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The Crossover Debate: How Much Overlap Is There Between Boxing and MMA Audiences?

Dana White has done something boxing promoters fail to do by reaching out and winning over the younger audience. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Dana White has done something boxing promoters fail to do by reaching out and winning over the younger audience. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
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Recently, Bob Arum noted that he's not concerned about the November 12 UFC debut on the Fox network opposing his HBO pay-per-view with Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and that he felt that "less than 5%" of UFC fans were also boxing fans. That echoes what Mark Taffet, the pay-per-view lead man at HBO Sports, said in March 2010:

I posed the question on Twitter just to see what everyone was thinking, and got varying responses. Some felt it was a very low estimation. Some rightly wondered what exactly means "boxing fan" here -- are people who just watch Pacquiao and/or Mayweather fights considered boxing fans?

Luke Thomas, a friend of our site and the senior editor of SBN's MMA Nation, said, "Not sure it's that low, but close."

So let's say it really is only 5% or so. That's a problem. With UFC biting at the heels of mainstream acceptance and truly major exposure as a sports league in the United States, shouldn't boxing be doing something to win the favor of those fans?

In other words, shouldn't boxing be targeting the young demographic? Mike Coppinger, who writes for and is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, responded to my Twitter question by saying that most boxing fans he knows hate MMA. This is true of a good portion of most of the boxing fans I've known, too. I asked Mike if he felt that boxing having trouble reaching young males was part of the problem, and he said he felt it was "definitely a large part of it." I cannot disagree.

Yesterday, veteran boxing journalist Ron Borges wrote about the subject at the Boston Herald. He noted that the sport's lack of exposure on non-premium channels or pay-per-view has been a major problem in securing younger fans, and spoke with promoter Lou DiBella about it, too:

"MMA appeals to a demographic that appeals to advertisers. I was saying this when I was still at HBO Sports (negotiating fight deals). I advocated for a new series that would look different and promote young prospects. We didn’t do it. It was a mistake. We’re not developing young fans."

Old school promoters like Bob Arum will shrug off the UFC, but as I said before, I don't think that Bob Arum has a real handle on what the UFC has done, how and why they've been so successful, and why they're now on free TV with a big contract from Fox, while boxing languishes on HBO and Showtime, and on pay-per-view. Promoters are overfilled with glee and giddiness whenever a million people watch a fight, and in some respects, they should be. But that's a low target to shoot at, too.

As I noted in a recent breakdown of 2011 TV numbers in the United States, boxing's audience is tiny compared to that of more mainstream sports. And their demographic targets are, without meaning to give offense to any of our older readers, not where the money lies.

Maybe it's true that the crossover is very small, even insignificant. But that's not a reason to dismiss those many could-be fans of boxing that are out there. It's a reason to try and lure them in, to do something different, to get major boxing back onto TV stations that don't require a monthly subscription. It's an audience that boxing just might be able to tap into, and one that should not be ignored.

DiBella's idea of a new program on HBO to develop young talent will be coming to fruition early in 2012, as you may have heard. HBO is going to run a ShoBox-like series with a bigger budget, which hopefully will develop some new young stars. But really, that's just another HBO show. Existing boxing fans are surely excited about it, but the buck kind of stops there. It doesn't seem like something likely to procure new fans of the sport, but rather just another show for the already-there fanbase to watch. An expansion of the fanbase will not come from HBO, or from Showtime. Something bigger has to happen.

The 5% is a problem. If boxing continues to treat it like something irrelevant that can thus be given the cold shoulder -- or even in any way as if it's a good thing that the crossover is small -- then the sport is truly a ship with nobody at the rudder. That demographic has to be reached if the sport is going to draw more eyeballs, or even maintain itself in the future. It's money, and as we've heard a million and a half times, it always comes back to money. There's a lot of it out there that isn't even being approached, let alone grabbed.

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