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