much hoped for terrestrial network TV deal with Fox, which is also estimated at over $60M per year.  PBC will have 10 dates on Fox proper with another 12 on FS1 each year, plus shoulder programming.  That’s a lot of money and a lot of dates to fill, even for the deepest roster in the sport.

An outgrowth of PBC’s flirtation with network television was it lead to Top Rank scoring a major deal with ESPN in August 2017.  This was really significant for the sport as it put world class boxing back on mainstream over-the air television and this time the network was paying for the product, though to what degree is still a mystery.

Top Rank’s original deal was for four years and included 18 dates on ESPN’s television networks and 12 dates on ESPN +, the network’s OTT app per year.  The deal also included shoulder programming and part of Top Rank’s video library on the OTT site.  Top Rank and ESPN recently expanded the deal to seven years and added 24 "premium international" dates to the ESPN + side of the ledger for a total of 54 dates a year.

Top Rank's CEO Bob Arum has publicly stated that their boxing budget with ESPN is now "comparative to [the] UFC deal [$1.5 Billion over five years]."  Some in the industry are skeptical of that claim.

In reference to the Top Rank deal, ESPN network executive Burke Magnus stated that PBC had “rekindled [ESPN’s] interest in [boxing] because we saw what was possible when you had really good fights on broader platforms.”  Like PBC, when Top Rank has featured marquee fighters and matchups, viewers have tuned in by the millions (e.g., Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn – 2.8M viewers, Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Guillermo Rigondeaux – 1.7M viewers, Lomachenko vs. Jorge Linares – 1.7M viewers).  Top Rank has roughly 20 or more fighters who are world champions or contenders.

Matchroom, a top UK promoter lead by Eddie Hearn, promotes the unified Heavyweight Champion of the World, Anthony Joshua, who is the biggest boxing star outside of North America.  They’ve also recently struck a monster deal with the streaming service DAZN to televise 32 dates a year (16 emanating from the US, 16 from the UK) with a reported yearly budget of $125M.  The deal may run as few as two years or as long as eight years which would bring the total value of the deal to $1B.  

That is one of the biggest budgets in the sport and makes Matchroom, which is curating these dates for DAZN, a much bigger presence on the American boxing landscape.  At present, Matchroom has roughly 25 or more fighters who are world champions or contenders but has made overtures to others that may add to that total.

Golden Boy, Oscar De La Hoya's company, has the biggest boxing star in North America in Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.  For many years, on and off, Golden Boy had featured their world champion fighters on HBO.  HBO, which formerly had the biggest budget in the US for boxing, decreased its involvement with the sport over the last few years but still featured some of the top stars of the sport on its network in Middleweights such as Alvarez and unified champion Gennady "GGG" Golovkin, as well as Light Heavyweights Sergey Kovalev and Dmitriy Bivol.  In what was a surprise, but not a shock, HBO recently announced that it will no longer be in the boxing business.  Golden Boy and Canelo are now very valuable broadcast free agents and are currently fielding offers from all of the major networks for their services.

Even before HBO's exit announcement, its shrinking budget and the growth of streaming led Golden Boy and Main Events to cut a deal with Facebook to televise at least five cards a year.  Golden Boy also features their prospects and young contenders on shows televised by ESPN, though they may not receive a license fee for those shows.  Golden Boy has roughly 15 or more fighters who are world champions or contenders.

Another emerging entity in the sport is the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), which is financed by a European partnership called the Comosa Group and has Kalle Sauerland as their Chief Boxing Officer.  The WBSS labels itself as the “Champions League” of boxing and they stage tournaments in selected weight divisions between champions and top contenders to determine who is best in the weight class.   Initially, there was skepticism in the sport about the viability of the WBSS and the major television networks in the US all passed on it. 

The WBSS has proven to be an unqualified success with fans as both weight divisions in the first season (Cruiserweight and Super Middleweight) produced excellent drama and the final fights (unfortunately, both delayed by injury) were highly anticipated.  A second season has been announced and the lineups of fighters for the three divisions (Bantamweight, Junior Welterweight and once again, Cruiserweight) are replete with top contenders (Cruiserweight) and world champions (Bantamweight and Junior Welterweight).  DAZN has picked up the US broadcasting rights to season two, no details of the financial terms of the deal have thus far been released.

The major players in the sport (save for Golden Boy) are now aligned with large broadcast distribution networks with huge budgets for boxing.  They are reaching a larger audience than ever before.   To paraphrase Winston Churchill (and Uncle Ben from Spiderman) - with great budgets and distribution comes great responsibility.

C. The Inefficiencies and Missed Opportunities of Boxing's Current State

      1.  Conflicts of Programming 

In fact, boxing has never had so much money and television time invested in the sport.  Yet with the major players all having separate US network deals, the degree of difficulty in making the biggest fights becomes that much greater. With DAZN up and running and flooding the fall and winter schedule with fights, the potential for conflicts and counterprogramming between the various interests is going to create a nightmare for the sport.

Even in the days when there were only two major networks, promoters and networks counterprogrammed against each other.  Sometimes there was a special date that both wanted such as Cinco de Mayo or Mexican Independence Day.  Other times dates may have conflicted due to networks and events running together.  

Other sports with a central governing body (NASCAR) or a league (NFL) do not have these problems as there are committees or executives who work on the scheduling and keep the sport from competing against itself.  

With the major players in boxing working with multiple linear and streaming entities (Fox, ESPN, Showtime, DAZN, Facebook), the potential for conflicting broadcasts is very real.  Since each network has millions of dollars invested, each major player is at risk of failing if the conflicts become frequent and programming wars break out.  

The bottom line is no one wins, not promoters, networks or fans, when the audience is divided.  With so much at stake, the major players need to coordinate the scheduling of major fights to ensure that each network maximizes the amount of viewers and does not cheat the fans of the ability to see all of the best fights.

      2.  Inability of Individual Promoters to Meet Quality Programming Demands

It's also apparent that the amount of money and dates coming into the sport is outstripping the major players’ ability to meet the demand using only their in-house roster of boxers.  Looking at Top Rank's recent and upcoming schedule (Gilberto Ramirez-Roamer Angulo, Jose Ramirez- Danny O'Connor (cancelled), Regis Prograis-Juan Jose Velasco, Christopher Diaz-Masayuki Ito, Bryant Jennings-Alexander Dimitrenko, Jose Uzcategui-Ezequiel Maderna, Terence Crawford-Jose Benavidez, etc.), it's obvious that even one of the biggest promoters in the sport does not have enough fighters to make 30 quality main events for ESPN/ESPN+.  This is particularly galling because Top Rank currently has one of the two terrestrial TV deals with a massive US audience.  Having mediocre main events that draw poor ratings on such a huge platform reflects poorly on the sport as a whole.

PBC, for its part, has thrown in a few clunkers in 2018 on Showtime as well (Spence vs. Carlos Ocampo, Danny Garcia vs. Brandon Rios) and much worse to the larger audiences on the remains of their time buy with Fox/FS1 (e.g., Devon Alexander vs. Victor Ortiz, Jamal James vs. Mahonry Montes, Brandon Figueroa vs. Oscar Escandon, etc.).  Again, putting poor main events that draw really bad ratings on a massive platform (Fox/FS1) is a bad look for the sport.

Credit to Matchroom, who realized that their roster was wholly insufficient to meet the demands for quality that DAZN's budget ($125M) bestowed upon them.  Matchroom went outside of their roster and made an agreement to televise every fight in all three weight divisions of the second season of the WBSS.  This was a heady move and serves as a model for the ideal future of the sport.  However, Matchroom also has the problem of a limited roster beyond Anthony Joshua and a few others.  Their second card is headlined by a fight between Jesse Vargas and Thomas Dulorme.  This would have been a good headliner for the old ESPN Friday Night Fights.  But with a budget of over $125M for 16 dates in the US, even paired with three other decent fights, the Vargas-Dulorme card is a bit disappointing.

Even before Matchroom and DAZN decided to televise the WBSS and its "Champions League" Tournament format, both Showtime and HBO reacted to the fragmentation of the sport by trying to corner the market on certain weight divisions.  Showtime boss Stephen Espinoza was quoted as stating, "We all understand now that it's absolutely critical to focus not just on stars or potential stars, but on divisions.  The biggest obstacle to mainstream success is a lack of good opponents."

With the major players on different sets of networks, it makes cornering the market on even one division difficult for any network.  Since each of the major players only have a fraction of the top fighters in the sport, it raises the question of whether competitive opponents can be found to make matches for their star attractions.  Compelling fighters in competitive matchups draw the biggest ratings.  The amount of fighters who are truly elite in each division is finite.  With those fighters spread out on many different networks, the major players will need to cooperate to make compelling fights.  Otherwise, you'll have four or more networks consistently featuring unappealing fights.

      3. A Fragmented Sport Does Not Attract Sponsors or Maximize Networks Dollars

Another consequence of boxing's current fragmented state has been a huge missed opportunity for promoters to negotiate with networks and sponsors as a unified block to maximize revenues for the sport.  Espinoza has cited the lack of a unified sport as a primary impediment to attracting sponsors for any major network deal. "That's where the lack of an advocacy group [such as a league] in the sport hurts.  If there was one, they'd be at every ad agency and pulling out charts and PowerPoints, showing that boxing delivers at a relatively inexpensive rate."

Regarding that "inexpensive rate" - compare the amount of money the UFC received from its new deal with ESPN per year ($300M/yr. all in) to Top Rank's original deal (rough est. $50-80M) or even combined with Matchroom's deal with DAZN ($125M).  Top Rank's ratings in 2017 on ESPN were very favorable in comparison with the UFC on FOX/FS1.  Yet due to the fact that Top Rank cannot deliver the value of "the best fighting the best" on a consistent basis, ESPN cut a much cheaper deal with them, even though the TV ratings with UFC are comparable.  In fairness to Top Rank, they’ve renegotiated the deal and may now have a more generous licensing fee.  Terms of the new deal have not been released.

      4. The Best Do Not Fight the Best, nor Do They Fight Often Enough 

On the other end of the scale, boxing's inefficiencies are evidenced by PBC's wealth of talent but lack of available dates and money to showcase them on a consistent basis.  Of PBC's top level talent, not one fighter fought more than twice in 2017 and over half fought only one time: Deontay Wilder (2), Adonis Stevenson (1), Badou Jack (2), Jermall Charlo (1), Jermell Charlo (2), Keith Thurman (1), Danny Garcia (1), Errol Spence (1), Mikey Garcia (2), Leo Santa Cruz (2) and Gary Russell (1).  Not all of the lack of activity was the fault of either PBC or Showtime, but clearly the best fighters were not as visible in 2017 as they should have been.  

PBC and Showtime have done a better job in 2018 managing the roster and putting on quality fights but the lack of excitement around a few of their inactive stars was highlighted by the relatively low ratings for two excellent fights on the same night - Stevenson vs. Jack and Russell vs. Joseph Diaz.  It's hard for the boxing audience to get excited about fighters, even very good ones, when they only fight once a year.  Obviously, now that PBC has landed the deal with Fox and upgraded their deal with Showtime, they may better serve their fighters in terms of activity. The fact that PBC stars such as the Charlo twins, Gervonta Davis, Gary Russell and Leo Santa Cruz have only fought once in 2018 shows that there's still a problem getting their stars enough work.  PBC should not have arguably their biggest star, Errol Spence, out on Twitter complaining "I need a fight."

Other major sports do not have boxing's problems.  The NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA, and NASCAR schedule and showcase their best athletes competing against each other on a regular basis and ultimately determining, by competitive playoffs or tournaments, who the best team or athlete is.

Due to the appeal of the best athletes competing in an organized format, other major sports have scored lucrative television deals (with major sponsors) that fuel their leagues.  Boxing's major players have many separate and lucrative deals but none nearly as big as the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA or NASCAR.  If Top Rank can land a purported nine figure deal with ESPN, just think what a rights deal for a joint venture with PBC, Matchroom, Golden Boy and a few others would be.  As evidenced by the rising franchise values of teams in the four major sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), by staying fragmented and not organizing into a league format, boxing's major players are potentially missing out on millions of broadcast and sponsorship dollars for their enterprises.   

D. A Beacon of Light: The World Boxing Super Series (WBSS)

The biggest complaint of boxing fans is that the best fighters do not fight each other on a regular basis.  Veteran boxing writer Thomas Hauser, a recent guest on my podcast, identified four fights that boxing fans want to see: GGG vs. Canelo II, Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder, Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia and Errol Spence vs. Terence Crawford.  Of the four, only one has taken place.

As mentioned above, the WBSS has provided a vehicle for staging tournaments between the best fighters in each division that they've featured.  The WBSS has tried to recruit all of the world champions in each division featured as well as some of the top contenders.  The first season's Cruiserweight tournament had all four major sanctioning bodies’ champions and was a highly successful and exciting tournament.

The WBSS has worked with many different promoters who have willingly allowed their fighters to compete in the tournament.  The WBSS has also worked to appease the sanctioning bodies by incorporating mandatory challengers into the draw.  One can see where this could be to the tournament's detriment if the mandatory is undeserving and not truly one of the eight best in the respective division.  But for the tournament's survival in the short term, it eases the recruitment process by not making champions give up belts.

However, some of the major players (e.g., Top Rank, PBC, Golden Boy, etc.) have resisted letting their fighters participate in the WBSS.  This made the first season's Super Middleweight tournament much less interesting than its Cruiserweight counterpart as only one world champion, WBA Champion George Groves, took part.  The PBC's then IBF Champion James DeGale was injured and could not take part but other PBC fighters, including present WBC Champion David Benavidez, then interim IBF Champ Andre Dirrell and Andre's brother former WBC Champion Anthony Dirrell, skipped the tournament.  Top Rank's unbeaten WBO champion Gilberto Ramirez also did not participate.  In essence, most of the top ten fighters stayed out of the Super Middleweight tournament and thus deprived the fans of the best fighting the best.

This highlights the biggest obstacle to the best fighting the best.  It's not a lack of money, as the WBSS is well-funded and pays well-above market.  It's a lack of cooperation between the major players (and networks to a certain degree) to do what's best for the sport and the fans.  Too much protecting of their own brands and fighters.

II. Proposed Solutions

A. Forming an Organized Boxing League so the Best Fight the Best

In thinking about solutions to the many current inefficiencies of boxing, the most logical and effective one would be for the major players (the top promoters + PBC) to form an association or league (League) that could act as the central governing body and advocate that the sport has desperately needed for so long.  

Since the early 1960s and Senator Estes Kefauver's federal investigation into organized crime in boxing, many have argued for a national boxing commission in the US as a solution to the sport's problems.  The late Senator John McCain, who authored two federal boxing bills that became laws in the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, proposed a number of bills that would establish a national commission but none have passed both houses of Congress.  

Even if a national commission as proposed by Senator McCain were established, the reach of such a commission would only be domestic.  Boxing is a world sport with the majority of champions coming from outside of the US.  In order for real change to occur in the sport, the central governing body would have to be global in reach not just US-centric. 

The concept of a League isn't a new one.  In fact, even the late Morton Downey, Jr. tried his hand at starting one back in the 1970s.  PBC's legal counsel even testified at deposition that one of PBC's potential goals was to become a "league-like" structure that received rights fees similar to the UFC and had a "sharing arrangement like the NFL." 

There are many different ways to structure a League.  The simplest would have the major players and other promoters of major fighters form one for the limited purpose of organizing, conducting and marketing WBSS-type tournaments.  This would be a massive leap forward for the sport.  It would certainly not cure all of boxing's ills and a League that encompassed every aspect of the sport may be too ambitious at this point.  But if the focus was on creating a "major league" of boxing, putting champions and top ten fighters in tournaments to crown a true champion in each division, it could set boxing on the path to being a major sport again.  

If the League can accomplish the following three things, it would put the sport in a much better place:

       1. A Yearly Schedule of Tournaments in Five or Six Weight Divisions

Scheduling the best fighting the best every year would give boxing the same type of structure, drama and excitement that other sports have.  The other major sports have playoffs or tournaments where the best compete to determine the true champion.  Why not boxing?  One problem is there are 17 weight divisions in the sport.  It's not practical to do every division every year, that's too many fights to schedule and some great fights would get lost in the shuffle.  It would make more sense to do five or six divisions each year.  

There are those that argue, that in the US, there is only interest in weight divisions from Featherweight and above.  If that were the case, the tournaments could be narrowed down to just 11 divisions.  Tournaments could be held every other year in five or six divisions. 

But the success of the Superfly cards on HBO has proven that there is interest in weights below 126.  Though many of the top fighters below 126 are from Asia, there are a fair amount from Mexico and other Latin America countries that would be of interest to the strong Latino demographic that drives boxing's TV ratings in the US.  It makes sense to have tournaments in all 17 divisions, with five or six divisions per year in rotation, so that each division has a tournament every third year.

With the four major boxing broadcasters paying generous license fees and with over 100 dates available across these networks, scheduling five or six tournaments should not be a problem.  DAZN is already scheduled to handle three tournaments on its own in season two of the WBSS.  With all of the dates on the respective networks, there is absolutely no reason why ESPN, Showtime or Fox could not handle at least one weight division per year.  A tournament would guarantee each network seven quality fights between top ten contenders and champions that should draw above average ratings.  That’s a boon to any network’s boxing schedule.  By the time the final bout occurs you are either setting up for one of the most highly anticipated bouts of the year in prime time or a lucrative PPV for the network.  A win either way you slice it.

Having each division featured every three years would allow the promoter of the tournament winner to exploit the champion's win and also allow the division to regenerate and find new blood for the next tournament go round.  The fact that the WBSS is having a Cruiserweight tournament for a second year in a row seems a little dubious.  An undisputed champion has already been established, Oleksandr Usyk.  How can you have a "Champions League" tournament of boxers without the Champion with all of the belts?  It makes more sense to allow the Champion to exploit his tournament win and allow the division a few years to generate a new set of challengers rather than having two "Champions' Champions" exist.  It defeats the purpose of a tournament clarifying who's the best.

In boxing, it's the marquee fighters who drive the revenue and allow promoters to build the rest of their roster out.  For example, look at the percentage of Golden Boy's revenue that comes from their top fighter Canelo.  According to Bloody Elbow, Canelo accounted for 64.1% of Golden Boy's revenue from 2014-first half of 2016, including 94% of revenue after Golden Boy's split with Al Haymon and the PBC and 107% of revenue for the first half of 2016.  

Golden Boy is by no means unique in that respect.  The stars in each major player's roster drive their revenues and allow them to subsidize the growth of their next generation of stars.  The goal of promoters, fighters and most networks (save DAZN) is to build fighters into PPV stars where the real money is.  The willy nilly nature of the sport now with no collective plan to build big fights and big stars is too inefficient.  It's a constant struggle of working to build maybe one or two big fights a year.  The tournaments would take a lot of the work, stress and uncertainty for the major players and networks out of the picture. 

Putting the top fighters against each other on a consistent structured basis with WBSS-type tournaments can only serve to drive interest in the sport and improve both TV ratings and revenues for the individual promoters and fighters.  A rising tide lifts all ships.  Clearly, the current state of scheduling events that conflict with other promoters and the "dog eat dog" fragmentation cause a diminution of value to the events and to the major players' bottom line.

       2. Use a WBSS-type Format but Participants Must Be Legit Top Ten Contenders

Regarding the structure of the yearly tournaments, it makes sense to generally follow the WBSS format and recruit the world champions of the four major sanctioning bodies for the reasons stated above in Section I (D).  If there are mandatory title challenges due at the start of the tourney, the mandatories could possibly be included.  But there must be a requirement that all of the fighters are rated in the top ten of an independent set of boxing ratings such as the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board.  Otherwise, the tournaments will suffer from the same lack of credibility that dogs the sanctioning bodies’ ratings.

To contrast how the League's tournament would look in comparison to the WBSS, let's look at how the current season of the Junior Welterweights in the WBSS would have filled out using the July TBRB's ratings (when the WBSS Junior Welterweight lineup was announced) and had the major players agreed to their fighters competing in the tournament:

WBSS - Round 1 fights: No. 1 seed Regis Prograis (TBRB No. 1) vs. Terry Flanagan (TBRB unrated); No. 2 seed Josh Taylor (TBRB No. 2) vs. Ryan Martin (TBRB unrated); No. 3 seed Kiryl Relikh (TBRB No. 6 - WBA Champion) vs. Eduard Troyanovsky (TBRB No. 10); No. 4 seed Ivan Baranchyk (TBRB unrated) vs. Anthony Yigit (TBRB unrated).

Hypothetical League Tournament - Round 1 fights: No. 1 seed*  Josh Taylor (TBRB No. 1) vs. Maurice Hooker (TBRB No. 9 - WBO Champion); No. 2 seed Sergey Lipinets (TBRB No. 2) vs. Adrien Broner (TBRB No. 4); No. 3 seed Regis Prograis (TBRB No. 3 - WBC Mandatory) vs. Jose Carlos Ramirez (TBRB No. 7 - WBC Champion); No. 4 seed Kiryl Relikh (TBRB No. 6 - WBA Champion) vs. Eduard Troyanovsky (TBRB No. 10 - WBA Mandatory).  

*Note that the TBRB Champion at 140 is Mikey Garcia.  It's hard to know whether Mikey would join this tournament if invited.  His moving up and down between 135, 140 and possibly 147 suggests he would rather pick and choose his fights than get in the tournament.  Thus, he was left out. Also, note that the IBF vacant title is being contested by two fighters unrated by the TBRB - Baranchyk and Yigit.  It would make sense to leave them out in favor of a better fight between two legitimate top ten fighters - Lipinets and Broner.  The two top ten rated fighters who were left out - No. 5 Antonio Orozco and No. 8 Viktor Postal would be the alternates and fighting on the undercards in case of injuries.  Maybe the winner of Baranchyk vs. Yigit could also be on standby for the semis.

Obviously, trying to combine independent ratings with sanctioning body belts and mandatory obligations is a bit complicated.  But as much as the sanctioning bodies have hurt the sport's credibility with their inaccurate ratings, arbitrary enforcement of rules and proliferation of "world champions", it's clear that fighters make more money with the title belts than not.  More champions and championship fights means a bigger middle class for boxing.  

However, fans crave the best fighting the best, like every other major sport, to crown the true champion.  What the tournament format gives you is the one champion per division that brings legitimacy back to the sport.  It also creates new stars in the sport.  That champion needs to be recognized throughout the sport as THE champion of that division.  The sanctioning bodies need to give that champion some leeway after the tournament.  There should be at least a six-to-nine month window post-tournament where the League champ can fight who they want without fear of losing a belt.  Certainly, if there was huge demand for a rematch of the final, it would be a shame if the sanctioning bodies got in the way.  After that window, the normal mandatory periods can proceed following the usual rotation of mandatory obligations of a unified champion.

It would also make sense after formation for the League to enact a Committee, similar to the Selection Committee in NCAA Football, to establish criteria and handle who gets into the tournament and what the matchups will be.  Basing entry on independent ratings would go a long way towards restoring legitimacy to the sport.

       3.  The League Schedules/Markets the Tournaments Maximizing Revenues 

At this juncture, with the biggest players all on different platforms, the degree of difficulty in convincing them to act collectively to create these tournaments is high.  But in reality, the only thing that would change is that a few of their fighters would be participating in the tournaments each year, potentially but not necessarily, on networks of other major players.  The rest of their fighter rosters could fill out their programming schedule as they presently do.

Obviously, with tournaments in divisions featuring marquee fighters, it makes sense for the marquee fighter to appear on the platform where their promoter or manager has a deal.  

However, there will be certain divisions, such as the Welterweights, where you have multiple marquee fighters with different network alliances (e.g., Terence Crawford - Top Rank/ESPN and Errol Spence, Shawn Porter - PBC/Showtime/FOX).  To solve that problem, it might make sense to put the fighters who are on "different sides of the street" in separate brackets and on different networks.  A quarterfinal and semifinal each on both ESPN and Fox/Showtime is a potential solution.  The final would clearly be a PPV event.

There will inevitably come a point where network alliances change for the major players.  The decisions on which network to put the tournaments or particular fights in a tournament should be made collectively by League consensus or through a Scheduling Committee.  

The NFL has its games on multiple networks and can drive a much better bargain as a league with all of the best football players under contract.  If boxing's major players formed a League and marketed their tournaments collectively with all (or most) of the biggest stars of the sport participating, they could get top dollar for these events.  As Stephen Espinoza stated, if the sport had one collective voice they could be at "every ad agency" advocating on what the sport can deliver.

B. Other Considerations 

     1. Herding Cats and Antitrust

The idea that getting the major players to form a League is as easy as "herding cats" is not entirely true.  As recently as 2009, a number of US promoters got together and formed the Boxing Promoters Association (BPA).  The BPA was initially founded to look out for smaller promoters who felt that larger promoters were getting a disproportionate amount of dates on HBO - namely Golden Boy who had the only output deal.  Eventually, Golden Boy joined the BPA.  Though the BPA did some lobbying to Congress regarding Sen. McCain's boxing legislation - they did not accomplish much and the organization appears to be either dormant or possibly extinct.

One of the problems with the BPA was some major promoters did not participate due to antitrust concerns and the exclusion of non-US promoters.  If a League were to be formed by the major players today, there would have to be no barrier to entry for membership.  The main criteria would be whether your fighter was rated high enough by the independent ratings to participate in the tournaments.  

Antitrust protects competition, not competitors.  The WBSS-type tournaments would not hurt competition, they would foster it - much like the College Football Playoff.  Boxing consumers would certainly not be hurt as they would finally get what they want, an orderly process to see the best fighting the best.

Of course, it would be nice if boxing could somehow get Congress to include its League in those of the team sports that come under the antitrust exemption of the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.  But that would be a massive long shot for reasons too numerous to mention. 

Having tournaments would also not be a huge operational change for the sport.  There are already title eliminators and occasional four-man box-offs to determine number one contenders.  There are also plenty of title unification fights.  Organizing these fights into a regular schedule of tournaments that lead to the crowning of a true champion is just boxing catching up to every other major sport.  It's hard to see how that is anti-competitive - especially if the competition is open to all in the sport.

    2. Cooperation with the WBSS

The WBSS has been very successful with the tournament concept and will continue to flourish having found a home on US TV with DAZN.  A big question is how would the WBSS work within a League structure?  It's possible that the League could just conduct all of the tournaments under the umbrella of the WBSS.  There's also no reason the major players cannot establish companion tournaments on the other US TV networks, while still participating in the WBSS.  

The WBSS does not have a monopoly on the idea of boxing tournaments.  Kalle Sauerland's promotional company had a participant in Showtime's Super Six.  He's openly stated that the Super Six experience helped in structuring the WBSS.  Whether all of the tournaments are conducted under the aegis of the WBSS or a few are done with separate networks under a League banner, it would be ideal to conduct them under a uniform set of rules.  Otherwise, it's no different than the current state of dueling sanctioning bodies with no consistency or unified structure.

The WBSS also has investment money behind it to fund the tournaments.  As stated earlier, with all of the money pouring into the sport from ESPN, Fox and Showtime, it's hard to imagine that there isn't enough money for a few more tournaments to go on those networks.  It's also hard to imagine any difficulty in getting investors for another venture to do more tournaments considering the fledgling MMA outfit Professional Fighters League just received a $28M investment from celebrity backers and they only have a one year TV deal with NBC Sports Network.  

     3. There May Be Opt-outs From Fighters Too Big for the Tournaments

There are a few stars in the sport who are too big to appear on the broadcast networks who would air the tournaments.  Canelo Alvarez is now strictly a PPV fighter and it would be doubtful if he'd participate in any tournament.  Anthony Joshua is similarly getting to the point where he may be too big and too expensive for a tournament.  Unlike the other major sports who have not dipped their toe into PPV, boxing would have a very difficult time convincing fighters making tens of millions to forego that money for the greater good of the sport.  That genie will not go back in the bottle. 

Maybe there is a way to get a Canelo to appear on network or cable in the quarterfinals and then do both the semis and finals on PPV.  More likely he would just opt-out and wait to fight the winner - on PPV.

This is not unprecedented as nearly every major tournament from boxing's past has had opt-outs.  In the late '60s, the WBA's Heavyweight tournament to fill Muhammad Ali's vacated title featured most all of the top contenders, with the exception of Joe Frazier, who opted out.  Similarly with the Heavyweight tournament in the late '80s organized by HBO - all of the champions participated except Michael Spinks, who opted to stay out.  Even in the Super Six, then IBF Champion Lucien Bute declined to participate.

It would not damage the League too much if a few of the stars did not participate in the tournaments.  In fact, it would probably set up a big fight with the tournament winner down the line.  Obviously, it would be optimal if all of the top fighters participated, like every other major sport, but there will always be circumstances where fighters are injured or cannot participate for some reason.  This should not be a deterrent to having the tournaments.

III. Conclusion

Boxing has a unique opportunity at this point in its history.  It is on an upswing.  Constantly written off as dead and in need of saving, the sport is now back on free TV with audiences potentially in the hundreds of millions.  There is also an unprecedented amount of money being thrown at the sport.  Now is the time for the sport to get itself together and give the fans what they want, the best fighting the best on regular basis.

Vague promises of working together and "trades" of fighters from one network to the other on occasion are not what the sport needs at this critical juncture.  The sport needs the structure of a formal League and a commitment to scheduling tournaments that pit the best against the best with no self-defeating counter-programming of the other major players.  If the sport adopts a League structure that schedules and runs these tournaments on a regular basis, boxing would be operating under a more than "sensible paradigm" that Lou DiBella spoke of a year ago.

Maybe even Fox Sports Radio would recognize that the sport won't be needing a coffin anytime soon.

(Coming Soon - Part 2 - Structuring a League That Goes Beyond Scheduling Tournaments and Gets to Deeper Problems).

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Official Boxing Esq. World Boxing Ratings - September 2018

Presenting the September 2018 Boxing Esq. World Boxing Ratings:


Heavys – Alexander Povetkin drops from 4 to 6 with stoppage loss to Anthony Joshua.  Charles Martin re-enters from inactive to 19 after tough loss to Adam Kownacki.  Robert Helenius enters at 22 with 8th round stoppage of Erkan Teper.  Teper drops from 22 to 25.  Manuel Charr drops from 23 to out (Suspended) due to positive drug test.  Michael Hunter drops from 25 to out.

Cruisers – Denis Lebedev re-enters from inactive to 6 with win.  Lawrence Okolie enters at 22 with decision win over Matty Askin.  Askin drops from 21 to out.  Yury Kashinsky drops from 25 to out.

Light Heavys - NO CHANGES.

Super Middles - Callum Smith moves from 5 to 1 with impressive stoppage over George Groves to win the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS).  Avni Yildrim moves from 16 to 14 with close win over Lolenga Mock.

Middles - Canelo Alvarez re-enters from Suspended to 1 with close win over Gennady Golovkin for the WBC, WBA and IBO belts. Gary O'Sullivan drops from 18 to 20 after blowout loss to David Lemieux.  Jack Culcay moves from 20 to 18 with win. Kamil Szeremeta moves up from 24 to 23 with win over Ruben Diaz for the Euro title.  Yamaguchi Facao drops from 25 to out.

Jr. Middles - Liam Williams moves from 14 to out due to move up to 168.  Sam Eggington drops from 20 to out after 2nd round stoppage loss to Hassan Mwakinyo.  Mwakinyo enters at 22.  Konstantin Ponomarev enters at 25.

Welters – Jesse Vargas drops from 7 to 9 after draw with unrated Thomas Dulorme.  Dulorme enters at 25.  Yordonis Ugas moves up from 11 to 7 with shutout win over Cesar Barrionuevo.  Bradley Skeete drops from 25 to out.

Jr. Welters – Jose Carlos Ramirez moves up from 5 to 4 with thrilling win over Antonio Orozco.  Kiryl Relikh moves from 6 to 5 with solid win over Eduard Troyanvsky in the WBSS QF.  Jack Catterall moves from 17 to 13 with snoozer of a win over Ohara Davies.  Davis drops from 21 to 22.

Lights – NO CHANGES.

Jr. Lights - Jhonny Gonzalez drops from 16 to out with loss to veteran Tomas Rojas.  Rojas enters at 25.

Feathers - Oscar Escandon drops from 17 to out with stoppage loss at 122 to Brandon Figueroa.  Former Bantamweight champ Marlon Tapales re-enters from inactive to 21 with win.  Horacio Garcia moves from 25 to out with upset loss to Isaac Zarate.  Toka Kahn Clary enters at 25.

Jr. Feathers – Brandon Figueroa enters at 23 with impressive stoppage of Oscar Escandon.  Paulus Ambunda enters at 24 with win of vacant IBO title.  Albert Pagara and Thomas Patrick Ward go from 24 and 25 respectively to out.

Bantams – Takuma Inoue moves from 17 to 7 with impressive win over Mark John Yap.  Michael Dasmarinas drops from 14 to 19 after draw with unrated Ghanaian Manyo Plange.  Plange enters at 24.  Oscar Negrete drops from 22 to 25 after draw with unrated Joshua Franco.  Shohei Omori drops from 25 to out.

Super Flys - Jerwin Ancajas drops from 5 to 7 with draw against unrated Alexandro Santiago Barrios.  Barrios enters at 18.  Kazuto Ioka moves from Retired to 5 with win over McWilliams Arroyo.  Aston Palicte enters at 14 after fortunate draw with Donnie Nietes for vacant WBO title.  Andrew Maloney moves from 20 to 15 with win over Luis Concepcion.  Concepcion drops from 16 to 19.  Felipe Orucuta and Koki Eto go from 24 and 25 respectively to out.

Flys – Kosei Tanaka moves from 4 to 3 with thrilling win over Sho Kimura for the WBO title.

Jr. Flys – Hiroto Kyoguchi moves from 7 to 5 with win over unbeaten Tibo Monabesa.  Monbesa moves from 25 to out.  Daniel Valladeres enters at 22 with win over Alejandro Villasenor Hernandez (recent conqueror of unbeaten Abraham Rodriguez).

Straws – Vince Paras moves from 21 to out after move up to 108 and loss to Jonathan Taconing.  Carlos Licona enters at 25.

Great Show At The Hammerstein Tomorrow