Pay-per-view peaked earlier this year. Whether or not you think that the industry overall will go the way of the dinosaur -- I do, you may not, and it's not important right now -- the whole thing definitely peaked on May 2, when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao sold 4.4 million pay-per-views, obliterating the old record of 2.4 million buys for Mayweather's 2007 fight with Oscar De La Hoya.
Nobody is going to approach that number for a very long time, if ever. While boxing-wise, most feel that Mayweather-Pacquiao came too late to be the sort of fight it could have been, there is certainly some evidence in the numbers to suggest that because of the five-year wait, so many people had come to believe that Mayweather-Pacquiao was a must-see, once in a lifetime sort of event that they were willing to shell out $100 to watch the fight. It's hard to imagine the fight generating over 4 million buys in 2009-14. Maybe the fight happened at exactly the right time for business.
But there has been a post-Mayweather-Pacquiao hangover throughout boxing, too. The fight itself was an entertainment dud, and did absolutely nothing to convince people to watch more boxing. If anything, it may have hurt the general public's interest in the sport. If this was the highest level, the true Super Bowl and World Series and Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 and Tour de France and World Cup and Wimbledon and Masters all rolled into one for the sweet science, and that's what they got, why would they watch something with lesser fighters?
Like it or not, there are people who are not going to be convinced that Mayweather-Pacquiao was not actually the be-all, end-all for the sport. To them, that was The Event. And it did not deliver.
Mayweather's return in September was hyped as his retirement bout, a final chance to see the greatest fighter of a generation, its biggest star. He chose to fight Andre Berto, because Mayweather could choose to do anything. The fight sold around 400,000, Mayweather's lowest performance since a 2006 bout with Carlos Baldomir, before he fought De La Hoya and took the torch as the sport's pay-per-view king. #TMT defenders, the type of people who buy hats and complain that Mayweather's "haters" don't give him enough credit, rallied around the fact that nobody else was selling 400,000 on pay-per-view. While that is true, it is not a black and white scenario. Mayweather selling 400K while holding a guarantee of $32 million on his purse is a garbage performance.
Think of it this way: the Denver Broncos are 6-0 this year, sure. They're doing as well in record as anyone can be right now. But Peyton Manning is clearly quite bad, particularly for being Peyton Manning. If Manning were out and Brock Osweiler were scuffling along with Manning numbers and the Broncos were 6-0, we would be having a different discussion. The focus would be on the excellence of the Broncos defense, covering for Osweiler. With Manning in there, we're mostly talking about Peyton Manning, because he is the name, he is the famous guy. We talk less about Denver's terrific defense carrying the team and more about whether or not the Broncos should consider benching Manning, who is having his worst season in 17 years, with numbers and obvious physical decline that might very well get a less famous QB benched.
In other words, if you're the famous guy, and that's what Floyd Mayweather is and has always wanted to be, what he's marketed himself on and used to make himself the superstar of the sport, yes, you are held to a higher standard. You are treated differently. You asked to be the gold standard, you can't back off of it when you decide you don't want the criticism anymore.
But this isn't even about Mayweather. This past Saturday night, Gennady Golovkin made his HBO pay-per-view debut in a main event from a fake sold-out Madison Square Garden, beating David Lemieux handily. It was a fun fight to watch. Golovkin is a fun fighter to watch.
Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe had some words on Twitter about all of this yesterday. Before he began one of his usual impassioned pleas for the world to love Floyd Mayweather after years of Mayweather doing his best to make people hate him both for marketing purposes, and because he's, you know, a jerk, to put it mildly, Ellerbe made one really good point: nobody becomes a huge pay-per-view star overnight. It takes an extreme amount of work on every level, from the fighter holding up his end of the bargain with performances as advertised as well as getting himself out there, to a network being fully behind that fighter, to that fighter's team going the extra mile.
Whatever else one could say about Ellerbe, Mayweather, the two networks that pushed him hard (HBO and Showtime), or the rest of that team over the last decade, the truth is that #TMT did do the work, and did make Mayweather a global star well after Bob Arum had decided that Floyd just didn't have the style or personality to be one.
"You don't become a PPV attraction overnight, it takes years of making that happen," Ellerbe said. "There are many factors and few have succeeded. If it was easy, anybody could do it. Most have no clue how difficult it is. Big difference being a star in boxing and having star power."
Ellerbe couldn't be more right, and looking further than just the last eight years tells that tale quite well. How many true PPV superstars have there ever been in boxing, guys who could consistently sell a million units?
Let's take a look at some of the biggest names in the pay-per-view era and see how they did over their careers.
Note: All numbers listed are from various sources, as accurate as they can be, as not all fights have confirmed/verified numbers released after the bout, for various reasons. Some fights have had different sets of numbers that have been reported/rumored/thrown around.
BIG TIME DRAWS
Tyson went through a period when he returned from prison in 1995 where he could sell a million against anyone. The likes of Peter McNeeley, Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon were giving Tyson huge numbers. The Holyfield fights bumped it up another level, but those two years were the apex of Tyson's fame (or infamy, really) as a pay-per-view draw.
After that, the numbers rapidly declined, save for the 2002 fight with Lennox Lewis, which piqued the public's interest in a big way. But after he was wiped out by Lewis in a fight that didn't deliver as entertainment unless you were just there to watch a grossly overmatched, old version of Mike Tyson get the snot beaten out of him. After that loss, Tyson was finished as a draw. He was pure novelty from there. Mayweather may have dropped from 4.4 million to 400,000, but Tyson's drop from 1.97 million to 100,000 is really just as bad, if not quite as extreme in the raw numbers. The difference is that Mayweather dropped because he won and had conquered the last opponent there was. Tyson had already started to decline as an attraction following the Holyfield debacles of 1996-97. The Lewis fight was a brief spark.
But in his pay-per-view prime -- and he lost four years of it after being convicted for rape -- Mike Tyson was as close to an automatic million as it gets. Plus pay-per-view wasn't really a thing when Tyson was in his actual prime in the late 80s.
Holyfield was a big star, one of the great fighters of the 1990s. He did big numbers on pay-per-view, but even Evander needed help to reach a million. Look at the opponents he had to get to seven figures:
- Buster Douglas, who was white hot coming off of his upset win over Tyson.
- George Foreman, a major name whose comeback story was great press.
- Lennox Lewis, a fight that in '99 received the same sort of bump that Lewis-Tyson got in '02, wondering how this supposedly great new heavyweight star would do against that American I remember watching a few years ago.
But between big sales against Tyson and Lewis, Holyfield and Michael Moorer did 550,000 for their 1997 rematch. And the rematch of the Lewis fight did 850K, a strong number but well down from the initial fight, largely because the draw decision in their first bout was such a ridiculous robbery of Lewis that many felt that they already knew Lennox was the clearly better fighter at that time.
After the Lewis fights, Holyfield plummeted in PPV sales against Ruiz and Toney. He would later fight on independent PPVs several times, including world title fights with Sultan Ibragimov and Nikolay Valuev, and those shows almost never get reported numbers, in part because they sold so little that nobody really cares anyway.
Holyfield, though, is among the biggest PPV draws of all time, doing between "good" and "great" numbers until after the Lewis fight. So he belongs in this category, clearly.
You probably thought De La Hoya had more million-selling pay-per-view efforts, but in truth he had "just" four, against Trinidad in '99, Hopkins in '04, Mayweather in '07, and Pacquiao in '08. Before Mayweather, though, De La Hoya had made more money on pay-per-view than anyone in boxing history, including Tyson.
Oscar gets a lot of credit for changing the game on pay-per-view, and if you look at these raw numbers and are newer to boxing, you might wonder how that can be true. After all, "just" four of his fights reached a million on pay-per-view, though a handful (Vargas, Mosley II, Mayorga) were also above 900,000.
De La Hoya changed the game by becoming the first consistent pay-per-view draw outside of the heavyweight division. When he sold 720,000 pay-per-views for a welterweight title fight with Pernell Whitaker in 1997, that was massive. And when he and Trinidad blew the roof off with 1.4 million in 1999, everyone was amazed, including the people at HBO.
"We were shocked; I'm telling you we were shocked when those numbers came back," former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg told the New York Daily News in 2001. "Not in our wildest dreams did we think we could hit those numbers."
Because of the extra income generated by pay-per-view, with De La Hoya always doing solid if not huge sales. He also fought as a pay-per-view headliner almost every time out after his first 16 fights. Starting with his 17th bout against Ruelas in 1995, De La Hoya fought 19 of 28 fights as a pay-per-view headliner, and from 2001-08, fought just twice off of pay-per-view, beating Arturo Gatti (2001) and Steve Forbes (2008) on HBO. De La Hoya was also a big live gate draw in Las Vegas, where he fought 14 of his final 17 fights.
The idea that Bob Arum held Mayweather back -- which I already used in this "piece," admittedly -- is true but perhaps slightly overstated. After Mayweather-Gatti, Arum said that Mayweather was "a star now." The difference came in how Arum saw Mayweather as a star and how Mayweather felt he could be a star. Arum thought Floyd could make money on pay-per-view, but he also wanted him to fight Antonio Margarito. Mayweather was not interested in fighting Antonio Margarito, and didn't see himself as a guy who sold 350,000 pay-per-views for however long he could do that. He saw himself as a cash cow, and without saying as much, as a fighter that a promoter would protect and match carefully to maximize profit.
With all said and done as far as it matters -- even if Mayweather comes back and loses fights or whatever -- Mayweather was right. He was that type of superstar, and when he broke away from Top Rank, he set out to prove as much. He held about steady for his next two pay-per-view fights, then used Oscar De La Hoya's name value and an aggressive push on the brand new "HBO 24/7" to make himself the new king of the pay-per-view game. De La Hoya-Mayweather broke all the records. Eight years later, Mayweather-Pacquiao did the same. Floyd won both times, and in between he sold a ton of pay-per-views. Even his "disappointing" outings in the last couple of years with Guerrero and Maidana sold fairly well, and at any rate, were more than covered for in the money department by the two huge bouts with Canelo Alvarez and Pacquiao. The Berto fight, even though I believe it is truly fair to call it a bomb relative to Mayweather's star power, was essentially a throwaway fight to fulfill a contractual obligation with Showtime/CBS.
Oscar De La Hoya changed the game for non-heavyweights. Floyd Mayweather took it to another level, and he used De La Hoya as the springboard to do that. Speaking of which...
Pacquiao also used De La Hoya as a launching pad to superstardom. His fight with Oscar didn't sell the way that Mayweather's did, but it was a big hit, and took Pacquiao from rising star to bona fide superstar. Manny had lower valleys during his peak run from 2009-2012 than Mayweather did from 2007-14, but was able to bring huge numbers and a ton of money into the sport. He was not on Floyd's level, but that's about the only level he was not on, too.
It's also worth noting that Pacquiao-Marquez II in 2008 was the biggest-selling pay-per-view fight for fighters of that size in history. The two fought at 130 pounds that night. While welterweights had done some impressive numbers, super featherweights had never done that kind of business on pay-per-view before, and haven't since, for that matter.
To play devil's advocate of sorts, there may be some validity to Mayweather's frequent claims that Pacquiao's success was largely tied to Floyd's name, and the idea of a fight between the two. Mayweather did 2.4 million against De La Hoya in 2007, and 2.2 million against Canelo in 2013. He also sold a good amount more against both Mosley and Cotto, Floyd being the first to fight Mosley, but Pacquiao the first to fight Cotto.
Take the fights with Oscar out of the equation and chalk up huge chunks of those sales -- probably the majority, in all honesty -- to De La Hoya's star power. And take out the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight for the purposes of this comparison. If you do that, you have Mayweather's three biggest fights coming in at 5.1 million buys, all of them notably bigger than any Pacquiao fight. Pacquiao's three biggest in this situation lag behind at 3.65 million. But also forget the Mayweather-Pacquiao fan feud and focus on this: taking out the Mayweather and Pacquiao fights, Oscar De La Hoya's three biggest fights come out to 3.35 million sales, short of both Mayweather and Pacquiao.
Now if you want to just go three biggest, period, including their fights with one another, the order is: Mayweather (9 million), Pacquiao (6.9 million), De La Hoya (5.05 million). Eliminating just Mayweather-Pacquiao, you have Mayweather (6.1 million), De La Hoya (5.05 million), Pacquiao (3.75 million).
(For what it's worth, Holyfield's top three fights, two with Tyson, come in at 4.98 million. Tyson's three biggest, two with Holyfield, come in at 5.55 million.)
BOXING STARS, NOT ELITE PPV STARS
Roy Jones Jr was arguably the fighter of the 90s and one of the most electric, memorable men to lace up the gloves ever. In his prime, he could do things that were totally unteachable, pure athleticism and timing. But he was never really a pay-per-view draw.
Jones' two best performances on pay-per-view came in novelty bouts. In 2003, he put on about 20 pounds and fought John Ruiz for a heavyweight title, which sold around 600K. That's not a bad number by any means, but when you consider the numbers that true marquee heavyweight title fights were doing in the 90s and even into the early 00s, it doesn't compare. In 2008, he fought a bloated, retired Tito Trinidad at Madison Square Garden. The fight did great numbers both live and on pay-per-view, after which Jones gloated about his status as a household name and superstar draw, and dogged an upcoming fight on HBO between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins.
"That goes to show you, neither Bernard Hopkins, nor Joe Calzaghe are a household name because they can't carry their own weight like that right now," Jones told FightHype. "If Roy Jones Jr fights either one or the other, that would easily be a PPV fight."
As you can see, those fights were definitely on pay-per-view in 2008 and 2010, and they were bombs. HBO had generously projected 500,000 for Calzaghe-Jones, and it didn't even do half of that number.
Jones also had some pay-per-view fights earlier in his career with guys like Montell Griffin and Vinny Pazienza did numbers similar to the Harding fight, with HBO's Mark Taffet pegging them at 160-175,000 in 2006.
The main difference between the pay-per-view careers of Hopkins and his longtime rival Jones is that Hopkins got to fight Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, and Jones never fought someone who was that sort of PPV star. Other than that, the two are pretty similar overall. Both were all-time great fighters (though for very different reasons, with very different strengths), and neither ever became a true breakthrough pay-per-view attraction. Hopkins' fights with Trinidad, Taylor, and Tarver did well, solid second-tier PPV shows, but he never carried a major show.
To Jones' credit, you can say he carried the Ruiz PPV to its 600K, which was about the absolute peak star power Jones had in him, and the fight was mostly sold on the curiosity of light heavyweight Roy moving up to fight a heavyweight "champion." But between the two of them, Jones managing to sell 600K with John Ruiz is much more impressive than anything Bernard did as an A-side, and his last few appearances on pay-per-view were disastrous, bottoming out when the entire country said "absolutely not" to a terrible, budget-forced PPV fight with Chad Dawson in 2011.
We often talk about Miguel Cotto as a major star. He is. In boxing. And like Jones or Hopkins or many others in recent history, this is the exact sort of fighter that Leonard Ellerbe is talking about when he says there's a "big difference between being a star in boxing and having star power." Cotto's stardom ends inside the bubble.
Still, for the most part, Cotto has always done well relative to expectations. His PPV debut against Malignaggi in 2006 was a fight that went to PPV because Bob Arum wanted it to go to PPV. So Arum made that happen. It sold better than Hopkins-Dawson, at least. And Cotto's fight in 2007 with Judah did well for what was a first serious pay-per-view attempt, and considering Judah's star power had waned considerably by then after 2006 losses to Mayweather and Carlos Baldomir.
The fights with Mosley and Margarito both sold nicely at 400K apiece. The 2011 rematch with Margarito did very well at 600K, selling entirely on the angles of personal animosity and a public belief that Margarito had loaded gloves in their 2008 bout.
But that 600K is the best Cotto's ever done on pay-per-view as the A-side. He was the clear B-side against both Pacquiao and Mayweather, but he makes for an excellent B-side, too. It's sort of similar to how in baseball, there are relievers who have made a lot of money being excellent in the 7th and 8th innings, but if you try to put them into the closer's role, they just don't make it work the same. Miguel Cotto is an outstanding setup man. He is much less effective as a closer.
BOXING'S GREATEST HOPE?
Canelo Alvarez, 25, is thought to be the best immediate hope to become boxing's next big pay-per-view star. He brought a lot to the table for his first PPV headline fight in 2013 against Floyd Mayweather, and received some extra help by having been featured on Mayweather undercards in the past. That fight had really been building since 2010, when Alvarez beat Jose Miguel Cotto (Miguel's older, less talented brother) on the Mayweather-Mosley card, and was clearly in the works when Canelo fought Mosley on the Mayweather-Cotto (good Cotto) card in 2012.
As an A-side, Canelo is still unproven. It's possible that his performance against Mayweather, where he looked outclassed and ordinary against a better, more mature, smarter fighter, hurt his stock a bit. But his first go at headlining a Showtime pay-per-view in March 2014 went fairly well, as he sold 350K against Alfredo Angulo. That said, just 50K less against Erislandy Lara four months later, a fight boxing fans felt was a far more intriguing matchup, was considered a disappointment.
Now back with HBO, Canelo isn't really the A-side, but he's also not really the B-side on November 21 against Miguel Cotto. If we go back to the comparison to bullpens, we're at a point now where the team's shutdown closer is out of action. Cotto-Canelo is a closer by committee sort of attempt.
There are a few things in this fight's favor:
- It features two guys who have fan bases.
- It's a Puerto Rico-Mexico matchup, which always seems to drive at least a little extra interest in just about any fight.
- It's a fight that fans have wanted to see for a couple of years now.
If the stars align and everything goes great, this fight's ceiling is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000. At one point, I did think this looked like a slam dunk million seller, but the promotion for the bout has been a little lackluster, and the overall vibe right now after Mayweather-Berto and Golovkin-Lemieux is not good.
One major X factor here might be the November 14 UFC 193 card, a pay-per-view headlined by Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. Rousey is one of UFC's biggest drawing cards now, and that fight will generate buzz that could steal attention away from Cotto-Canelo. There's also the idea that folks who could be interested in both might not want to spend pay-per-view money on back-to-back weekends. But that could also amount to very little, or even nothing, depending on how much crossover interest you believe there will be between the events.
The best advice right now might be for everyone to temper expectations for Cotto-Canelo sales. Boxing on pay-per-view is not hot right now. If we're being completely honest, boxing beyond Mayweather-Pacquiao has not been hot in 2015 at all, even with Al Haymon's Premier Boxing Champions flooding TV screens across the land. Ratings for the traditional platform at HBO have been solid throughout the year, but PBC's numbers have dwindled after a solid start, particularly on NBC (their default flagship network), the two major pay-per-views in September and October didn't sell, and a month out, there doesn't seem to be huge buzz for Cotto-Canelo, either.
Right now, you'd have to think that 500,000 would be a great number for this fight. At one point, I saw it being a lot bigger than that, but there's a lot that seems to be working against this being a major hit. Perhaps, though, it will surprise, and reach for the stars of one million. Maybe we'll have our new pay-per-view superstar if Canelo Alvarez wins in impressive fashion and a lot of people buy the fight to see that happen.
But being realistic, it seems like it's going to take a lot of time for anyone to emerge as the new big time cash cow for boxing and start appearing on Forbes highest paid athlete lists. Maybe it'll just be time. Or maybe the way it's worked for so long isn't going to be the way it works anymore.