A couple of weeks ago, news came down that Sky Sports, the lead boxing broadcaster and lead sports network in the United Kingdom, was finished with pay-per-view boxing, offered through their Sky Box Office channel, a decision that has been debated and discussed plenty since then.
Frank Warren, who has been the biggest UK promoter for years and only recently has gotten some real competition from Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport, discussed the decision with Terence Dooley:
"I’ve read quotes from Sky saying that they have problems with fighters pulling out. That happens in boxing over the years but invariably, and speaking for myself, the shows are value for money and the only way we can develop talent and big fights is with PPV.
"People might say, ‘Screw that, why should we pay money’, but the simple reason is that is how it works in television and has done in America for God knows how long. That is how they’ve brought fighters and fights through, otherwise you reduce to a certain standard and it will be very difficult to rise above that."
Warren is right that this has been done in America for God knows how long. What Warren isn't acknowledging is that boxing has taken massive hits to its audience in America, in large part because the sport is inaccessible to the general public thanks to its status as a pay-per-view sport, or a premium channel sport. The number of major PPV events has gone down over the years, but that only happened once the audience had jumped ship. It's not about where they went -- MMA, golf, competitive cheer, doesn't matter -- it's about the fact that they left, and they did leave.
Again, in 2003, over seven million people watched Lennox Lewis vs Vitali Klitschko on HBO. That same year, in a far smaller fight, Manny Pacquiao (far, far before he was a marketing phenom) and Marco Antonio Barrera fought on HBO with an audience north of three million. We are now talking about an American boxing audience celebrated for reaching 1.5 million on a free preview weekend for HBO (Berto vs Ortiz).
In other words, I don't think I would advise Frank Warren or any other promoter to emulate the American model. The amount of stars being made in boxing is minuscule these recent years. Once Mike Tyson retired, after falling apart in the ring and marginalizing his audience anyway, we had Oscar de la Hoya. Then we had Floyd Mayweather Jr, and now we have Mayweather and Pacquiao.
People always say, "Well, we asked who would replace (x), and (y) came along, so (z) will, too," but I'm not sure it's that simple. It's not something you should chalk up to an inevitability, it's something you should strive to make sure happens if you're a promoter, or a network, who might as well be a promoter.
"That's how it's done" has killed the American boxing audience. There are a great number of factors, yes, but I will stand by putting the absence of boxing being presented without an investment from the viewer as the No. 1 reason that boxing has wound up the fringe sport that it is today in the United States. For too long, greedy promoters and networks kept asking for more money, more money, more money, and then often not delivering a product worth the money that had been shelled out. Gradually, surely, they went away. They didn't all drop dead, they just quit watching. It happens, and I know because it has happened.
Warren also wants to pass the blame over to David Haye's fights with Audley Harrison and Wladimir Klitschko, and kind of skirts over the issue he had with Nathan Cleverly's May debacle, and his Magnicent Seven and Gr8 Britain vs The World shows in 2010 not being what was initially advertised.
If the "only way" that a promoter can develop fighters and make stars is through pay-per-view, then that's a flaw with the promoter. The model has become as outdated as pretending it's still 1965 with promotional tactics would be. If you want evidence, look at the bottomed-out ratings of HBO over the years, which have in 2011 stabilized, but nothing more. They're not truly better. They're just not continuing to get worse. Sky Sports made a decision, and now the UK boxing promoters will have to deal with it, perhaps by actually promoting more than they're used to doing.
And this is not all meant to be some huge shot at Warren -- he very often puts on packed shows, develops young talent very well, and compared to some of his American counterparts, is an otherworldly true promoter. But wanting to stay on the American-style road is just not a good idea. Win the public with old fashioned matchmaking and fights that they can see without topping more money onto already overpriced cable and satellite bills.